“You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” said Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. “And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
The recent “fetal parts” video provides an excellent example of Emanuel’s point. The public’s reaction to the video is a “crisis” for Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice cause. But it provides an opportunity for pro-lifers to do things we could not do before. One thing it helps us to do is to have an honest discussion about the act of abortion.
Unfortunately, this crisis will go to waste if we are not able to engage in conversations that advance the cause of life with those who disagree with us. If we come across as obnoxious or partisan or strident then even those on the pro-choice side who are disturbed by the video will dismiss our concerns. However, there are a few things we can do that can help us to engage more productively.
The following are a few rhetorical suggestions for how to engage in a discussion about the video and the issues it raises. While you may not agree with all of my recommendations, I hope that by reflecting on them you’ll come up with your own strategy for having effective conversations with your pro-choice friends.
Focus on one area of concern — Though certain abortion clinics may be engaged in an illegal form of fetal organ selling, what is described in the video is likely to be broadly legal. One of the concerns of the pro-life movement is to make it completely illegal to sell the parts of aborted children. That is certainly an issue that we want to advance through the legislative process. When talking to our pro-choice friends, though, we mainly want to use the organ-selling as the point of entry to engage in a broader discussion of the morality of second- and third- trimester abortions. Try to avoid getting bogged down in a political discussion about whether the parts selling should be illegal and focus instead on the morality of the act and how it relates to abortion in general.
Ask probing questions — One of the most effective tools for pro-life apologetics is the probing question. Asking probing questions gives you the ability to advance the conversation without being combative or strident. On this issue, many people already have an instinctual understanding of the ethical problem and how it conflicts with their own values and morality. By the use of questions you can often get them to uncover the reality of the issue. Here is an example of a series of questions you could ask:
“What would you call the product of an abortion? What is it that is extracted?”
If they give a reply such as a “clump of cells” you can follow-up with. . .
“But if it’s merely a clump of cells, how do they extract ‘hearts’ and ‘livers’? They are hearts and livers and other organs, aren’t they?”
Once they concede that point, ask them “What type of organs are they? Would you say that they are human organ?”
At this point your interlocutor is likely to see where this is headed and confirm that they are human organs, but that the fetus is not a person. A good follow-up is to inquire, “What other type of non-human persons are there?
This method doesn’t always work, of course. But it can be highly effective when dealing with people who want to grapple honestly with the issue.
Avoid euphemisms, but don’t get bogged down in a language debate — The abortion debate is flush with euphemisms that attempt to either frame the issue politically (pro-choice, pro-life) or obscure what is going on during the procedure (dilation and extraction, product of conception, etc.). Whenever possible, try to avoid letting people use such euphemisms in the discussion. Ask them if they’ll agree to use non-loaded, non-euphemistic terms to avoid misunderstandings.
Your conversation partner will most likely balk, though, at the use of some terms they consider to be euphemistic. For example, you will want to refer to the unborn in the womb as a “baby” while they may prefer the more technical sounding “fetus.” Politely point out that fetus is merely the Latin term for “bringing forth offspring” and that while you are using different terms they mean the same thing. Say that you agree it’s fine to use baby/fetus interchangeably as long as they agree to refer to the body parts as human parts (e.g., the human limbs, human livers, human hearts). By reinforcing the use of the term “human” it helps to maintain the moral horror of abortion.
Ultimately, though, don’t let a debate about the language prevent you from moving on to an actual discussion of the issue itself.
Don’t change the narrative — Soon after the video started gaining attention, many concerned pro-lifers started to question why the national media was not covering the story. This has been a perennial criticism those of us in the pro-life movement have had about media coverage, and it was natural that it would be raised again after this incident. However, I think this is a tactical mistake. When we change the focus from the “selling of fetal body parts” to “the media is failing to cover a story about the selling of fetal body parts” we subtly shift the issue from a broadly shared moral concern to a politically charged debate about media bias.
Yes, we should be concerned about how the media covers such issues. But we can save those criticisms for later, after the core narrative of the story has already been deeply embedded into the American psyche. Fortunately, we no longer need the media to get the story out. We have the tools (e.g., social media, blogs) to inform our neighbors about the atrocity. By sticking to the primary narrative, we can make sure the story is presented accurately and without the filter of the national media.
Concede trivial aspects of the story — Just as you don’t want to derail the debate by changing the narrative, you don’t want to get bogged down on matters that are not pertinent to the pro-life points you want to make. A prime example is the claim about whether the video engages in deceptive editing. Even if you don’t agree, you can concede that it may very well be deceptive and ask that the focus stay on the words spoken by the representative from Planned Parenthood. You can even refer to the full transcript to avoid the video altogether.
Don’t expect too much, and don’t overreach — If the discussion goes well you may be able to get an agreement that since the selling of human body parts is gruesome and should be illegal, then the action that entails butchering a living human body to obtain those parts is also gruesome and should also be illegal. If your conversation partner, who was previously committed to accepting all abortion, agrees with this conclusion, they may be willing to concede that second and third trimester abortions should be illegal.
At this point, you will be tempted to press the pro-life logic to gain even greater concessions. If killing a child at 18 weeks is wrong, why should it be allowed at 8 weeks? Shouldn't all abortion be illegal? Your thinking is correct—but it requires a level of rationality that most people tend to avoid. While some people’s minds can be changed in one discussion, most people need to be moved in increments toward a full pro-life perspective.
Give them to time to let the implications of their newly adopted position sink in and grow roots. By trying to press them to adopt the complete logic of the pro-life cause at one time they may shut down completely.
Know when to stop — When you get a significant concession, use it as a firm stopping point. The only people who want to keep arguing are typically those whose minds are least likely to be changed. Show a genuine appreciation for their concession and reinforce it by thanking them for having a discussion in which a level of agreement could be found. If the experience was both productive and affirming, they will be more likely in the future to engage with you in similar moral discussions.
You may not talk your friend out of their pro-choice convictions. But if enough of us have these conversations, we may just be able to move our neighbors in a pro-life direction.