Blanche DuBois and the art of pro-life persuasion

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This is adapted from a workshop that Lori Kehoe and I gave at the National Right to Life Convention held in Kansas City, Kansas.

Thanks for coming, and thank you for all the supportive remarks you’ve made in response to previous workshops we’ve conducted at prior NRL Conventions.

We are short two members from the foursome that first gave this workshop four years ago. The great Jean Garton is no longer with us, God rest her soul. Rai Rojas shattered his knee in an accident this past Sunday and we are all praying for a rapid recovery from surgery.

The greatest benefit about going first is that Lori is so good you’ll quickly forget how mediocre my contributions are. To paraphrase Blanche DuBois, I have always depended on the kindness of friends.

Last week, when the thought of Blanche DuBois crossed my mind, it struck me that it illustrates a fundamental truth about the art of persuasion. If your audience has no clue who the heck Blanche DuBois is (she was the penniless sister in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), all you’ve done is waste an opportunity to connect with your audience and, worse, confuse them, perhaps even alienate them. The use of what might be called tribal language is an impenetrable obstacle to persuasion.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Who is our audience? 95% of the time it will be the 95% of Americans who have a paper-thin, saucer-deep understanding of abortion. 45 years after Justice Blackmun emerged from his summer reading at the Mayo Clinic Library to give us Roe v. Wade, the public, by and large, still doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, which includes opposing the reasons almost all abortions are performed.

Why? Because of the superficial manner in which the major media describes abortion and their determination to convince us that the public overwhelmingly supports Roe v. Wade.

But just because the public is not highly educated on abortion doesn’t mean we would ever talk down to our audience. There but for the grace of God go you and me. And with tens of millions of aborted women, you know you may be speaking to at one person who has had an abortion, been part of a decision to abort, or been of the receiving end of the news that their wife, girlfriend, or daughter had aborted.

The art of persuasion goes back at least to Aristotle. I’d like to take a few minutes to explain how his 4th century BC three-part division of the means of persuasion applies to us in 21st Century red and blue America.

Ethos, or ethical appeal, means convincing by the character of the author. Every life is sending a message. The question is, “What kind of message is your life, or my life, sending?” Our audience will take measure of us before they measure the content of our message.

Last week I purchased a book with the engaging title, The Fifth Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, You. What the author, a pastor, is saying is, “Our lives may be the only Bible some people read.”

Likewise, you or I can be as eloquent as Martin Luther King, Jr., but if our listeners decide we are an unfeeling, judgmental lot, who want women who’ve aborted to burn in hell, all is lost.

Why would they want to listen to us? Somebody fairly famous put it this way:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body [a] to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

As I’ve told my kids a gazillion times, Attitude is [almost] everything.

Second, according to Aristotle, Pathos means persuading by appealing to the reader’s emotions. Let me back up a second. In a real sense what we are trying to do is persuade people to use their peripheral vision. What is peripheral vision, you ask?

It “is the part of our vision that is outside the center of our gaze, and it is the largest portion of our visual field. A normal visual field is approximately 170 degrees around, with 100 degrees comprising the peripheral vision.”

The unborn child is less often out of sight, out of mind, thanks to commercial ads and ultrasounds and baby’s first photo album and some very funny pro-life videos that point out the absurdity of pretending there is no there, there. As a consequence the unborn baby moves from our peripheral vision to the “center of our gaze.”

By Pathos I am not suggesting we emotionally bludgeon people. That’s what pro-abortionists do with their time-tested appeal to the gut-wrenching examples of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. What they want is anger at the abomination that is rape or incest to stop the discussion before it gets started. They want to shroud the humanity of the second victim of rape or incest.

An aside, which is 100% true. In 1983—yes, 1983—we had our convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Several of us were in the cab yammering about the forthcoming convention.

When we stopped, the cab driver turned around and asked earnestly, “What about rape and incest?”

Pathos for us means engaging the audience’s sympathies and moral imagination. Pathos for us is helping our audience understand that we identify with any woman facing a crisis pregnancy with all our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits. We are genuinely concerned about her and as best we can we will help her navigate a difficult situation.

But we also try to help everyone, starting with the mother, to identify with the second innocent victim: the child growing in her womb. To paraphrase from a great song by Paul Baloche, “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see my little one.”

Logos. Logos means persuading by the use of reasoning. I write and reason for a living, so to speak, so I am not about to blow off the importance of arguments , evidence, and logic. I just recognize that outside of a debate situation, it’s not often we are going to reason somebody under the table.

We must, of course, be equipped to deal with some of the standard canards and non sequiturs and quality-of-life arguments dressed up in the rhetoric of autonomy and choice and the usual drivel. But that is in many, if not most situations, small potatoes. We need to go from head knowledge to heart application.

A personal anecdote which took many years ago. This young woman was a volunteer for a promising candidate who was running for a statewide political job. We had gotten to be friends. She knew I was pro-life and organized pro-lifers in my precinct and in my state legislative district. I also covered politics about 12 hours a day for what was then probably the finest student newspaper in the country. A gigantic conflict of interest, if ever there was one.

We had beers back when I actually sort of liked beer and we talked about the abortion issue at great length. She didn’t resort to the usual pro-abortion talking points. She asked intelligent, probing questions and gave as good as she got.

But I’d had much more practice at this and, clever devil that I was, you might say I had “defeated” her. It was not until after the third or fourth beer that her defenses dropped, the back and forth jostling came to a screeching halt, and she told me it a halting voice that she’d had three abortions.

Understand none of this had been pre-planned. We’d come to talk about the political race. Had I been judgmental. Had I not made it clear to her that my heart breaks for women who’ve aborted. Had I not driven home the message that I was and am a believer in finding win-win solutions, I’m pretty she would never had opened her own heart to me.

I would have left, congratulating myself on another notch in my belt for winning another “debate” and accomplished nothing except inflating my ego.

Last thought. Who knows what Jenga is? It’s a game where players take turns removing one block at a time from a tower constructed of 54 blocks. Each block removed is then placed on top of the tower, creating a progressively taller but ever more unstable structure.

If we are a genuine, winsome person who helps people widen the aperture of their heart to see the unborn child, in our own small way we will contribute to removing a block at a time. Eventually the tower that is Roe v. Wade will become so unstable it will fall.

I grant you it is my youthful naiveté but I honestly believe that as a people (to quote the late, great Jean Garton), we are better than abortion. If given 3/4th of a chance, we will heed the better angels of our nature.

That’s our job as pro-life ambassadors.