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We’ve all met one. 

Imagine you’re sitting in your college sociology class one day when your professor decides to start a classroom discussion on abortion. Believing yourself to be in an environment conducive to vigorous debate, you take the opportunity to explain your pro-life views using science and philosophy. You carefully explain how it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings, and how abortion is the intentional killing of innocent human beings; therefore, abortion must be wrong.

It’s not long before the floodgates open.

Pretty soon a variety of questions are thrown your way: “If you’re so pro-life, why is it only life inside the womb you care about? Why do you stop caring about life once the baby is born?” “What about women who have been raped, do you want to force them to carry their rapist’s baby?” “What about a woman who will die of her pregnancy?” “What about women dying in back-alley abortions?” And lastly, the one question that causes the classroom to erupt in applause: “Aren’t you a man? You can’t get pregnant, right? Then who are you to say what a woman should do with her own body in the first place?” The list goes on endlessly.

The abovementioned incident happened to me while I was in college. Getting all of these questions thrown at me, I tried to be gracious and answer each question with a thoughtful explanation, but the harder I tried, the worse it got. No sooner would I start answering one question when another one would pop-up. 

What I didn’t realize at the time was I had walked into a trap. The questions and challenges I was hearing were not honest inquiries made about my pro-life views to genuinely engage them; they were raised in order to make me shut up. 

Nearly every pro-lifer who has engaged in some sort of activism has encountered or will encounter this sort of hostile behavior at some point. With a culture that has learned how to argue from memes, Twitter, and TikTok, it’s important to know how to maneuver in an encounter with someone who isn’t interested in seeking honest answers to your questions.

Clearing the Smokescreen

Generally speaking, when it comes to conversations about abortion(or any controversial issue, for that matter), there are two types of people you will encounter: Inquirers and Crusaders. 

Scott Klusendorf originally laid out this dichotomy in his book The Case For Life, and it is a helpful way to assess and respond to certain questions which are raised by those who support elective abortion. 

Understanding the different types of people you will encounter is critical for effectively communicating the truth about abortion. 

An Inquirer is someone who is genuinely interested in engaging the conversation. They may not agree with the pro-life position, and may even vigorously oppose it, but more often than not they are honestly seeking truth, and will pose questions or challenges to pro-lifers in order to find out what we actually believe, and to test whether our views hold up. The Inquirer’s motivations are noble, even if their beliefs are mistaken.

The Crusader is different. He isn’t interested in dialoguing with you; he wants to defeat you. This can take many forms, but quite often it comes as rhetorical questions asked in such a way they end up portraying the pro-lifer as stupid, insensitive, or downright evil. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three. These questions are not asked for the purpose of exposing flaws in the pro-life position; they are meant to show it is pro-lifers themselves that are rotten.

The Crusader’s questions, such as the questions my classmates asked in the above story, form a sort of rhetorical smokescreen. In military tactics, a smokescreen is used to obscure one’s true position from the enemy. For instance, a platoon of soldiers on a battlefield might use smoke grenades to conceal their movements from being directly observed by the enemy forces they are engaging. While the enemy may know where their opponents are, generally speaking, they don’t know what the actual positions their opponents are operating from, and cannot challenge their opponents directly.

In rhetoric, a smokescreen works much the same way. A statement or a question might be made in order to keep an opponent distracted from the issue at hand, and to hide their true position from criticism. More on this will be said in just a moment. 

Pro-life advocates need to know how to defeat a smokescreen in order to accomplish their objective of communicating the truth about abortion and changing the minds of those who support it. While some pro-life groups emphasize the need to find common ground with abortion supporters in order to make dialogue more fruitful, the fact of the matter is that you cannot find common ground with anyone unless you know what ground they stand on in the first place. If you’re not able to nail down precisely what your opponent’s position on abortion is, you’ll chase issues all over the map and end up wasting time.

Asking a simple question or two can clear up the whole mess and get the conversation going in a productive direction.

First Things First

Let’s go back to a couple of the questions mentioned in our earlier story. Suppose someone asks why, as a pro-lifer, you only seem to care about the life inside the womb, but you don’t care about it outside the womb. 

Very often, pro-life advocates will launch into an explanation about everything they do for life outside the womb. They will talk about the many pro-life pregnancy centers that offer services for women, their activism on other issues, how they have adopted children needing homes, among other things. 

While this can be a good answer when it comes to an Inquirer, it’s a waste of time with a Crusader. Chances are he doesn’t care. He just wants to change the subject. So let’s get back on track. It’s worth asking in response “Tell me, if I supported everything you do for life outside the womb, would you join me then in opposing the intentional killing of the very same life inside the womb?” 

What this question does is force your critic to be honest with you. Is this issue (what pro-lifers do for life outside the womb) really an intellectual obstacle preventing someone from accepting that abortion is wrong? Most often the answer is no. This became very clear to me during a discussion I had with a young pro-choice activist during an outreach event at a local university:

PC: You’re pro-life? Oh, so what’s your stance on war? You support war, don’t you? What about animal rights? What do you do for the poor? Do you oppose police brutality? I bet you’re only pro-life until the baby is born!”

Me: “Can I ask you something? If I said I agreed with you on all the issues you just mentioned, will you be willing to oppose abortion?”

PC: “Of course not! Abortion is 100% a woman’s right!”

Me: “So why did you bring up all those other issues in the first place? If that’s your view, abortion is a right women are entitled to, then why don’t you defend your view? And if you see a problem with my view that abortion is wrong, why don’t you explain to me why you think I’m mistaken? Is that fair?”

What we’re doing here is getting our critics to be honest with us, and actually engage the argument we are making. Abortion, unlike every other “social justice” issue currently in vogue, involves the direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being. Our critics need to be brought back to the topic at hand, and a simple question, such as the one mentioned above, is a way to make sure our critics are honestly assessing the issue. In doing so, we remove our critics’ smokescreen, and get to the heart of where their real position lies. Only then can we effectively establish common ground and move the discussion forward.

The tactic also stops the Crusader in his tracks. Remember, the Crusader isn’t trying to honestly dialogue with you; he wants to defeat you. He can defeat you by making you look like a monster, by talking over you, and making you chase rabbit trails all over the map. He isn’t being moved by compassion; he’s being a cad. Forcing him to clarify his own position by showing that he isn’t being intellectually honest will stop his boorish nonsense in its tracks. There’s nothing wrong with shaming someone for being a cad about an issue of great significance, provided it’s done in a way that shows respect to the other person’s dignity.

The same goes true for the gender arguments. It’s common to hear a variation of the “No uterus, no opinion” slogan that has been around for decades. Lately, the slogan has taken on a more crass tone, such as a rhetorical question shouted at me during a campus outreach by a protestor: “So how’s your vagina doing?” This was not meant to be answered; it was a smug way of saying “You can’t get pregnant, so why should I listen to you?”

Here’s a question to ask in response: “Tell me, if I was a woman, would you then be willing to agree with me that abortion is wrong?” When they say no(which they will) simply follow up with another clarifying question “So why did you even bring up the fact that I’m a man, given you just told me it really doesn’t matter? Why not explain why you think I’m wrong, instead of just reminding me that I can’t get pregnant?”

It should be remembered this tactic is more appropriate for a Crusader type instead of an Inquirer. An Inquirer genuinely wants to know what you can possibly say about abortion if you can’t get pregnant; she deserves a direct answer [1]. The Crusader is looking for a fight; he needs to be defused before the conversation can begin to progress in a meaningful direction [2].

The Harder Questions

Lastly, it’s important to recognize what kind of a person we are engaging when it comes to the harder questions of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault, and pregnancy that brings life-threatening complications to mom. 

People deserve to be treated with truly genuine compassion, and more often than not, they raise the issue of sexual assault out of genuine compassion for women who find themselves in these circumstances. More importantly, on occasion the person who raises the question of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault is a survivor of sexual violence themselves. 

Unfortunately, there are some individuals who aren’t motivated by compassion when it comes to this issue. 

A few years ago I had an interaction which made this very clear. I was working my first job as a clerk in an amusement park ice cream stand. Things were slow, and a coworker decided it would be a great idea for us to talk about politics. Things went downhill from there:

Coworker: “So which political party do you support?” 

Me: “Well, I can’t support the Democratic party, because they support abortion.”

Coworker: “Oh? So you’re telling me if a woman is raped, you are okay with forcing her to keep the baby?” 

I was stunned into silence by the remark. Had I known then what I know now, I would not have let my coworker get away with this remark. He wasn’t looking for a conversation or an honest answer. He was looking for a way to win a fight.

My response should have been something like the following:

“Why did you ask me that? Before I tell you what I think, I want you to tell me something: Given the vast majority of abortions performed are not for pregnancies which result from sexual assault, do you oppose the abortions that aren’t performed for this reason?” 

If the answer is no (and it almost always is going to be) a follow-up question needs to be asked:

“So why did you bring it up in the first place? If you support abortion in other cases (or any case) then you need to defend it instead of hiding behind the case of sexual assault. Is that fair?” 

Again, it needs to be remembered this tactic is for Crusaders — people looking for a fight. The Inquirer is different. She wants to know if we are genuine in our sympathy to people who have been victimized by sexual violence. She deserves a gracious and thoughtful response to her concern. Given how many people have been victims of sexual violence, or know others who have been, we need to be gracious, respectful, and compassionate in how we explain our position on the topic. 

Some might think it’s too harsh to be this blunt. It’s not. When a Crusader raises the issue of rape so they can avoid having to address their own stance on the morality of abortion, what they are doing is exploiting the pain of rape victims for their own ends. There is nothing noble whatsoever in using someone else’s pain for our own personal advantage. This sort of behavior is inexcusable, and needs to be addressed. Depending on the context of your discussion, it may be helpful to say something like the following after you’ve exposed their actions:

“Listen, I think we can both agree anyone who experiences sexual abuse has suffered unjustly, and doesn’t need to have additional suffering added to it. But, do you think it’s fair to use the pain of someone else to justify doing whatever we want?”

What you’re doing by asking such a rhetorical question is firmly (yet graciously) stopping your opponent’s attack in his tracks. You haven’t even begun to explain why you think abortion is wrong. Instead, you can offer your opponent a chance to save face, and you should follow this question by giving an opportunity for him to fully explain his views to you. There’s nothing wrong with holding someone accountable for their boorish behavior, provided it’s done while showing respect for the other person’s dignity.

The same holds true for the issue of deaths from pregnancy-related complications. Very often the issue of women who will die if they give birth gets raised. After the recent abortion ban in Texas made headlines, a viral Facebook post began making the rounds, starting off with the title “I’m not pro-baby killing.” The post then goes on to list a whole host of heart-wrenching true stories of women who faced dire odds if they continued their pregnancies. 

Pro-lifers do agree with many of our critics: People in these circumstances deserve to have their situations addressed with sensitivity and respect. However, there is more to the issue.

The question of life-threatening conditions resulting from pregnancy is most often raised when the topic of late-term abortions comes up. A common assertion is that late-term abortions are only performed in circumstances involving a life-threatening condition.

Suppose we ask our critics the following: Would they support a ban on all abortions except for the clearly defined situations involving a threat to a mother’s life? 

An Inquirer, if they are being honest, will say yes. And some people do.

The Crusader, again, is using the above scenario as a smokescreen. He doesn’t want to address the issue of abortion itself, so he raises an emotionally complex issue in order to shift the focus away from his own position.

We need to get better at calling Crusaders out, and bringing the focus back to abortion. If abortion doesn’t intentionally kill an innocent human being, then it really doesn’t matter whatsoever the reason a person may choose to get one. If abortion does kill a fellow human being, then anyone who suggests abortion for a given scenario needs to be very sure they are being honest with themselves about their motivations.

Are We Looking For Explanations or Excuses?

There is an unfortunate tendency among pro-lifers to miss what lies beneath much of the hostility we receive from those who defend abortion. There is a common slogan which has made the rounds in pro-life circles, “No one is really pro-abortion.” Many well-meaning pro-lifers will repeat the slogan without so much as a second thought. Pro-lifers who do so are generally motivated by noble intentions, and genuinely want to see minds changed on the issue. 

That being said, having noble intentions does not exempt one from an obligation to seek truth. And the truth is that when it comes to the abortion debate, it’s not just the life of an unborn human being at stake. There’s often lifestyle choices at stake as well; choices which will inevitably become harder to justify if someone accepts abortion as wrong. It’s not surprising the rise of legal abortion coincided with the sexual revolution in the West. Abortion exists to support the sexual lifestyle choices of adults.

People tend to hold to a position on a topic for reasons other than intellectual ones. Support for abortion also tends to be both emotional and volitional. Pro-lifers must recognize and respond to each of these pillars. 

This means we need to tailor our responses to the kind person we are talking to. People are invariably complex, and tend to hold a host of reasons for why they will hold an issue. Pro-lifers should always strive to be gracious, but we shouldn’t be afraid of being blunt when the situation calls for it. Some people need a direct answer, rather than a roundabout one. 

Pro-lifers need to differentiate between questions asked seeking an explanation, and the questions asked seeking an excuse. People who ask questions in order to dismiss the claims of a pro-lifer as insensitive, cruel, stupid, or downright evil are not seeking an explanation. They’re looking for an excuse. 

Sometimes the best thing we can do is to call another person out. Tell them what we are seeing. Very often, people respect a candid answer. Telling a Crusader he needs to be honest with you about why he really wants to see abortion kept legal may be what it takes to turn him into an Inquirer, and may make him more willing to listen in the process. 

The abortion debate is more than an intellectual exercise. When the lives of fellow human beings are on the line, focusing all our energy on making friends with those who want to kill them is a mistake that will prove fatal. 

Notes

[1] And we absolutely can answer it. Sure, men can’t get pregnant, but that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of discerning right from wrong when it comes to abortion. People who have never been married and who have never had children are still fully capable of recognizing you shouldn’t abuse your spouse or your children. Some things are obviously wrong, regardless of our personal connections to them. 

[2] A humorous incident occurred one time during a campus outreach that demonstrated the slogan is just a smokescreen and not meant as a serious challenge to the pro-life position. A group of protestors had assembled on the campus quad across from us, chanting “No uterus, no opinion” and holding signs that said the same. It took about half the day before they realized there were women participating in the outreach with us, at which point they changed their signs to read “Mind your own uterus” and dropped the gender attack.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.