Boston, 1992. A pro-life demonstration. It’s peaceful, until it’s not. Drums sound in the distance, literally, as a marching band pours into the square, leading an opposing group. They’re singing. The song is John Newton’s, Amazing Grace, but only two words carry the melody: “Pro choice, pro choice….”
This kind of antagonism is common today on both left and right. Dr. Phil would ask, “How does that seem to be working?” For some it’s working well as they build an audience of the disgruntled. These savvy self-promotors use fear and caricature to grow their tribe and justify shabby tactics. They add little value. They deepen resentment. They offer no solutions. They set an illiberal tone.
To be illiberal is to be against. It feels productive but only amounts to cursing the darkness. There’s a quick payoff of venting frustration and attracting the frustrated. More evidence that misery loves company. Some in this crowd have drawn a lot of attention by attacking people in their own camp who are not rabid enough. They come down on voices that are too winsome. Imagine that.
A recent article in a national magazine can be summarized as follows: “Sorry Tim Keller. Your approach is just so 1990’s. It’s too kind. We need you to help us vanquish the opponent before Christmas trees get banned.” In a pluralist society, people of faith must learn the art of winsome. Michelangelo said, “Critique by creating.” We need constructive ways to teach values. To stand for, not just against.
Unless you are content talking only with people who agree with you already, you must learn to connect. Connect first, then convince. That means understanding an opposing argument which your opponent would recognize and own. Not just the version that casts them as evil. Most people who stand for things I think are horrible don’t wake up thinking, “How can I be horrible today?” Underneath what I am against is something they are for. It’s usually under their fear.
Pro-choice: “I fear what denying individual choice says about the value of individual freedom overall.”
Pro-life: “I fear what discarding life in the womb says about the value human life overall.”
How can people of faith stand for life in a way their opponents can at least understand? Below, I’ve tried to represent five pro-choice concerns as I have heard them voiced. Without my own pro-life bias. Then I’ve tried to reply in a way someone who is pro-choice might be able to hear.
1. Don’t impose your beliefs on me…
…because you cannot convert people to faith by winning an argument. And you should not presume your faith on other people by making laws based on religious views alone.
Agreed. Genuine faith cannot actually be imposed by the point of a knife or the point of a presidential pen. We should learn to frame arguments for civic life in terms of civil rights. The concept of civil rights was born out of Christian morality. So a secular version of the pro-life position is not difficult. Simply put, the pro-life position asserts that abortion involves the civil rights of two lives, not just one.
2. It’s just tissue…
…because life in the womb is too underdeveloped and unformed to be considered human. Even a fetus with a beating heart, ten fingers and ten toes is still entirely dependent upon its mother, unqualified for separate human rights.
The word “fetus” is Latin for “small child.” Using a Latin term can make life in the womb seem ambiguous or even sub-human. It often seems like the purpose of introducing ambiguity is to deflect the question of when human life begins without having to answering it. But it’s the vital question.
The National Library of Medicine says that the word “fetus” is like the word “adolescent.” It refers to a determinate and enduring organism at a particular stage of development. There is only a difference in degree of maturation, not in kind, between any of stages of embryo, fetus, and infant.
3. My body my choice…
…because power over my body and conscience is a fundamental human right in a free, democratic society.
We can all agree that my rights stop when they violate your rights. So we set limits on what we may do with our bodies. I don’t have the right to locate my foot on top of someone else’s toes. Someone’s life, not just their toes, can be at stake by what someone else does with their body. If a person is located inside a womb, what does that require of the person who owns the womb? Does location disqualify humanity?
4. What about…
…all the exceptions? Especially: Rape, incest, and pre-teen pregnancy—in other words, what about marginalized, neglected teenagers vulnerable to generational poverty?
We protect the mother’s life when pregnancy is a threat to it. Under a certain age, pregnancy can indeed be a physical threat. Speaking up for voiceless, abused girls is noble. But if there is no physical threat, then we must remember that the lives of two people, perhaps two girls, are under consideration.
An exception under certain circumstances (physical threat) does not become the rule in every circumstance. For example, you wouldn’t mind someone stealing your drink if they were choking. But you still want laws against stealing. Exceptions make bad law.
Also: See “Whataboutism,” a procedure in which a critical question or argument is not answered or discussed but retorted with a counter-question which expresses a counter-accusation.
5. Who are you to decide for a woman?
…because women alone bear the consequence of pregnancy in their bodies. They alone should get to decide whether to stay pregnant. In other words, power should accompany responsibility. Empower women.
“Who are you to decide?” deals with the wrong “who.” If it’s an actual baby, then that “who” needs a voice in the debate. And it doesn’t matter whether the voice is male or female, mother or father. Women with an unwanted pregnancy need support, but they’re not the only ones.
Conclusion: Will you win arguments or people?
Years ago, Paul Swope surveyed hundreds of women with unwanted pregnancies. The results of his study should give Prolife advocates cause for pause. These results should influence the tone and the response.
First, many women believe they face a choice between two lives: their life or the baby’s life. That fear needs compassion. Second, Swope found that women had a great sense of relief when someone showed them compassion, and they became open to a third way: to see that both lives matter.
This insight begs the question of every prolife advocate: do I want to win people or just arguments? Am I making a louder noise about abortion or putting a bigger dent in it? In other words, am I willing to give up illiberal rhetoric to paint a picture of a third way, a both-and way?