Pro-life persuasion: How to discuss abortion with logic and grace

How do we change the views of these abortion supporters?

By Paul Stark, Communications Associate, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life

Editor’s note. This appears on page nine of the December digital edition of National Right to Life News. Please read as much as you can of this 45-page issue and pass stories along to your pro-life family and friends.

How can we persuade others that abortion is an injustice? It’s not always easy.

Some people see ultrasound images or fetal models and quickly recognize the humanity of unborn children. Some people hear descriptions of abortion procedures and understand the inhumanity of dismembering human beings in their mother’s womb.

Other people, though, are not persuaded by these facts. They may believe that unborn children aren’t really human if they can’t yet think or feel. They may deeply value the right to bodily autonomy. They may think that making abortion illegal would have unfair or dangerous consequences for women.

How do we change the views of these abortion supporters? Most of them are unlikely to spend time reading pro-life articles or watching pro-life presentations. Most are unfamiliar with the best pro-life arguments and responses.

This is where dialogue comes into play. Dialogue, in many cases, is the only way to share the pro-life message, answer concerns, get people thinking—and change their minds. Yet conversations about abortion, especially on social media, are often unproductive or even counterproductive.

Here are three things you can do that will make your conversations—whether face-to-face or through another medium—more fruitful.

(1) Know the basics of the debate

You don’t need to know everything about the abortion debate, but it’s helpful to know some basics. Remember these three steps of the pro-life argument:

  1. The unborn (the human embryo or fetus) is a human being—a living human organism at the earliest developmental stages. This is a fact of science.
  2. All human beings—regardless of age, size, ability, and dependency—have human rights. This is a principle of justice.
  3. Therefore, the unborn human being has human rights, which include the right not to be intentionally killed.

That’s why killing unborn children through abortion is unjust. It’s pretty simple.

Most arguments in defense of abortion (such as appeals to choice, circumstances, consequences, and tolerance) assume that unborn children don’t count as valuable members of the human family. You can show this using a tactic Scott Klusendorf calls “trot out the toddler.”

Ask whether an argument for abortion would work as a justification for killing toddlers or other born human beings. Do parents facing economic hardship, for example, have the right to choose to kill their 3-year-olds? Of course not. If unborn children also have human rights, like born humans do, then these arguments don’t justify killing them either.

Other arguments try to show that unborn children don’t count. One approach is to claim that unborn children aren’t even human beings in the biological sense (a denial of step 1). But that’s empirically false. The science of embryology shows that human embryos and fetuses are living (they grow, metabolize food into energy, and react to stimuli), human (they have human DNA and human parents), and whole organisms developing themselves through the different stages of life as members of our species.

Another approach is to argue that although unborn children are biologically human, they do not have the same value and right to life as older human beings—they are not yet “persons” like we are (a denial of step 2). But the differences between born and unborn human beings simply aren’t relevant to whether or not an individual bears a right to life. Unborn children may look different, for example, but appearance has nothing to do with value. Unborn children are less physically and mentally developed, but toddlers are less developed than teenagers, and that doesn’t make them any less important. Unborn children are dependent on someone else, but so are newborn children and disabled persons.

When an abortion supporter claims unborn children don’t have rights because they lack a particular characteristic, you can highlight two major problems with this view. First, that characteristic, whatever it is, always excludes more human beings than just unborn children.

Second, the characteristic comes in varying degrees, and that means some people are more valuable or have greater rights than others. If self-awareness is the trait that confers rights, for example, then comatose patients and human infants have no rights, and people who are more self-aware have greater rights than those who are less self-aware. Equality, according to this kind of view, is a myth.

The pro-life view, by contrast, holds that we have rights simply because we are human—not because of what we look like, or what we can do, or what others think or feel about us, but rather because of what (the kind of being) we are. So all human beings matter, and they matter equally because they are equally human.

The next time you explain to someone why you’re pro-life, try saying this: “Because I’m convinced that human equality is really true.” Or this: “Because I think human rights are inclusive—they belong to all humans rather than only some.” It’s probably not the explanation the other person is expecting, and it almost guarantees that you’ll have a substantive conversation.

A third type of argument says that, regardless of the nature or value of the unborn child, abortion is justified because pregnant women have a right to control what happens inside their own bodies. But this bodily autonomy should respect the bodies of other human beings. Even most abortion supporters, for example, agree that pregnant women shouldn’t ingest drugs that cause birth defects. And if harming unborn children is wrong, then killing them by crushing and tearing them into pieces is even worse.

According to a more sophisticated version of the argument, just as we may refuse to donate an organ to save someone else’s life, a pregnant woman may refuse to let an unborn child use her body to survive. Abortion, however, isn’t merely the withdrawal of bodily support—it is intentional and active killing, often by dismemberment, which violates the child’s right to life and right to bodily integrity. The father and mother, moreover, bear responsibility for the care of their child because they brought her into existence.

If you just understand these basics—the logic of the pro-life view and the three main categories of arguments in support of abortion—you will know more about the abortion debate than almost everyone. And that gives you a huge advantage in any conversation.

(2) Show respect and compassion

To have any chance of persuasion, though, you have to communicate your knowledge in a particular way. You have to be the kind of person others will listen to.

Conduct yourself with gentleness and respect. This is the right way to act. The pro-life view, after all, is that every human being deserves our respect (even those with whom we disagree about whether everyone deserves respect!). This is also the only way that actually works. You won’t persuade someone if you refuse to listen to and understand her perspective, or if you make your points with condescension, annoyance, anger, or name-calling.

Avoid judgments about character and motive. People who support abortion, however mistaken their view, are not the enemy. Even people who work in the abortion industry are not the enemy. (Many members of that industry have become pro-life, in fact, and some have even become pro-life leaders.) We ought to “seek only to defeat evil systems,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system,” on the other hand, “you love.”

When emotional objections to the pro-life view arise, compassion is crucial. Show compassion by affirming legitimate concerns expressed by the other person. If she thinks you’re callous or indifferent, she’s much less likely to consider your point of view.

For example, if someone draws attention to the difficult circumstances that many pregnant women face, agree with her wholeheartedly. Many pregnant women face enormously tough and often unfair situations. Then you can show why difficult circumstances don’t justify killing (try “trotting out the toddler”) and how we can respond to these difficulties with practical support and positive alternatives to abortion.

If someone talks about cases of rape, don’t just explain why abortion isn’t the solution. First take time to acknowledge the evil of rape and the injustice when a woman becomes pregnant as a result. This builds rapport with the other person and shows that you’re not a moral monster. It shows that she may just want to consider what you have to say.

You might speak with an abortion supporter who has personally experienced abortion, poverty, or abuse. Her rejection of the pro-life view may be less intellectual than emotional. So ask about her experience, listen, and express sympathy when appropriate. Carefully suggest some post-abortion resources. Just as unborn children should matter to us, people hurting from abortion or other traumas should matter too.

(3) Ask questions

In addition to knowing the arguments and communicating them in a winsome manner, there’s one simple dialogue technique that can make your conversations far more productive.

That technique, to borrow from Socrates and from an approach developed by Greg Koukl, is to ask questions instead of just make statements. Questions allow you to engage with others rather than lecture at them in a way that seems pushy or obnoxious.

You can use questions in three ways. First, open-ended questions help get dialogue started. Share a pro-life article on social media, for example, and ask your followers what they think about it. Or say to your friend or family member: “So I was reading an interesting article about abortion the other day. You and I have never talked about that topic. What’s your take on it?”

Second, use questions to graciously make the other person explain and defend his own views. “It’s often only when we’re asked to explain something that we realize whether we have answers, and whether those answers make sense,” writes Stephanie Gray in her book Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth. Ask the abortion supporter to clarify what he means when there is ambiguity (“What do you mean by that?”). And ask him to provide reasons in support of his claims (“Why do you think that’s true?”). For example:

  • “You say that no one knows when life begins. Do you mean ‘life’ in the biological sense? (The life of a human organism begins at fertilization.) Or are you talking about when a human organism becomes valuable or has a right to life?”
  • “You believe a fetus is human but not a person. What do you mean by ‘person’? Are you saying that there are some human beings who have no human rights?”
  • “You think thousands of women will die if abortion is made illegal? What evidence supports that conclusion?”
  • “You say abortion in the first trimester is okay, but you oppose late-term abortion? What’s the difference and why do you think it matters to whether or not someone may be killed?”

Third, you can use questions in a proactive way to gently make a point or expose problems you see in the other person’s view:

  • “I agree that women have a right to choose to do lots of things. But aren’t there some things we don’t have the right to do? Like things that are unjust? Isn’t the question at issue whether or not abortion is one of those unjust things?”
  • “If an unborn child shouldn’t be protected because she is not yet ‘viable’ (able to survive independently), wouldn’t that mean that a conjoined twin who can’t survive apart from the body of the other twin shouldn’t be protected either?”
  • “You say that you wouldn’t personally choose abortion but want it to remain legal for others. Why do you personally oppose it—because it kills an innocent human being? Isn’t that a pretty good reason to make it illegal?”
  • “Since you believe in equality, doesn’t that mean we all have something in common—and have it equally—that is the basis for our equality? What could that be other than our shared humanity? And isn’t a fetus also human?”

As Gray says, “Questions have power.” They can lead people to think seriously about their views. And that’s the context in which people sometimes come to change their minds.

We need to talk about abortion

If you do these three things—know some basics, show respect and compassion, and ask a few gracious questions—your conversations will go much smoother.

Here are a few final points of advice. First, don’t force conversations. Many times and places aren’t appropriate for a conversation about a sensitive topic. People aren’t receptive if they feel uncomfortable or awkward. But if an opportunity arises, be ready to take advantage.

Second, you won’t always know how to deal with an argument or objection, and that’s fine. The best response is honesty. Just say, “That’s an interesting point—I will have to think more about that. Maybe we can talk about it later, or I can email you my thoughts?” Then think through the issue and read what pro-life authors have said about it.

Third, don’t expect to change someone’s mind on the spot. That often doesn’t happen (especially with someone who has a firm pre-existing view). Just try to leave him with something to think about and a positive experience interacting with a pro-life person. You might also offer to continue the conversation at a later time.

Sometimes, if a person is belligerent or unwilling to listen, a real dialogue isn’t even possible. In that case you might want to politely end the conversation.

Make no mistake, though: Dialogue is important. It’s important because it can and does help change hearts and minds. It can and does help people reject and oppose abortion in their own lives and support legal protection for unborn children and their mothers. It can and will help make abortion culturally unthinkable.

The lives of human beings, individuals who really matter, are at stake. That’s why we need to talk about abortion. And that’s why we need to do it well.