After a disheartening and unsettling discussion about abortion with friends and family via Facebook, I began to ponder: “Will conversations about abortion always end in anger and hurt feelings?” and “Is there something I can say that will make me a more effective advocate for the unborn — without alienating the other side?” After all, my exchange with this pro-choice individual was not about winning an argument; it was about changing her heart. I wondered what advice prominent pro-life Catholics — people who understood the other side’s motivations — would give for discussing abortion civilly.
Catholic convert Michael Pakaluk, professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University, says that it can be very difficult to discuss abortion civilly — and any other unsettled topic, for that matter: “Political correctness in schools and a debased public culture have prevented most people from getting any practice in debating matters of morality, religion or politics.”
Abby Johnson, a former employee of Planned Parenthood who is now pro-life, believes this hot-button issue is best talked about when the pro-life person takes a prayerful approach. The pro-life organization 40 Days for Life engages people in this way, she said. “Instead of turning it into a debate, they offer peaceful and thoughtful answers to the men and women in the pro-choice movement.” This organization was instrumental in Johnson leaving Planned Parenthood. Since 2007, 69 abortion workers have left the industry, and 22 abortion facilities have shut down because of local 40 Days for Life campaigns.
In order not to alienate the other side, it is important to assume that they have good intentions. “All of us try to do what we think is best, even if our minds are darkened or we are misguided,” said Pakaluk, “so always attribute even better motives to others.”
Atheist-to-Catholic convert and NCRegister.com blogger Jennifer Fulwiler — who used to be adamantly “pro-choice” — said to never use an accusatory tone. “We understand what is really going on, but when you say to someone, ‘Hey, you support vicious murders!’ it doesn’t inspire them to be open to what you’re saying.” She said a more effective approach is to ask, “I understand that you would never support murder and that you’re in favor of abortion because you believe that fetuses are not fully human. Would you be open to having a discussion about that?”
In a recent talk, Sister Mary Loretta of the Sisters of Life said if you really want to understand the perspective of someone who’s pro-choice, ask: “What happened in your life to make you believe abortion is necessary?”
Fulwiler agreed that motivations matter: Getting to the root of what is really making the person angry about the issue can usually lead to a fruitful conversation. “Thanks to contraception, pro-choice people see pregnancy as something that can happen to you out of the blue, like a lightning strike or a cancer diagnosis. Thus, they see abortion as the only possible way for women to control when they have children. To them, it’s an issue of freedom. I have found that that’s where the real anger on this issue comes out.”
Johnson believes that self-control, patience, peace and prayer are essential in changing hearts and minds. “When we don’t have a loving approach to any argument, those arguments can easily be hurtful to the pro-life stance and can help that pro-choice individual continue to believe that they believe the truth.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute’s “Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States (August 2011),” one in four women have had an abortion by age 30. Consequently, it is important to be sensitive to the possibility that the person you’re conversing with may have had an abortion or someone close to them has experienced abortion. If you discover that the woman did have an abortion, be sympathetic towards her, Johnson advised. “Let her know that we [those in the pro-life movement] care about her, and we want to walk with her through this time of crisis and healing,” said Johnson, who regrets her two abortions.
Fulwiler pointed out that women have been lied to by our culture — lies that drive them to abortion. “Contraception sells them the lie that sexual activity can be separated from its life-giving potential, and the pro-contraception culture tells them to go ahead and engage in the act that creates babies even if they’re not ready to have a baby.” Fulwiler added that organizations such as Planned Parenthood discourage women from understanding reproduction and the miracle that is happening inside their wombs, assuring them that the babies growing within them are not human and may pressure them to abort. Keeping all of this in mind helps one keep an attitude of charity and sympathy, Fulwiler said.
And Pakaluk suggested reflecting on what it means to be post-abortive. He made this analogy: “Suppose that by mistake you ran over your child when backing your car out of the driveway, but either didn’t know it yet or suspected it was true but hadn’t confronted the reality. A woman who has had an abortion is like that. She’s been misled and tricked by her society, by those who should have been showing good leadership, into doing something that, if she understood it truly, would almost drive her mad with grief and self-recrimination.” A post-abortive woman must be treated with dignity and feeling, he added.
Pushing Past Discomfort
I’m still not sure if abortion can be talked about without losing friends. Realistically, I’m fully prepared for my next conversation about abortion to be angst-filled, but armed with this advice, I feel more equipped to discuss this topic charitably. Like a lot of Catholics, I’d rather sidestep conversations about abortion because it makes me feel unsettled. But knowing abortion is not going to end if each of us does not try to change one heart at a time propels me to push past my discomfort.
Chances are, you are discussing abortion on the Internet. Proceed with caution: People frequently set aside their social filters online, and they say things that they wouldn’t say face-to-face. Keep in mind these tips:
1. Never resort to insults. If you do, you’ve already lost the battle.
2. Keep a sense of humor — it puts the other person at ease and diffuses a tense situation.
3. Reread what you wrote to make sure it’s neither mean nor condescending before pushing the “send” button.
4. Be sensitive.
5. Know when to step away. “If you’re having a hard time explaining the pro-life position with love and charity,” said Jennifer Fulwiler, “get out of the debate and just pray for your Facebook friends instead.”
Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Idaho.