I grew up in a home where we fiercely debated great issues of the day around the dinner table. Excelling in stubbornness and sheer fighting spirit, we were another version of the Fighting Irish.
Our lively arguments taught us that current events were important and that we should have some passion about them. Yet there were disadvantages in our free-for-alls. Each of us was so eager to win arguments that we didn't listen carefully to others' points of view, or discuss issues in such a way that we all learned more about them. Nor were we adept at persuading (as opposed to bludgeoning) others to our position.
As we matured, we learned that a quiet discussion is often more helpful than a rousing argument; yet perhaps we also lost some of the youthful passion that energizes societal change.
This common experience has bearing on the question of how to persuade people to defend the lives of unborn children. How can we talk about abortion in a way that wins hearts and minds? Should we moderate our language and the images we use? Can we do that without softening our convictions, losing our edge, and postponing action-while unborn children die by the millions?
I hope to show that we can win over people who are ambivalent and even bitter adversaries-and save many lives-by thoughtful choice of words and tactics, by listening more carefully to our opposition, and by telling better and more hopeful stories than they tell.
The Iceberg Problem
Whether to defend the unborn is for Americans a crucial personal decision as well as a political one. "Shall I defend my own unborn child? Shall I protect my unborn niece or nephew? My grandchild? How can I do that while also protecting the interests of the child's mother, whom I deeply love?" This is the way-consciously or subconsciously-that many people first faced abortion. Various pressures and fears, though, may have prompted them to phrase the questions in a more self-interested way: "How can I pay the bills? What will this do to my career? She's unmarried-What will the neighbors think? How will I explain this to my friends and the folks at church?"
Those who failed to defend the child to whom they were related are unlikely to defend other unborn children now. And those who actually had or encouraged abortions may feel guilty, or believe their decision was the only one they could make at the time, or simply not want to think about it at all. We are speaking here of tens of millions of people. Many others, while not directly involved, know someone who has had an abortion. According to a Los Angeles Times poll, 52 percent of the U.S. adult population have had abortions themselves or know someone who has.1
Abortion complicity is the great iceberg just below the surface of the abortion debate. Some abortion foes sense this when they criticize abortion in private conversation and meet silence or evasion. Or they bump right into the iceberg when friends respond with stories about abortions they had or facilitated, which is embarrassing, to say the least, and often leads to decisions to keep quiet about the issue. Those who are publicly active against abortion face the same iceberg: many people are defensive about their decisions and resent pro-life activists, finding it difficult to listen to them with an open mind.
Yet there are ways to reach such people. Canadian pro-life writer Denyse Handler once suggested allowing them to "bury the past": one might say, "No doubt, we all did what we thought was right, but with what we know now, we simply can't go on doing this. We have to move away from abortion and re-examine our thinking towards the unborn child."2
Not everyone, of course, did what they thought was right; but some did. Others acted under great psychological or economic pressure, so that their decisions were not entirely free. If they now feel they are under personal attack, they'll keep defending what they have done. …