A couple of notes: first, this is not a general ‘how to have good conversations about abortion’ guide: that is, we hope, the full website. It’s a very specific piece talking about how your approach should change in different types of conversation about abortion.
Second, this is a post primarily aimed at pro-life readers. But we’d welcome feedback from pro-choice readers – what kinds of conversation about abortion do you find most constructive?
Part of having better conversations about abortion is knowing what kind of conversation you are actually having. It’s not that there’s a magic formula, ‘One weird trick to changing people’s minds on human rights questions’. Rather, there are all sorts of different ways that people can end up discussing the issue. In order to handle those conversations well, it helps to be able to recognise what kind of conversation you’re involved in.
There are of course as many kinds of conversation about abortion as there are combinations of people, but there are some commonalities that justify a rough categorisation into three groupings: three broad categories of conversation that each require a different approach. Without further ado, let’s examine them.
1. Undermining Stereotypes (‘I’m pro life and I’m not a monster.’)
This is often the first sort of conversation you have about abortion with someone who has either very little experience talking to pro-lifers, or even overwhelmingly negative experiences. The number of pro-choice people who fall into these categories is large.
Sometimes people will be up for having a more substantial chat about abortion immediately, but more often you’ll need to do some preparing of the ground. You’ll need to show the person you’re talking to that you’re a reasonable person, whose viewpoints are actually worth listening to and even engaging with.
This type of conversation is also often what you’re aiming for if you’re in a large group, or on social media talking to people you actually know.
In this sort of conversation you’re only trying to do two things.
a. Let people know you’re pro-life, and not a terrible person.
This part is pretty straightforward. The topic comes up and you say something like, ‘I’d be of that view myself: pre-born children are humans and I believe in universal human rights’. The main thing here is to avoid playing into any stereotypes that people might have in their heads about pro-lifers. Don’t be afraid to let the person you’re talking to know how much common ground you have on other issues.
And for the love of all that’s good, don’t say anything unpleasant or cruel (check out our Pro-life Pledge for examples of what not to do during these conversations). If you feel like the injustice of abortion makes you so angry that you can’t conduct yourself in a calm and friendly way during a conversation about it, you’re probably not the best person to discuss it with people who don’t already agree with you.
b. Avoid closing off opportunities for future conversations.
One common pitfall for pro-lifers is to think that obtaining a minimal level of respect for us and our views is the most important thing. Once you say you’re pro-life, pehaps by challenging a negative stereotype of the form ‘all pro-lifers are x’, you’ve done your bit. If after that people avoid making those kinds of comments again, and generally treat you with respect, that’s a win: you’ve shown that pro-lifers are human beings not monsters.
Achieving this first step is certainly better than being completely silent. But the aim of the pro-life movement is not to get people to be nice to pro-lifers. It’s to change people’s minds about universal human dignity and the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
Unfortunately, if you just say, ‘I’m pro-life, I’m not like your stereotype, please treat me with respect’, one effect that can have is that people can just stop raising the issue around you entirely. They might not hold your views against you anymore: but what they’re thinking is something like, ‘Ben has weird/stupid/bad views on this question, but he’s still a nice guy’. They won’t demonise you: they just won’t talk about abortion around you at all. This closes them off to an opportunity to change their minds almost as effectively as if they never spoke to a pro-lifer at all.
If you want to avoid this, try saying something like, ‘For what it’s worth, I’d be very up for talking about this in the future if you ever want to chat over the issue. I’d be very up for listening to what you have to say and happy to explain how I think about it’. Not everyone will take you up on this: but you’ve left the door open, and made it clear that what you’re concerned about is the issue of justice at hand, not people being mean to you or other pro-lifers.
What if someone does take you up on the offer, or you raise the issue again yourself at another appropriate point? That takes us to the second kind of conversation.
2. The Introduction (‘Here’s another way to think about this.’)
This is a substantially more involved sort of conversation than the first one, but it doesn’t need to last a massively long time. You might have this kind of conversation if you’re in a group setting and people are genuinely up for talking a bit about abortion, but most of them aren’t familiar with the strongest version of the pro-life case (remember, most people aren’t).
Or you might have this kind of conversation one to one if someone’s expressed interest in talking about the issue, maybe via email or direct messages, but you’re not sure if they’re up for a long conversation. This kind of conversation is probably the most you’ll ever be able to achieve over public social media as well. In some online contexts it’s worth going to this sort of conversation before the first one: for example, if there’s an existing conversation about abortion going on between people and you think the pro-life side is making a simplistic or bad version of the arguments.
What you want to do here is to introduce people to some of the main arguments for the anti-abortion position. You can quickly explain the Equal Rights Argument for the equal moral status of pre-born children. Or if they are mostly pro-choice because of bodily rights arguments, you can quickly outline the conjoined twins counterexample.
What you are doing here is planting seeds. You’re not trying to change a person’s mind on the spot: you’re trying to get them to say, ‘Hmm, haven’t thought about it that way before’.
You’re mostly making people aware that reasonable arguments for the pro-life side exist – not necessarily trying to persuade them to adopt them (yet). If you leave the other person thinking, ‘The arguments against abortion are stronger than I thought’, you’ve done your job.
Feel free to let the conversation end, but extend an offer to pick it up again later (if you’re online, offer to DM or email if the person’s interested in continuing: our friends at the Equal Rights Institute have a really interesting recent survey suggesting that the further these conversations are from performative public debate, and the closer they are to face-to-face chats, the more likely to change minds they will be).
Another key part of this kind of conversation – indeed, of any conversation about abortion – is listening. You’re interested in a genuine conversation, so actually pay attention to what the other person is saying. Listen closely to why they are pro-choice or undecided: it’s almost always because they care about many of the same things that you do. You two may have come to drastically different conclusions about abortion, but it’s almost always best to assume that you’re both trying to do what’s right and find the truth in good faith. Figure out what they think the strongest arguments are, and respond to those arguments – not to your idea of what a pro-choice person would, or should, say. Above all, treat the person you’re speaking to with respect.
3. Everything on the Table (‘I really think you should change your mind, and here’s why’.)
This kind of conversation is best in person, one to one or in a pretty small group. It can sometimes be productively done over email, but that’s about as far as you can go. You should basically never attempt this kind of conversation on a public Facebook comment thread or on Twitter.
This is when you’ll delve into the details of the arguments for and against the moral or legal right to have an abortion. You’ll figure out what exactly your conversation partner’s deepest objections are to the anti-abortion position, and you’ll try to make the best case you can for the equal-rights-for-all-humans position.
This is meat-and-potatoes of conversations about abortion. It’s where most minds actually change. Most of the tips we write about on the website apply to this conversation.
I can’t go into much depth about how to conduct these conversations in a single post (that’s what much of the blog aims to do). But two notes:
First, it’s still very unlikely that they’ll change their mind during the course of one conversation. You should be aware of the strong possibility that you’ll return to the conversation on another occasion. Most people change their minds about abortion – indeed, about any issue – in the course of some sort of ongoing respectful relationship with another person, even if that’s just a series of conversations. Don’t jeopardise that relationship. You’re trying to have a real conversation, not to close a sale.
Second, everything about listening and respect applies here even more. If someone gets angry or upset in a conversation like this, it’s often usually because they perceive you to be attacking something or someone that they deeply care about.
People are often deeply committed to their position on abortion, and sometimes have personal reasons for this. In these situations, ‘first do no harm’ is good advice: if someone shares a difficult personal experience, just be a decent person and express your sympathy. And don’t plough on with the argument if they clearly don’t want to continue it. You’ll normally be able to discuss abortion again another time, but that person will never forget if a pro-life person responds cruelly or insensitively.
It’s equally important to note that people often get annoyed or frustrated with pro-lifers for reasons other than direct personal experience. They might just care a lot about the equality of women or about people in vulnerable situations, which, I hope, you do too. Your job in this case is to try to convince them that being pro-life is compatible with the value they’re trying to defend. Again, listen to them, don’t force them to continue a conversation they want to end, be respectful, and remember that the goal is to persuade people, not ‘own’ them! .
Again, this list is by no means exhaustive. But it’s an introduction to some common types of conversation about abortion, and I hope it can be useful in figuring out what it is that you’re trying to achieve when you talk to people about abortion.