In 2014/2015, I somehow ended up chairing a college gender equality society. In doing so, I spent a year as a ‘secret’ pro-life feminist – who’d only come to that position after taking up the role – amongst a group of very smart, idealistic, and compassionate pro-choice feminists (the secrecy was entirely my fault, I’m a wimp).
During Freshers’ Week that year, I tried doing what I thought would be the most important part of the job – trying to win people who disagreed with me over to the feminist cause. One thing I noticed quickly was that at lot of ‘gotcha’ objections had something in common: “So if you’re interested in ‘equality’, why don’t you do anything about men’s rights?” (We have done at least one event on this a year actually!) ‘Why don’t you do events on the Middle East?” (We just did one.) ‘”Why are all you western feminists being culturally imperialist doing events on the middle-east in a pitying superior way without talking to women from the Middle East? (Our event on Iran consisted of a screening of Persepolis followed by a talk by an Iranian academic!)
The point of all this, is a general one: if you’re part of a movement that people have negative impressions of, these impressions can be quite difficult to dispel. People accuse you of things without checking that you’ve actually done them. A portion of those people will probably continue to believe that you are guilty of these things, even if you tell them they’re wrong. Winning them over can be a bit like convincing someone ghosts exists if they think you’re a crazy guy who believes in ghosts. ‘But there is a ghost in my house actually’ doesn’t cut it. You pretty much have to physically drag them over to the ghost. Seeing might not even be enough. Sometimes it feels like you have to do the equivalent of actually introducing them to, and making them shake hands with the ghost to get them to really believe you. It’s not easy.
This is sometimes what it’s like trying to convince people feminism isn’t some hypocritical, self-centred movement for rich western women. It’s also what it can be like for pro-life feminists trying to win over our pro-choice counter parts – there are some pretty common ideas that people will believe about you without necessarily having any good reason to do so: that you are motivated by paternalistic concerns and don’t trust women to be make their own decisions, that you are not genuine and just cynically using the feminist label as a talking point etc.
So I’d like to focus on something more specific. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to win over pro-choice feminists like the people I was on the committee with: how to win back the mainstream feminist movement and win over pro-choice feminists given that trying to do so can often be much like telling a ghost doubter you’ve seen a ghost.* Sometimes, because of the ghost doubter phenomenon, great points just aren’t convincing. Here are some ideas and tactics I think could help counter that.
1) Use pro-choice sources to back up your arguments. If you are talking about how the aftermath of abortion can often be difficult for women, or how women are sometimes pressured into abortions by male partners, and workplaces that expect women’s bodies to accommodate them rather than the other way around, try to start off by using pro-choice resources like 1-in-3 (a pro-choice website where women post their abortion stories anonymously). Pro-life websites aren’t credible sources here – it’s like backing up your claim about the ghost using testimony from the strange kid at school who set up a ‘ghost appreciation society’. Of course, pro-choice sources can take you only so far, but if you aren’t using a pro-choice source, try to use a neutral one instead, such as the NHS or Wikipedia, even if they gloss over some of the details.
2) Speak their ‘language’ (equal rights, discrimination, ableism, prejudice, dehumanisation!). The pro-choice stance of saying that some human’s rights are dependent on their value to other people, or their physical and mental capacities is not usual feminist rhetoric! Emphasise the fact that a pro-life culture requires a huge cultural shift, a revolution. You don’t want to return to the 1950s – like them you want a new, better world. Make sure they know this. This isn’t a culture war between them and you – you share a lot of values.
3) Emphasising the women’s welfare is important BUT the crucial issue at stake is that this is a human rights issue for humans who aren’t born yet. The worst thing about abortion is that it kills. It is awful that some (not all) women regret abortions they were pressured into, or got when they thought they had no other options, but the reason abortion is wrong, is not that women regret it or are hurt by it – make this very clear. I have been at a debate on abortion where a very large chunk of the Q&A was about the number of women who regret abortions. One person said ‘shouldn’t women be allowed to make their own mistakes even if they regret them’. This was a reasonable reaction because from his point of view, abortion is not the killing of a human being like us. Unless you bring it back to that to the fact that this is a human rights abuse, it will look a little like you are just saying ‘we need to protect all these poor silly women from themselves’. Which is of course not what you are saying.
4) Women are moral agents who are just as capable of making decisions as men. Make sure they know that you know that! Be careful about making general statements that focus too much on women who are victims or who are hurt, without going into the structures that put them into those situations or bringing up any suggestions as to how to help them – that is what they expect you to do…Because of background assumptions to the contrary, you really want to show that you know these are rational adults who are placed in difficult situations (except when they aren’t adults) – not little girls who are too silly to understand what’s at stake.
5) Acknowledge that there are cases where being pregnant is incredibly tough, and if women don’t get an abortion they will be making sacrifices to continue with the pregnancy and this is unfair. You don’t need to minimise the real suffering carrying pregnancies to term can sometimes involve to make your point. If you are talking to someone who is well versed in pro-choice feminism, and you never address this, you may not really deal with their main concern and you might end up talking past each other. If you do bring it up, talking about ways in which some of these unfair structures (like say the lack of support for student parents) can be changed is a great way to find common ground.
6) Don’t let them get away with saying opposing late term abortions, or ‘abortion on demand’ is misogynistic or to do with a mistrust in women, a ‘belief that women will just get abortions like sandwiches.’ Just say that women get late term abortions because they end up in situations that are genuinely difficult (and give examples or think of reasons, as usual using neutral or pro-choice resources when possible). They happen and we all know they do. But this is still a human rights abuse.
7) Just call them what they want to be called. There’s enough to disagree about without getting into who’s the ‘real feminist’, spotting ‘fauxfeminists’, and calling each other ‘anti-choicers’, or ‘pro-aborts’. This is a complete waste of time and it just antagonizes people.
8) Assume the best of them. If they’re angry and defensive, there may well be a good reason. They might be personally affected or know someone who is. Maybe a family member has an abortion, or they did, or a friend did.
9) Go to feminist events (if you have the time). Don’t say you care. Prove it to them.
10) Acknowledge mistakes. I find that if you actually get caught out on making a mistake and acknowledge it, it makes people much more likely to do the same to you. Besides, they might have ghosts of their own to show you.
*By the way this is merely an analogy, I don’t believe in ghosts, or mean that people who are the ghost doubters in this analogy are irrational or silly.
Ciara was a student at Trinity College Dublin where she was a Gender Equality Society committee member for two years (2013-2015).