“But I have a right to my body. You cannot tell someone what to do with their body.” I was sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic, and a young woman had come out to talk to me and two other people I was with. It was initially a contentious conversation that lasted for two hours outside the clinic. I stepped into the exchange and said, “I think the right to your body is important, and I think your thoughts on this issue really matter.”
During the course of the conversation, I was able to get her number and asked to meet her for coffee later so we could talk privately. After that private conversation, we have continued to regularly meet, and we’ve established a good friendship for which I am deeply grateful.
It was through Justice For All that I learned how to have a different kind of conversation about abortion. And it has been in actual conversations with pro-choice people that I’ve come to understand just how important these dialogue skills are. Since 2019, I’ve been working with Justice For All, and we train people to “Love 3”: the woman experiencing the unplanned pregnancy, the unborn child whose very life is at stake, and the person with whom we are speaking. We teach people to listen to understand, ask questions to draw out and clarify another person’s view, and find common ground whenever we can.
Listening well shows the person that you see them, that what they are saying matters, and that what they experience matters. It shows them we care about their life.
Asking good questions shows we want to understand people better. It shows a desire to enter into the story they are telling.
Finding common ground shows we are not all that different in some respects. We all deeply desire community and love; we want to be accepted, heard, and protected.
When we use these skills in conversations with genuine interest and care for another human being, it opens doors to bear another person’s burdens. And that is a gift because we weren’t meant to carry our pain alone.
As I’ve spent hours in conversation with my pro-choice friend, I’ve been reminded many times how important it is to not miss the story and experiences behind people’s pro-choice beliefs. I’ve been reminded how important it is that our conversations be places where there is grace, patience, and compassion while the truth is being shared.
The events, circumstances, and personal experiences that influence people’s views on abortion are deep, complex, sometimes rooted in trauma and other very painful experiences, and are held onto because changing their view means relinquishing some aspect of control over something intensely personal: their body. Understanding that should lead us to be careful with how we communicate about abortion in general.
Here are a few things I’ve learned that you can put into practice today:
1. Listen carefully to the stories.
One of “three essential skills” for good dialogue we teach at Justice For All is listening to understand. We all have backgrounds with certain events in our lives that affect the way we view the world. While I don’t believe these experiences justify abortion, I do think these experiences are important and should not be shoved to the side in the process of making the case against legal abortion. A sensitivity to the pain of others should be integrated with the communication of truth. Take time to sit with them in their story.
2. Be willing to go slow.
When I met with my friend for the first time at a coffee shop, I listened to her story for about three hours. Based on how the first conversation outside the abortion clinic went, I knew it was paramount that I first listen to her story and understand why she believes what she does about abortion. As much as I care for the lives of unborn children, I also care about the lives of the people I speak to. When you have conversations with those who disagree, it can be tempting to immediately respond to things they say that you believe are incorrect. While there is a place for that, don’t be in a hurry to address everything they say. If the only thing you do is respond to arguments or statements they make and try to show how they are wrong, the person will feel like you don’t care about them, their experiences, their pain, and their story. And that would be a great mistake because those things matter immensely. I wouldn’t want to spend much time with someone who can do nothing but contradict things I’ve said.
3. Be willing to talk about things other than abortion.
While making the case for why the unborn have an equal right to life is something we must do, there comes a time when it’s wise to step back and talk about something else. You can make all the arguments and present the clearest case for why abortion should be illegal, and many times that is not going to change the person’s mind – at least not on the spot. So much of our conversations are about putting a stone in someone’s shoe – planting an idea in their mind. It’s not just a matter of intellectual argumentation. While knowing the arguments and studying philosophy is important, it’s crucial that in the process of knowing and communicating these things, we don’t unintentionally act like we don’t care about the person we are speaking to.
I anticipate some pro-life people thinking I am backing down from making the case against abortion. That I’m too focused on the pro-choice person at the detriment of the unborn child’s life. That I’ve lost sight of the gravity of abortion and what it does to children. I sympathize with this line of thought as I know it comes from a heart yearning to see unborn babies protected. I share that desire. To this, I would say there is a misunderstanding of what I am communicating here. I absolutely have not lost sight of the gravity of this issue. I think it’s a mistake to believe that if you take the time to understand pro-choice people that somehow I am relinquishing my responsibility to defend unborn children who are killed every day.
Conversations about abortion are complicated emotionally and psychologically. Morally, the issue is incredibly simple in that there is one question, – what is the unborn? – on which much of the debate hinges. In order to help people see the moral simplicity of this issue, we have to tread carefully in the emotional and psychological areas that will inevitably surface while discussing the moral aspect of abortion. If we do not tread lightly, then we will end up trampling on deeply sensitive, painful experiences and damaging our ability to reach the heart of the person with the truth they so desperately need.
The way to save unborn children is to reach the hearts of people who currently have the legal power to kill them. The unborn cannot hear you; the pro-choice people around us can.