Nothing quite gives a pro-life activist the opportunity to find out where our culture is at and how wounded it is as being out on the streets, discussing abortion with our generational counterparts. The first thing that always strikes me is how much hurt and how much pain is out there, and how badly so many people need to hear the very simple messages of human value and human dignity.
One of the most common mistakes pro-lifers make when conversing with people on the streets is that we are often prone to talk to people, not with people. We often hear only what they are saying, but not what they are actually telling us. Let me explain.
We now live in a culture that is so pervaded by broken homes and broken marriages that the children coming from these homes — the high school students we talk to every day outside their schools — often have no concept of human value, because they often feel that no one has ever valued them. Before they can understand that pre-born children are valuable human beings with inherent dignity, they often need someone to tell them that they are valuable human beings with inherent dignity.
Look at the slashed up arm of a beautiful young girl with empty eyes, and you’ll realize that many of them even feel that physical pain is the answer to emotional pain. Look into the eyes of a teenage girl or boy telling you they wish they had been aborted, and you’ll get a small sense of just how deep this pain is embedded.
I was talking with one young girl outside a high school some time ago, and she seemed very resistant to the pro-life message. She was staring at our signs, which display graphic imagery of aborted fetuses, and she was definitely following the pro-life arguments I was giving her — human beings have human rights, the most important human right is the right to life, and human rights must begin when the human being begins, otherwise the right to life is an arbitrary one that can be granted or rescinded at the whim of the state.
Simple science (who’d have thought?) tells us precisely when human life begins. She understood all of this — but still, there was some psychological barrier preventing her from accepting the implications of what I was telling her.
She started off by saying what girls often say to male pro-lifers: “But you’re not a girl. You can’t get pregnant. What has this got to do with you?”
I explained that first of all, I felt that many, many abortions happened simply because the fathers of these children are prone to turn tail and run when they discover that “fooling around” was actually “creating a brand-new human life.” That society would be better off if those of us who are stronger actually tried to protect those who are weaker. And finally, that by virtue of our shared humanity (I used to be a fetus, after all) pro-lifers feel that we have an obligation to stand up for the male and (more often) female babies being killed in the womb.
She nodded, very receptive to the idea that men should be supportive of women — or in the high school context, that boys should be supportive of girls. Most girls are, since the concept has become a fairly novel one in our current culture. But there was still a barrier there.
Then she said, “If I got pregnant, my dad would beat the crap out of me.”
This young girl was obviously familiar with the strong inflicting violence on the weak. She could understand what I was saying intellectually, but that didn’t change her reality — how could she accept the intrinsic value of a developing human being when she didn’t really understand what it meant to be valued in the first place?
At that point, it was clear that pursuing the classic pro-life apologetics route would not work. There was a different message she needed to hear first. I explained to her what human value is, and how she deserves to be treated with the utmost respect because of who she is as a person.
We talked together about how today’s culture — be it abusive or absent parents or people treating each other as disposable sex objects — is missing the entire point, and how valuing and respecting each other is really the only way to live together in our society without inflicting an enormous amount of pain on each other. She started nodding; her eyes started clearing. She was getting the pro-life message now. More than that, she was attracted to it.
As she left about a half hour later, she told me, “I’m not sure I can call myself pro-life like you. But I think, listening to what you said, that it just makes sense to wait for sex until you find someone who you love and loves you and that you want to raise a baby with.”
I’ll take it.
What we often don’t realize is that when we’re on the streets, showing love and genuine empathy for the person we’re talking to is just as important as having the right arguments. People — especially young people — can instinctively tell when we’re talking to them whether we care about them as a person, or whether we care more about beating them in an argument.
And when it comes to discussing abortion on the streets, “winning” is not defined by whether we can simply highlight their fallacies and point out their inconsistencies, but whether or not we can win them over. If people resist our arguments, we have to listen carefully – not just to what they’re saying, but what they’re telling us.
If we find out during a discussion that someone’s mother had an abortion, we have to realize that she isn’t defending abortion per se — she’s defending her mother. That’s a different scenario, and it requires a different approach. If a girl is emotional and brings up abortion in the case of rape — and this happens often — she may not be trying to simply hijack the debate. She may be trying to tell you something about what she has suffered, about what someone has inflicted on her — and our response must be one of utmost compassion. And if someone reacts angrily or emotionally to abortion images and pro-life arguments, our first task is to find out where that anger and hurt is coming from — no one who views abortion as a purely abstract thing or “choice” as a philosophical concept is going to scream at you. Someone who has had an experience with abortion may well do that. To find out where that hurt is coming from, we have to talk with people, not to people.
Everyone has a different story. All of these people need to be valued and loved. Too many of them haven’t been. And that, at least, we can change.
Editor’s Note: This article was first printed at Unmasking Choice on June 17, 2013, and is reprinted by permission of the author.