I regularly do activism with abortion victim photography (AVP)—“Choice” Chains, through which we show what “choice” looks like. I’m convinced of the merit of this action, reassured that regardless of whether or not I have productive conversations, passersby likely will feel more negatively towards abortion, and—at minimum—can no longer claim ignorance.
I state this upfront to make clear that I support the strategy of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, the organization responsible for the proliferation of this type of activism across Canada (with credit to Show the Truth, as well).
What guides CCBR’s strategy is “a theory of change,” instead of one of action. Blaise Alleyne, eastern outreach director for CCBR, attributes this distinction in concepts to computer programmer and activist Aaron Schwartz. Schwartz explains a ‘theory of action:’ “you work forwards from what you know how to do to try to find things you can do that will accomplish your goal.” Meanwhile, a theory of change, “works backwards from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it.”
Alleyne uses the analogy of squirting a water gun at a wildfire to argue that “when lives are on the line, just doing any kind of pro-life activism isn’t good enough.” Rather, “we need to figure out what is necessary to solve a problem this big.” I suppose it’s a difference between what you can do and what you must do.
He criticizes events like Life Chain as belonging more to a theory of action than of change, for we state our conclusion rather than provide evidence for it (unlike activism with AVP).
In defense, I will argue that, along the lines of this theory of change, to maintain (let alone increase) a level of pro-life advocacy and to transform the culture, you need a critical mass of pro-lifers.
If we’re working backwards from the goal of abolishing abortion, we know that one of the prerequisites is gathering manpower. In this way, the theory of action is not as distinct from the theory of change as it’s made out to be. I’ll explain.
Some may jump right from apathy into “Choice” Chains, but as comfortable as I am doing that sort of activism now, I doubt I would have been keen on it when I first started exploring this issue.
In my experience, most pro-lifers get involved in one of two ways: Life Chain or the National March for Life.
Think of the movement as a pyramid or a bull’s eye. At the top or the centre, you have the handful of die-hards engaged in the most effective action. You have those willing to make the greatest sacrifices, like Fr. Tony Van Hee during his decades of witness outside Parliament. These people are the most valuable assets to the movement.
In the next level/ring, you might have thousands of amateur activists – who attend pro-life events occasionally, consistently vote pro-life, and donate so others can work full-time in this field. They’re important too.
Perhaps at the base or outermost ring, you have the millions who might respond to polls as being pro-life, but have limited involvement otherwise.
The precise categorization doesn’t really matter as much as the representation of distribution, and the question of how it affects recruitment and how we can move the more casual pro-lifers into the heart of the movement.
I propose the answer has something to do with community and identity—that there’s a magnetism that can attract people once they’re in orbit.
The more I went to pro-life conferences or events like the March as a youth, the more I ingratiated myself into the pro-life community, and the more opportunities for pro-life activity arose. The label “pro-life” eventually became front-of-mind when I was asked to introduce myself or write a biography. This evolution in my understanding of who I was, was fundamental in bringing me to where I am today.
This process could be the key to change. What if every pro-lifer instantly said “pro-life,” when asked to describe themselves, because it was such a priority to them?
The more one does for the pro-life cause, the more important this cause becomes in one’s life narrative and worldview.
When first starting out, the initiative a layman will undertake for the cause is often (but not always) something he’s already comfortable with, or finds less intimidating.
How does a pro-life colouring or essay-writing contest or slapping pro-life stickers on your laptop or car end abortion? Are baby bottle campaigns or Christmas cake fundraisers really worth the effort?
When you start to see these activities through the lens of pulling people into the pro-life community, I think their value becomes more apparent, as a stepping stone for action that’s more influential publicly.
My theory is the more people you convince to take a water gun (to do something—anything), the more people will graduate to becoming fire captains armed with hoses and helicopters capable of wide-scale impact.
To return to Life Chain, it not only exposed almost 300 Canadian communities to the pro-life message last year, but it motivated over 10,000 individuals to connect with fellow pro-lifers and publicly take a stance in the debate.
Are the signs, bearing slogans like “Abortion kills children” and “Life, the first inalienable right,” as compelling as AVP? No, but the milder nature of Life Chains encourages their organization and the participation of neophytes, families, and churches. Persuasiveness is traded for reach.
Again, I’m not suggesting we abandon considerations of effectiveness.
I’m suggesting we can grow the movement not just by changing minds of “pro-choicers,” but also by gradually drawing sympathizers into greater commitment in the movement through smaller asks.
Tangentially, as I’ve said before, God might call us to do something without immediate reward. While recognizable fruits are a good indicator, we’re on the right path, God, having the bird’s-eye view, can best assess efficacy, which is why prayer is indispensable.
In the interim, we have our theories.