Sheldon: How can I tell if I’m doing something for a noble reason or a selfish reason?
Amy: Try saying the thing in your head and see if you can add the words “That’ll show ‘em”.

Let me ask you a question. When you imagine a stereotypical pro-choice person, do you picture someone like Federica Matthews Green? Someone whose motivation is opposing what she perceives as injustice, and is trying to make the world a better place? Or do you imagine someone who is motivated by selfish desires, someone who wants to be able to avoid the burden of pregnancy and parenthood, someone who is fully aware of the fact that every abortion kills an innocent human baby, and just doesn’t care about that? Just doesn’t care about the baby, only cares about him or herself?

We think both types of pro-choice people exist. We think there are pro-choice people who know, and don’t care, that unborn babies are human babies, and think we should be able to kill them anyway for convenience. And we think there are other pro-choice people who aren’t like this at all. For example, pro-choice people who think abortion ends a human life, is an awful and tragic thing, but that it’s necessary in some circumstances.  We happen to think that most pro-choice people fall into the second category and only a very small proportion fall into the first category.  (People in the second category might, for example, believe that abortion must be legal if women’s right to bodily autonomy is to be respected, or they might think that an unborn baby is only human in a limited sense and is not a real person). But in this blog, we are going to make the case that when we engage with pro-choice people, or even when we think about pro-choice people, we should assume the person we’re talking to or thinking about falls into the second category. Even if we think only 1% of pro-choice people fall into that category, we should still assume that this particular person is in the second category. In other words, we should assume the person we’re talking to is a good person, with good motivations, who disagrees with us on how to balance a foetus’s right to life and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. There are two broad reasons we think we should make this assumption. First, it makes us more effective pro-life advocates. Second, it’s the right thing to do.

Why assuming well of pro-choice people makes us more effective pro-life advocates

First, let’s get something obvious out of the way: anyone who honestly doesn’t really care about babies and thinks that it’s fine to kill them is probably never going to change their mind. We should seek out and try to convince only people who might one day be convinced and shouldn’t waste our time on people who just hate babies and think they should die. So, if you genuinely think the person you’re talking to just hates babies and thinks they should die, don’t bother talking to them. Move on.

Second, consider the fact that many pro-life people used to be pro-choice, and if the pro-life movement stands a chance of gaining ground in the future, we need many many more pro-choice people to change their minds. Pro-life people who used to be pro-choice but are now involved in pro-life activism are proof that this is possible. This describes two Minimise project committee members. It also describes people like Frederica Matthewes-Green who wrote this powerful piece, and Aimee Murphy, who founded Rehumanize International. None of us get everything right all the time, and from talking to some of these former pro-choicers, it is clear that they were trying to find what’s true and do what’s right, both when they were pro-choice and now when they’re pro-life.  

Third, if we’re trying to change someone’s mind, on anything, they are more likely to do so when they feel respected, liked and secure. Someone is very unlikely to change their minds when talking to someone who has little to no respect for them, who assumes they’re a bad person, or who thinks they have nothing in common. They are more likely to change their mind if they feel an affinity with the person they’re talking to, and it feels like they have the same motivations (opposing injustice and extending compassion), even if they disagree on how best to act on those motivations.

The next point is a bit more subtle. If we make it clear that we think anyone at all who is pro-choice is motivated by extreme selfishness and complete indifference to babies, then we are saying that we think two thirds of the Irish population are like this. Most people know that neither they nor their family and friends think it’s just fine to kill babies willy nilly, or were motivated by selfishness or cruelty when they decided that abortion is necessary in at least some circumstances. To put it frankly, if we insisted that 66% of people simply don’t care about babies, we’d come across as crazy to a lot of people, as completely out of touch with what people actually think and say. It’s very hard to listen to and trust someone whom you think is crazy.

Following on from this point, if we either state or imply that the only people who support abortion must be fundamentally bad people, we are significantly raising the cost of changing people’s minds. To change someone’s mind on abortion, we have to convince them (a) that the unborn are our moral equals, and (b) that the right to life outweighs the right to bodily autonomy. Do we really want to also state or imply that they must also believe (c) that anyone who disagrees with these points is bad? It’s hard enough to convince people of the first two things; let’s not make things harder for ourselves.

Why assuming well of pro-choice people is the right thing to do

Let’s say you disagree with everything we said above, and that you think assuming the pro-choice people we’re talking to are decent, genuine people who are motivated by good things like compassion and justice won’t actually make us any more effective as pro-life advocates. We still contend that giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assuming well of them, is the right thing to do, for a few reasons.

First off, treating people with compassion and good faith is a good thing to do in and of itself. It is much better to treat someone ‘better than they deserve’ than to be uncompassionate to someone who is genuinely doing their best to be a good person, but is mistaken. If you don’t feel respected when you find out that a pro-choice person thinks you hate women and want to control their bodies, and would rather people generally assume you and other pro-lifers have good motivations when talking to you, then there’s a lot to be said treating other people the way you’d like to be treated yourself on this front. Whether we’re talking about born or unborn people, compassion, and basic manners, are good things to practice.

Secondly, the pro-life movement is not the moral guardian of the population. In other words, it’s not our job to be figuring out whose motivations are good and whose aren’t in the first place. We should just keep it simple and focused – be nice, and concentrate on things that actually are our job: convincing people to oppose abortion.

Finally, let’s say we’re 100% wrong, and that no pro-choice person deserves to be treated in this manner. Let’s say that every single pro-choice person is evil, cynical, and cruel, competely knows what they’re doing when they support abortion, and supports it anyway. In that case, what is wrong, exactly, with still assuming that they are actually still a good person, who is just misguided about how best to care for women and their babies? What are the costs associated with a strategy of treating people kindly and with respect, and conversing with them assuming you have common goals of compassion and kindness? The worst that can happen is that we assumed the best of someone who didn’t  “deserve” it – we put it to you that in most cases, this is better than assuming the worst of someone when they don’t deserve it. We don’t see any costs to assuming, unless we have clear undeniable evidence to the contrary, that the person we’re talking to is a good person who is misguided on how best to oppose injustice.

One possible objection to this strategy is that it makes us seem weak, or wishy-washy, or naive. That abortion is such a horriffic injustice and it is our duty, as pro-life advocates, to highlight this dreadful reality, shine a light on what society refuses to acknowledge. We agree that the job of pro-life advocates definitely involves highlighting the reality of abortion and that we should never shy away from stating that abortion is simply wrong. However, there’s a fine line between courageously speaking the truth and indulgently and gratuitously bashing our opponents. If you’re struggling to tell the difference, try the strategy Amy Ferrah-Fowler advocates, in The Big Bang Theory. Every time you’re considering saying something to or about a pro-choice advocate, try saying the thing in your head and see if you can add the words “That’ll show ‘em!”. In other words, why do you want to say this thing? Do you want to engage with this person? Do you want to learn their point of view? Do you think they might change their mind on this issue, and are you trying to help them do so? Or are you motivated, in whole or in part, by a desire to ‘show’ someone you disagree with and who you dislike – to defeat them? To make everyone realise how bad someone is, not just as a means to saving babies, but also as an ends in itself?  If so, we recommend proceeding with caution. If our goal is to change pro-choicers’ minds, our dealings with them shouldn’t be attempts to defeat them but to win them over. 

We know how hard this is. In particular, we know how hard it is to assume the best of politicians who let us down so badly on this issue. We know how tempting it is to just allow pro-life activism morph into “We hate Simon Harris” activism (or insert any other pro-choice activist here). We know how cathartic it is to just let rip and give out about such and such a person or organisation that has made it clear that they have no time for the pro-life movement. So let’s help each other out here. Let’s remind and encourage each other to be respectful and compassionate to our opponents. Let’s remind each other to always interact with our opponents through constructive conversations that may lead to them changing their minds (unless we honestly think they’ll never change their minds, in which case we should just politely ignore them rather than engage or antagonise them). If we are to succeed as a movement, we need a sizable proportion of pro-choice people to change their minds and join us. Let’s start preparing our movement now to be able to welcome them all, hopefully in the very near future.

Muireann and Ciara