How to Engage the Abortion Debate (Without Making Everything Worse)

 

If you follow my blog, you may recall that I went to a Catholic university where actually adhering to Catholic beliefs was practically a sin. (“You can’t trust the Church! It’s social suicide!” – Janice Ian, sort of.) If there’s anything that my not-so-Catholic university taught me, it was how to defend myself logically, respectfully, and thoroughly in the face of heated attacks and furious classmates. It taught me to give respect when it wasn’t reciprocated, how to stand my ground when I felt totally alone, and that really taking the time to understand what’s happening in the heads and hearts of the opposition can be the difference between a constructive, valuable debate and a friendship-ending fiasco that hurts everyone.

jedi-vs-droid

What it felt like being a practicing Catholic at my “Catholic” university.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I’d like to think my $160,000 collegiate lesson is worth something (besides a lifetime of scrolling through realty websites looking at the properties I could have purchased with the money I’ll never earn back), especially at a time when the abortion debate has been so fiercely fanned in an already divided and volatile country.

Just so we’re all on the same page to start, I few things I’d like to clarify:

  1. I’m a pro-lifer coming from an orthodox Catholic perspective and as such, I’m writing this article to fellow pro-life advocates who find themselves talking past the pro-choice opposition. However, many of these points could be flipped to suggest ways that pro-choice advocates can avoid talking past the pro-life opposition.
  2. I really hate using the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” as it seems very few people actually find those terms satisfactory, and such labels tend to contribute to a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality. However, if I took this time to unpack those terms and provide alternatives, this would turn into a dissertation and I’d never get to my point. So, for the sake of simplicity, I begrudgingly use “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” and I hope the reader is understanding and cognizant of my hesitancy.
  3. This article is simply about striving to understand those with whom we may disagree. As such, I will not be refuting any of the pro-choice arguments I lay out. Perhaps I’ll pen an article with refutations in the future, but that is not my goal here. We must learn to understand each other before we can engage each other.
  4. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it’s intended as a starting point for creating real dialogue. As people on both sides who believe the abortion debate has real moral consequences and thus requires defense at a minimum and an attempt to convince if at all possible, the cause is lost if we cannot so much as connect with the opposition. So long as we are working on completely different levels, we can only talk past each other. Until we can understand where others are coming from, we can never hope to truly defend our own position, much less convince anyone. To ensure that I was providing real connections, I reached out to some of my pro-choice friends and asked, “What do you wish pro-lifers knew about your beliefs?” The answers helped shape the tips listed below.

Pro-choicers are not Satan. Stop treating them like it.

Pro-choicers are people and they are loved and cherished by God, just like everyone else. While it’s true that an argument could be made that Satan is behind the prominence of abortions, it does not logically follow that we are debating Satan himself. Please stop treating pro-lifers like evil incarnate. Just like we don’t have everything figured out (no really, you don’t), neither do they. If we truly believe they’re facilitating moral evil, we are morally obligated to call them out on it. But there are loving ways to do so and there are unloving, ineffective ways to do so. Pounding out “BABY KILLER HOW CAN YOU SAY YOU LOVE YOUR CHILDREN” on the keyboard in all caps with several select emoji’s does not count as loving. (Nor is it accurate. Speaking of…)

Many pro-choicers hate abortion as much as pro-lifers.

I know that sounds backwards, but if we want to truly connect, we need to understand this: Many pro-choicers themselves do not believe that abortion is the best (or even a good) option, and many insist that they wouldn’t choose it for themselves. So how are they pro-choice? Exactly what the label implies: they are proponents of allowing others—who may believe abortion is a good option—to have access to such procedures.

Coming from the belief that abortion is murder, this seems like an impossible position to hold in good conscience. (Allow someone to do something objectively wrong simply because they don’t believe that it’s wrong?! Outrageous!) Maybe so. But, at this moment, the objective is to listen and note logical or moral discrepancies, not to debate. The objective is not to look at this and say, “That makes no sense!” but instead to see that such a position stems from a real desire to protect those who hold different beliefs.  And through this, we can see that pro-choicers really do care about others, even if pro-lifers take issue with the particular way that care manifests itself. The time for listening is now. The time for logical and moral assessment and debate will come later.

Before saying anything else, explicitly state that there’s more to this than the birth canal.

More and more lately, people have been acknowledging  a very important point: the “consistent life ethic” that pro-lifers profess doesn’t say “from conception until natural birth.”

Pro-life is equated with “babies” so often that people think that’s all pro-lifers care about. We fight ardently for every baby to be born, no matter the circumstances, but then many pro-lifers are the same people who appear to oppose welfare, national healthcare, and other programs intended to help those in the very same poor circumstances. This earns us the reputation of “inconsistent” at best and “pro-birth” at worst.

But the reality is that most of those pro-lifers aren’t actually opposed to welfare itself, but rather they’re dissatisfied with the particular form of welfare/healthcare/whatever currently in use. They believe that these programs are broken and in desperate need of fixing or replacing to truly be effective.

The reality is that many pro-lifers do support programs that offer care to both mom and child for for the duration of both lives. The reality is that many pro-lifers do want to find ways to provide help to the unfortunate, provide better support to parents, and much more, they just don’t always believe the government does an acceptable job of executing that task. The reality is that pro-lifers are opposed to assisted suicide, the death penalty, unjust war, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and many other issues that are related to “protecting all life from conception to natural death.”

The problem is that no one ever hears about these things. It is because of these misconceptions that our support of “post-partum” issues must be explicitly stated. Doing so establishes common ground and makes it clear that—while the two sides have different ideas of how to accomplish it (government programs/private charities, give the child life/don’t expose it to those circumstances etc.)—the goal for pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike really is the best interest of mother and child.

(Note on “consistent life ethic:” Especially in pro-life circles, the term “conception” is synonymous with “fertilization.” Be on the look out for a future post explaining why that is.)

 

Listen to learn, don’t listen to respond.

I seriously cannot emphasize this point enough: nothing will come of our efforts until we really try to understand each other. Understanding is how constructive debates begin. Accusation is how arguments begin.

First, listen to—really consider—what the other person has to say. This doesn’t mean agree; rather, it means to try to put oneself in the other person’s mind and understand where they’re coming from. If something about their logic is confusing, we must ask for clarification calmly and respectfully.

Then, verify that this understanding matches their message. A good way to phrase such things is, “I’m understanding you to mean ______. Is that correct?” If so, the person will say so. If not, keep working calmly to understand their message as completely as possible. This means asking unbiased questions (Example: “Can you explain your position on rape situations again?” not “So you think rape babies don’t matter?”) and not feeding into personal attacks if the other person isn’t being as respectful. (Example: If they say, “Rape victims have a right to abort because I’m not a heartless fetus-lover like you,” just let it go. The mission at this moment is not self-defense. Politely call out their personal attack and request that they be more respectful in the future, sure, but don’t allow the discussion to get off-track by writing a dissertation about the inconsistencies of the phrase “heartless fetus-lover.”)

Finally after—and only after—a mutual understanding is established, calmly engage the debate by saying, “Got it. Here is where I believe you’re mistaken…” or “I don’t believe ____ has been accounted for.” Notice the debate is about the topic not about the person being engaged.

And when you do respond, be reasonable.

In a world that has all but abandoned logic classes, it’s not surprising that most debates (especially on the Internet) are riddled with fallacies and consequently go nowhere. Here are a two common fallacies and examples of their use in the pro-life :

  • Red Herring – Using an irrelelvant argument to distract the debate.
    • Example: “Abortions are wrong because they end innocent lives. One of the millions of babies aborted since Roe v. Wade could have been the one to cure cancer.”
    • Why it’s a fallacy: While it’s possible that someone capable of finding the cure to cancer could be among those aborted, that has nothing to do with the original topic. The original claim was that innocent lives are being ended, and the debate is about whether or not that claim is true. Curing cancer—the potential of those innocent lives—is great, but it’s not relevant.
    • How to avoid it: Check that every claim goes back to the original topic. If something doesn’t, either reword it so that it’s more direct, or take it out.
  • Ad hominem – Attacking the person rather than the argument
    • Example: “Abortion supporters really hate moms and babies.”
    • Why it’s a fallacy: Just because someone supports the availability of abortion doesn’t mean they hate moms or babies. That would be like saying that because someone has a lock on their bedroom door, they want to live in eternal isolation. One simply doesn’t follow from the other.
    • How to avoid it: Stay on topic. If abortion harms moms and babies, say that. An abortion and an abortion supporter are not the same. Remember the opponent is a human and deserves respect, even if emotions are very, very high.

Of course, there are many, many more examples of fallacies in pro-life defenses (as well as pro-choice defenses). It would be in everyone’s best interest to study logic so that we can hone our discussions and make our debates worth our time.

 …

After more than 50 years of debate, abortion seems to be this insurmountable issue that has—and continues to—tear people apart. While there is certainly no quick or easy fix to such an intense and emotional subject, it doesn’t have to be nearly as polarizing as it is. If we can at least make a connection and strive to understand each other, even if we don’t agree, we’ll be far better off than we’ve been in a lifetime.

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