There’s a cafe near where I live that does the best vegetarian sausage rolls ever. They taste exactly like a regular sausage roll. In fact, you’d never know that they don’t contain any meat at all. A friend of mine, we’ll call her Emma, is a vegetarian, but I would never recommend to her that she try these sausage rolls. That’s because the main reason Emma is a vegetarian is because she simply doesn’t like meat. She doesn’t enjoy the taste or the texture of meat, and so she definitely wouldn’t enjoy these sausage rolls. Other vegetarians might, though. Not liking meat is only one reason someone might become a vegetarian. Some people avoid meat for religious reasons. Others are concerned about animal cruelty. Others are concerned about the environmental impacts of meat, and others simply find it quicker and easier to prepare vegetarian meals. Their reasons for being vegetarian vary widely. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they don’t eat meat.
Let’s imagine for a second that I’d never met Emma, or any vegetarians at all. Let’s say that the only vegetarians I knew were spokespeople for animal rights activist groups that I’d seen in the media. They’re passionate about what they do (otherwise they wouldn’t be activists), they seem to speak about nothing but vegetarianism (because the media are hardly likely to ask them about anything else), and come across as basically obsessed with vegetarianism (because they only have ninety seconds to speak and they have to rush to say everything about vegetarianism that they want to say). In that case, if I bumped into someone who turned out to be vegetarian, I might immediately assume they’re the same. I might think that they were some sort of zealot who is obsessed with animal rights, who judges anyone who eats meat, and who has nothing to say that’s not directly and explicitly linked to their activism. If the only thing I know about them is that they are vegetarian, and the only vegetarians I know of are obsessed zealots, I’m going to immediately assume that this vegetarian I just met is an obsessed zealot. I have no other information to work off.
The same thing applies to any debate that has two clearly marked sides, like abortion. Those of us in the pro-life movement have all come across pro-choice people who think that pro-life people are evil and manipulative, that we repeatedly lie, that we don’t care if women die, and that we have a sordid desire to control women’s bodies. The reason we have all come across these pro-choice people is simple: the internet. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and the like have allowed us to immediately screenshot and forward the most egregious examples of pro-choice people saying incredibly untrue and hurtful things about us to all our followers. We have private Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups and forums where we have a captive audience ready to express outrage at the genuinely outrageous things that are said about us, the lies that are spread about us, and the horrible ways in which our words and actions are twisted to imply that we say and think things that actually abhor us. But – and here’s the clincher – so do the other side.
There are nearly eight billion people in the world. Like it or not, at least a few of them have both a Twitter account and a sordid desire to control women’s bodies. There are anti-abortion people with disgusting views, just as there are pro-choice people with disgusting views. They broadcast those views to the world and pro-choice people find them and forward those views to their ardent pro-choice circles. I don’t know these unpleasant pro-life people. I’m thankful that they represent a tiny minority of those who oppose abortion. I’m delighted that the pro-life people I know aren’t interested in shaming or punishing women, and are instead advocating for feminism and equality, supporting the families of children in hospital, and looking for ways to assist women and their families through crisis pregnancy. However, if pro-choice people have never met the pro-life people I know, if the only pro-life people they have encountered are crazy zealots highlighted by the media or in their Twitter feed, then I can’t really blame them for assuming that we’re all evil scum (just as I couldn’t really blame someone who’d never met my friend Emma of being ignorant of the fact that some vegetarians simply don’t like meat).
What can we do about all this? We here at the Minimise Project believe that (particularly because of the hostile media and social media climate that we face) we need to make a strong and conscious commitment to having the first type of conversation outlined in this post: “I’m pro-life and I’m not a monster”. As Ben said, “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.” Yes, it’s important to discuss the humanity of the unborn, to talk about human rights, to engage politically, to highlight that abortion is inherently ableist, to support women in crisis. All those things are very, very important. But having everyday, genuine, friendly engagements with people who happen to be pro-choice is very, very important too – and is happening less and less.
In the aftermath of the referendum in particular, many pro-life people wanted to remove themselves from their pro-choice friends and circles. They wanted to surround themselves with people who share the blindingly obvious view that all humans deserve the right to life. They wanted to turn away from the cognitive dissonance of people who will grieve with you if you have a miscarriage, and yet support you 100% if you have an abortion. In practice, they wanted to crawl into a pro-life echo chamber. I did too – and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. But there is a danger in refusing to ever leave these echo chambers – in refusing to forge friendships or relationships with people who are pro-choice. In never having those important conversations that tell them “I’m pro-life and I’m not a monster”.
Because if we want to change the law, we need to change minds first, and if we want to change minds, we need to let pro-choice people know we’re not evil, manipulative liars. We need to extend the hand of friendship, even if they make it clear they think we’re the scum of the earth (though there’s no need to flog a dead horse either – if after a few attempts to be friendly they still heartily hate you, it’s advisable to back off). We need to have happy, friendly engagements and conversations about day-to-day things that are nothing to do with abortion. We need to have the first type of conversation Ben described, in the hopes that in the future we can have the second and the third.
This is not easy. It’s never easy to be in a minority, and it’s even harder to be in a minority that no one likes or respects. However, as long as we avoid making friends and having conversations with pro-choice people, we will remain a small, distrusted or even hated minority. Let’s play the long game; the next generation are counting on us.