Have you ever heard anyone speak like this? I have. Most discussions on issues like abortion are fraught with emotion. Something about this topic is far more personal than an intellectual exercise about where Columbus actually landed or whether scientists will ever be able to directly observe a quark. People can talk about some things calmly and coolly, not terribly invested in what the answer turns out to be. Abortion is not one of those things.
So how do you respond to someone who says something like my opening paragraph without it escalating into a shouting match? Sometimes it’s not easy. As Christians, we are called to speak with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15), but we don’t always achieve that goal, nor can we guarantee that our partner in the discussion will reciprocate. Still, there are some general approaches that may assist in fostering a productive conversation.
First, keep your cool. There are several errors in this objection to abortion, but resist the temptation to jump on them all at once. If you start launching into an intellectual treatise you will only (1) lose your audience, and (2) reinforce the already existent impression that you care more about your arguments than you do about real people.
Second, make sure everyone understands the issues at hand. This is particularly important in regard to the abortion discussion because people from the two camps tend to be talking about completely different topics without ever realizing it. For those in favor of abortion, the main issue is choice; i.e., a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body. For those against abortion the main issue is whether the embryo/fetus is a human life. If you do not first make sure the two of you are addressing the same topic, you will wind up talking past one another and never make any headway. This type of discussion fosters frustration and often escalates to anger, with both sides thinking the other is not “listening” to them.
Third, especially when talking about rape and incest, never minimize the trauma that a woman has gone through. Rape is one of the most invasive (if not THE most invasive) violations a person can suffer. The psychological trauma, flashbacks, depression, feelings of inadequacy, etc., that a person may suffer afterwards is unimaginable. If you do not affirm this blunt reality in your conversation, your discussion partner will accuse you of not having a clue about the enormous scope of the factors at issue … and they would be right.
All these make this topic a delicate one to discuss. However, despite the general cultural impression that rape and incest are a “hard case” for abortion opponents, when handled correctly they actually offer an opportunity to illustrate why the real issue at hand is life, not choice.When someone is simply blasting you with an emotional outburst, there probably is no point to engaging in a rational conversation because any attempt at rationality will likely be met by more hostility. However, if someone raises this objection in a calm, inquisitive manner, then it is appropriate to respond accordingly.
By way of illustration, when someone raises this objection to me I ask them a question in return:
Is it morally acceptable to kill a 5 year old child solely because he or she was conceived by rape or incest and will serve as a constant reminder to the mother of that traumatic event?
So far, I have not had anyone claim that this would be okay. All I have changed in this illustration is the age of the child (and whether the child is inside or outside the womb). If killing a 5 year old under these circumstances is immoral, then the real issue is not rape or incest. That element remained the same in both examples. The real issue is whether the thing being killed is a human life. Clearly, the 5 year old is a living human being. The key question, then, is whether whatever is inside the mother’s womb is also a living human being. If it is, then in order to be logically consistent we must come to the same conclusion that we did for the 5 year old.
There are other approaches as well that can be used to illustrate that the issue is life, not choice, one of which actually concedes many points the pro-choice advocate makes (for the sake of argument) in order to demonstrate why their focus is misplaced. Pro-choice advocates argue that nobody else has the right to tell a woman what to do in regard to her own body. She is absolutely sovereign over it, immune from outside influence or control. Personally, I believe this premise is flawed and any number of legitimate examples can be raised in which the government dictates what people must due in regard to their bodies which most people concede are perfectly legitimate (i.e., incarceration of the body for criminal offenders; requiring vaccinations of small children, regardless of the wishes of the parents, etc.). However, for the sake of argument, I can concede this point and show how it logically leads to the conclusion that “choice” is peripheral and “life” is central to the debate.The discussion generally proceeds as follows:
I want to make sure I understand your argument and am stating it fairly. You believe that nobody has the right to tell any other person what to do with his or her own body. Their personal decisions about what to do with their body should be free from interference from outsiders. Am I saying that correctly?
OK. Assume for me, for a moment, then, that whatever is inside the mother’s womb is a living being. Under your argument, wouldn’t that person also have the same right to be free from outside interference with his or her body? But if that is a human life, then an outsider (the abortion provider) is interfering with his or her body by killing it without taking into account his or her desires.
At this point, some people just re-state in some new manner that outlawing abortion interferes with the mother’s right to choose without recognizing the logical inconsistency inherent in their position if the embryo/fetus is a human life. However, for those people who do recognize the corner they have put themselves in, the conversation usually takes the following turn:
But the fetus is not a human being.
That may or may not be true, and we can certainly talk about that next. But before we begin I just want to make sure we are on the same page. The key issue in evaluating whether abortion is morally acceptable is whether whatever that is inside the mother’s womb is a living human being. The mother’s choice is important, but it only comes into play if somebody else’s rights and choices are not being affected by her actions. The moment someone else’s rights are impacted, we have to take those into account too. Do we agree on at least that much?
Unfortunately, most people involved in these discussions will not concede even that much, seemingly afraid to concede any ground for fear that their entire position will collapse (which it will, so I guess their fear is justified, if irrational). However, you will find that some people will be open to these illustrations, and once you lay this groundwork you can move on to demonstrating the irrationality and inconsistency in claiming the embryo/fetus is not a human life.
The suggestions in this blog post only take us so far; i.e., recognizing that the real issue in abortion is life, not choice. It remains for us to examine the arguments on both sides as to whether there is a life inside the mother’s womb. If it is a life, virtually no justification will be sufficient for killing it. If it is not a life, no justification is necessary. It is no different than removing an unwanted appendix. That discussion will have to be the topic of a future post.
In closing I would like to point out something that should be obvious but which unfortunately eludes most people in the pro-choice camp. With the exception of one verse from 1 Peter which I used only to urge Christians to address people respectfully, I did not cite the Bible even one time in this post. Too many people believe that “pro-lifers” are simply advancing a religious agenda and trying to force their spiritual beliefs upon the rest of the country by coercing legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) Christians are generally opposed to abortion. But you can be an atheist and still recognize that the murder of an innocent human life is wrong. The arguments I have presented do not depend upon the acceptance of any religious sect’s dogma or scriptural text. Some people may claim that I am unduly influenced in this matter by my Christian beliefs, but that would be to commit the genetic fallacy. It does not address the merits of my claims.
If you are afraid that becoming pro-life will require you to become a Christian, don’t be. While I obviously believe the Christian worldview to be true and would welcome the opportunity to discuss it with you further, I will gladly accept the assistance of anyone in the battle to save innocent human lives, regardless of your spiritual point of view.