Interim editor-in-chief David Curtin interviewed Paul Swope during the recent University Faculty for Life conference in Toronto. What follows is a transcript of their conversation.
DC: Reading your article, at times I got the feeling you think the pro-life movement has failed. Is that the case?
PS: No. Actually the title I submitted when the article was first published was “Abortion: The least of three evils,” as that brought immediate attention to the revolutionary research that we carried out on pro-choice women. I didn’t want to start out on a negative note about the movement.
The Caring Foundation doesn’t pretend to speak for the entire pro-life movement; and we don’t presume our media approach would necessarily be effective in political debates; but if the desire is to reach women between the ages of 18 and 34 through television, then our research tells us the standard “baby-centered” approach is counter-productive.
Effective marketing is a matter of identifying your audience, and choosing a medium to reach them. In a 30-second ad, you can’t change someone into a new person with new values; but you can appeal to them through their own value system, and ask them to reflect on an issue.
DC: I suppose the only way someone could show the pro-life movement has “failed” would be to point to a parallel universe where the movement hadn’t existed, or hadn’t done what it’s done so far; and of course that’s impossible. There is, however, a lot of evidence that pro-lifers have been successful in convincing people that the child in the womb is indeed a living, human being. Even pro-abortion leaders are admitting it now.
PS: That’s true. Of course, I think it’s first of all due to the voice of conscience, the law written on the human heart; but it’s certainly also due to the valiant voice of conscience which the pro-life movement has provided in the last 25 years.
Pro-lifers have succeeded in sensitizing the general public to the issue. I just think we need to be more sensitive and more sophisticated in reaching different audiences within the general public.
DC: I can’t help wondering if there’s a danger in appealing to a “pro-choice” person’s way of looking at things. It’s possible that in many cases, what’s behind that person’s view of the “three evils” is actually selfishness. If we seem to be taking that for granted, is it possible we could be reinforcing the very things we’re trying to overcome?
PS: As an ardent pro-lifer, I realize that seeing abortion as the least of three evils is profoundly misguided. However, we must understand that pro-choice women, especially those in a crisis pregnancy, will not respond to this issue as you and I might. Psychologically, they see this crisis pregnancy as a kind of death of self, and thus abortion becomes a form of self-preservation, a fundamental instinct of the human person. Their calculation may be wrong; but we cannot dismiss their reaction as superficial selfishness. Take any person in crisis: we will help them best with compassion and sensitivity to their fears, not by reasoned arguments and objective judgments.
Our goal is to help women and save children. In none of our ads do we reject pro-life principles. What we’re doing is appealing to a woman’s better self—her voice of conscience, which tells her abortion is evil, as opposed to the voice of convenience, which tells her abortion is a way out. Our ads aren’t intended to convert the hardened of heart; but they can reach the millions of women who call themselves pro-choice but who are uncomfortable with the issue—if we present the voice of conscience to them in a non-threatening manner.
DC: Pro-lifers I know have been talking about your article quite a bit, and are really excited about it. How do you account for that?
PS: In the past, we pro-lifers have tended to speak to ourselves, and we haven’t aggressively pursued the average citizen with a message he or she will understand. The vision of the Caring Foundation is to by-pass the political process and the filter of the viciously biased media, and to reach tens of millions of people in their living rooms. I think that’s tremendously exciting, and that it’s giving pro-lifers great hope.
DC: How do you measure the effects of your ads on people’s opinions? Couldn’t a woman respond favourably to the ads, without actually changing her view of abortion?
PS: What we do is hire professional pollsters to carry out two surveys in the media market where we will be working. First we survey the region before our ads have aired, to determine the pro-life sentiment in the area.
Then, after a campaign is concluded (usually about 3 months), we carry out the same poll to see if there has been a shift in opinion, and to see which ads seem most effective. About 400 to 500 people are selected at random in the pre- and post-polls. The survey contains about 30 questions, and we ask people’s opinion on the issue from several angles so that we can get a fairly sophisticated measure of their views on the subject.
DC: I inferred from a comment near the end of your article that you feel displaying pictures of children killed by abortion is probably effective only in reinvigorating pro-lifers in their commitment to the cause. I’m curious to know your reason for that, since that strategy is being pursued increasingly in Ontario, and apparently it’s been successful in affecting the views of ordinary citizens.
PS: I think the article covers this fairly well. Basically, a woman in a crisis pregnancy is not thinking rationally or dispassionately, as she is overwhelmed by the threat the situation poses to her own life. She usually feels isolated, and despairing over her future. Showing her pictures of babies, whether aborted or young and happy, will tend to deepen this sense of loneliness and despair, thus fuelling her tendency to choose abortion, as no one is addressing the crisis in her own life and future.
It might be helpful to consider other forms of crisis management. Most people would realize that a person standing on an apartment ledge about to commit suicide would not be persuaded by a picture of splattered bodies on the sidewalk. They need emotional support and a sense of hope.
Again, there is definitely a place for pictures of aborted babies, but I don’t think it will help women in crisis, or “pro-choice” women, who will just see this as further proof that the pro-life community doesn’t care about women.
DC: Assuming it’s true that showing pictures of aborted babies evokes feelings of despair in some cases, as a Christian I still wonder whether that despair is just part of a larger process of conversion. We may be able to ascertain that the immediate effect of the child-centered approach is “negative”; but how can we know what good may come of that confrontation?
PS: We certainly can hope the despair of a crisis pregnancy will lead to a larger conversion, but in most areas of life, an approach of sensitivity and compassion is much more likely to bring about positive change.And remember, we are talking about trying to get this message on television, and to do that you have to strike a very delicate balance. The message has to be strong enough to influence women, but “soft” enough so that the material is acceptable to the stations. Fortunately, our research suggests that the gentler approach is also the more effective.
DC: What’s been the reaction so far to your article from pro-lifers?
PS: Overwhelmingly positive. That article has been in circulation for three months, but I still get calls and mail every day from all over the U.S. and Canada. In fact, the pro-lifers in Canada seem to be especially excited. I never imagined there would be such a response. It’s amazing, really.