Reassessing the purpose
If given the chance, pro-lifers will jump at the opportunity to talk about abortion with fellow pro-lifers. Conversations with pro-choicers are often intimidating though. There are many reasons why an awareness that the pro-life position is not politically correct, or a fear of upsetting someone over this emotionally charged issue. A big factor is the pressure that comes with thinking that you’re responsible for representing the entirety of the pro-life movement and that you must convert this person.
Conversations with pro-choicers, however, need not be thought of as being unlike conversations with pro-lifers. The goal in both should be, simply, to advance truth. This means exchanging knowledge, correcting misconceptions, and examining implications. You don’t need a perfect grasp of pro-life apologetics to do this.
In this light, it’s difficult for a conversation to be unsuccessful. Simply by talking about abortion, both parties must think about the issue more, ideally bringing them closer to the truth. By being polite and thoughtful, pro-lifers contradict the negative stereotype of the woman-hating, anti-choice bigot, allowing their pro-choicer interlocutors to focus on abortion itself, instead of being blinded by prejudice towards its opponents.
Pro-lifers are not responsible for converting pro-choicers to the pro-life position, as it’s just not in their control, and it’s rare for that to happen in a single conversation. The majority of the time, when talking about abortion, pro-lifers are merely planting seeds, whose growth will hopefully be nurtured in future conversations, perhaps with other pro-lifers, until the full truth that abortion is a human rights injustice is able to blossom in that person.
With that in mind, pro-lifers should seemingly be trying to talk about abortion with as many people as possible.
Starting a conversation
In a way, pro-lifers are very fortunate right now, as abortion has been coming up constantly in the news, and will likely continue to be as preparations for the federal election pick up and Democratic debates carry on in the US. Take advantage of current events to bring up the abortion conversation.
When friends, family members, neighbours, and coworkers bring up the topic, even indirectly, seize onto it.
Otherwise, you can bring up the abortion issue at any time, explaining that you think it’s important, and that you would like to consider it together. That can feel odd, but from the pro-life perspective, it’s odder notto be talking about the 100,000 innocent human beings legally killed every year in Canada.
A good question to start with is simply: What do you think about abortion?
Following a conversation model
When replying to a remark or argument, a helpful model to follow, regardless of the issue being debated (be it abortion or something else) is: Common ground, Analogy, Question (CAQ).
To form common ground, try to express agreement with something your conversation partner says, even if it requires you to charitably extract some assumptions from what they’re saying. For example, if someone says, “Forcing someone to remain pregnant when they don’t want to be is cruel and inhumane,” you can begin your response by acknowledging that pregnancy is very difficult, especially when it isn’t planned.
This may seem like a minor, mere pacifying step, but it reinforces the fact that the conversation is a collaborative effort in which both parties are bringing some truths to the table (even if incomplete or distorted). If the person you are talking to gets the impression that you’re operating from exact opposite worldviews with no shared principles, and that you don’t understand the motivation behind their position, then the conversation can quickly feel impossible. The fact is pro-lifers and pro-choicers do share a lot of common ground, and that’s a good place to return to regularly.
After establishing common ground, if you can come up with an analogy, tell a story, or present a thought experiment in response to your interlocutor’s comments, do so. Jesus often taught in parables for a reason.
Finally, invite the person to respond by asking him or her a question. Questions allow one to more fully understand the other person’s position, which is necessary because you don’t want to be arguing against a straw man. Always ask for clarification. If ever you’re in doubt about how to respond, merely asking “Why?” or “What do you mean by that?” can be very effective. Questions compel pro-choicers to examine their own beliefs and make them contribute answers and conclusions themselves, which they can’t just then wave off as your opinion and not their own.
Once you have listened to their reply, return once again to forming common ground, making an analogy, and “finishing your turn” with a question.
All that said, sometimes deviations from this conversation model are prudent. If someone is really distraught over the topic, you may want to solely concentrate on forming common ground, so that they feel heard and can let their guard down. If someone seems highly rational and largely emotionally unaffected, you may want to simply pepper them with questions to make a lot of headway in a conversation over a quick period of time. An analogy won’t always contribute anything of value to the conversation. As you become more experienced with dialoguing about abortion, you will become better at judging when to shift from the default model.
Responding to circumstances
The vast majority of the time, when you ask people what they think about abortion, they will respond with a circumstance in which they think abortion would be okay. Often it’s rape, but it can also be poverty, education, disability, etc.
There’s a variety of ways to form common ground when one of these circumstances is presented, but it’s easiest to just admit that pregnancy would be a lot harder in that circumstance.
Then, make an analogy. A popular, very versatile one is to “trot out the toddler” or “bring out the baby.” Essentially, all you’re doing is replacing the preborn child in that exact circumstance with a born child. Our goal in doing this is to make pro-choicers think about preborn children the same way they do about born children.
Let’s say that someone claims that abortion is needed because teenagers are too young to be moms. Concede that being a teen mom is no picnic. Then present the following scenario: Imagine a teen gets pregnant, thinks that she can do it, ends up giving birth, but then realizes that’s she not prepared. Now, tie it all together with a question: Would it be okay for this teen mom to kill her one-year-old child? Presuming your interlocutor says “no,” follow up by saying, “I agree. What’s the difference, though, between a born and preborn child, such that it would be wrong to kill the born child, but not the preborn child?”
Nearly every circumstance can be dealt with similarly.
Explaining the science
Sometimes, pro-choicers will respond to the question “What’s the difference?” by incorrectly claiming that the preborn are not human beings.
Firstly, find out why they don’t think the preborn are human beings. You may have to explain that if something is growing (biologically), that usually means that it’s alive, and that if something is the offspring of human parents, it would have to be human too.
Alternatively, you may have to explain the difference between a human part and a human organism. Sperm and egg are human parts, with half the father’s DNA and half the mother’s DNA, respectively. The zygote/embryo/fetus, however, has its own DNA and its development is self-directed and bodily functions coordinated. This individual is not part of a larger organism, though in one.
You may have to explain what happens at fertilization, that the fusing of sperm and egg gives rise to all sorts of new combinations and mutations of DNA. Everything about human beings that is genetically determined hair colour, eye colour, facial shape, etc. is determined at the moment of fertilization, and everything after that moment is just some point on the continuum of development. Ultimately, you may have to draw out quotations from embryology textbooks. The American College of Pediatricians has published a statement on when human life begins that affirms: “The predominance of human biological research confirms that human life begins at conception-fertilization.”
Focusing on human rights
Other times, pro-choicers will respond to the question “What’s the difference?” by citing a genuine difference between born and preborn humans, but one that is not morally relevant.
There is a multitude of differences they could mention, but these differences all fall in four general categories: Size/Appearance, Level of Development, Environment, and Degree of Dependency (SLED).
To prove that none of these differences is morally relevant, you can once again use the example of the toddler, after forming common ground by granting that differences do exist.
The preborn are generally smaller than born children, but so too is a toddler in comparison to a teenager. Ask the question: Does that mean the toddler is less valuable or less deserving of human rights than the teenager? Once again, presuming they say “no,” you can agree, and point out that size shouldn’t determine whether or not a human being has human rights or not.
The same goes for level of development and degree of dependency. A fetus is less developed and more dependent than a toddler, but the difference in development and dependency between a toddler and teenager doesn’t matter, so why should it matter between a fetus and toddler?
Environment is a bit trickier due to its association with bodily autonomy arguments, but in terms of value, that shouldn’t change because of one’s location inside or outside the womb. As Gregory Koukl and Scott Klusendorf indicate in their series “Making Abortion Unthinkable: The Art of Pro-Life Persuasion,” where you are does not determine who you are. Nothing about you changes intrinsically when you go country to country or down a birth canal, and so your basic human rights should remain the same.
It’s also imperative to recognize that all these differences between born and preborn are simply a function of age, and, once again, human rights should not be contingent upon how old someone is. Age is just a human characteristic like sex or ethnicity, and does not, in any way, affect one’s right to have their inherent human dignity respected. There’s a terrible historical precedent of arbitrarily denying humans human rights, so pro-lifers need to hold pro-choicers to account when they do precisely that. Human rights imply a concept of universality that pro-lifers can appeal to.
Many pro-choice arguments can be refuted and derailed conversations put back on track by re-focusing on human rights. For instance, if a man is told he ought not to have an opinion on abortion because he can’t get pregnant, he can respond by forming common ground (confessing he can’t get pregnant), and asking: “What does my sex have to do with the question of whether or not abortion is a human rights injustice?” The spectre of back-alley abortions can be vanquished by asking, “Because a woman might harm herself or die attempting to kill her child, should we make it easier for her to do so? If abortion is a human rights injustice, shouldn’t it be illegal?”
At any point in the conversation, you can always present the human rights argument:
1. Do you believe in human rights?
2. Who should get human rights?
3. If something is growing, wouldn’t that mean it’s alive?
4. If something has human parents, wouldn’t that mean it’s human too?
5. Would it follow then, that abortion, by killing a living human being, is a human rights injustice?
Answering personhood arguments
Conversations about abortion can get much more complex with considerations about personhood and bodily autonomy.
Heartbeat, brain waves, viability, etc., can all be cited as the point at which a human being becomes a “person” and thereby deserves human rights (more accurately phrased, then, as “person rights,” revealing the fundamental problem with the concept). It is impossible to address all potential personhood definitions here; however, they all follow similar patterns.
A lot of these definitions carry no moral significance. A heartbeat, for instance, is only significant insomuch as it signals that you’re alive. If you can survive without a heart, as the preborn very early on in pregnancy do, what does it matter when this particular organ begins to function? Definitions which lack any moral significance carry no moral legitimacy.
Other definitions based on consciousness, rationality, self-awareness, the ability to communicate, and so on are arguably morally significant, but contain problematic implications that make them unattractive. Many of these definitions also exclude born human beings, like the disabled, comatose and sleeping. Pro-choice philosophers Peter Singer and Mary Anne Warren have conceded that newborn infants are omitted from their respective definitions of personhood. Not only do these qualities vary from person to person, but also throughout one’s own lifetime. Does that mean our value as persons also changes?
Conversely, pro-lifers hold that humans are valuable for what/who they are, not just what they can do. The pro-life argument provides justification for society’s commonly held belief in human equality. Whereas the qualities selected by pro-choicers as determinants of personhood fall on a spectrum, humanness is categorical. You’re either human or you’re not. Despite all the differences between members of the human race, everyone is equally human, and thus, under a pro-life framework, equally deserving of human rights.
No matter what criteria for personhood one’s interlocutor offers, consider whether it is morally significant at all, or if there are obvious counter-examples. Do these criteria have undesirable implications, like undermining human equality? If they do, your interlocutor might simply bite the bullet and assert that humans aren’t all equal. In that case, make it the biggest bullet possible so that they potentially have to walk away uncomfortable with how much it took to remain consistent.
Answering bodily autonomy arguments
Some pro-choicers like philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson will argue that even if the preborn are human persons, abortion is still permissible because the fetus is in the woman’s body, and so her right to bodily autonomy takes precedence.
If the person you’re talking to puts forward an argument like this, it’s important to distinguish whether they think a woman can do whatevershe wants within her own body or if she simply has the right to end another’s physical dependence on her. If it’s the former, again, the pro-life approach should be to see how big a bullet we can get that person to bite. Do they think it’s okay to purposely deform a fetus or torture a fetus to death?
Most likely, they hold the latter position that you have the right to deny a person use of your body. They might argue that just as you have the right to refuse to donate blood or organs to someone on their deathbed, you have the right to refuse to temporarily “donate” your uterus to a fetus. However, abortion is not just a failure to save someone’s life; it’s killing. Moreover, the uterus’ very purpose is to house another person’s body. The prohibition against killing the innocent is so strong, that when faced with the options of killing a child or using one’s body in a manner consistent with its natural function to meet the needs of a child, a woman is obligated to go with the second one.
The right to bodily autonomy is not absolute, and certainly doesn’t supersede the right to life, without which humans could enjoy no other rights and any moral status as persons would be rendered meaningless. There are plenty of scenarios when people must incur a heavy burden on their bodies to provide born children proper nutrition and shelter, even when they don’t want to. Caring for someone inside the womb plausibly should be no different.
Ending a conversation
Recognize when a conversation has come to its end and is no longer productive. Call your conversation partner to a higher level of truth or commitment. Ask pro-lifers to get involved. Ask pro-choicers to look into the issue further and promise to do the same yourself. After all, truth demands constantly questioning one’s own position and moving towards a more complete understanding of the truth. No pro-lifer has learned everything. On that note, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to get back to you.” Always offer your name and ask for theirs if you don’t know it, and thank them for the conversation, in recognition that abortion is a contentious topic.
Pro-lifers are more than capable of changing minds on abortion; they just have to be brave enough to try, and patient enough to await the blossoming of truth.