When it comes to campaigning on any issue, whether that campaigning is formal or informal, there are two overarching ways of engaging with someone. These two ways are not mutually exclusive; in fact they often complement each other. The first is information: you want to inform the other person of the facts of the matter, to let them know what’s going on. The second is persuasion: you want to persuade the other person that your point of view is correct, that your reading of the relevant facts is valid and justified and that they should share your point of view.
I believe that in recent years, the pro-life movement in Ireland has been very much focused on arguments that inform rather than persuade. Pro-choice people probably bristle at this assertion: as far as they’re concerned, pro-life rhetoric is full of exaggerations or even outright lies about how accessible abortion is under different legislative regimes, exploitation of people with disabilities and their families, and red herrings such as perinatal hospice care, all of which (from a pro-choice point of view) are deliberately designed to manipulate someone into opposing abortion. Pro-choice people see misinformation, rather than information, as being the bedrock of pro-life campaigning. However, I’m making a different point. In providing information, pro-life people of course may get things wrong – we all do – but they don’t intend to mislead. They are attempting, in the main, to give factual, accurate information about the reality of abortion. While this is a good thing to do, I think we attempt to inform too often and we attempt to persuade too infrequently.
I’m going to greatly simplify things here for a minute, and assume there are two types of people who think abortion is, for want of a better word, “bad”. The first type thinks the unborn are the moral equals of the rest of humanity, and therefore think killing an unborn baby is the moral equivalent of killing a born baby. The second type think abortion is a bad thing, in that they have a general respect for life and don’t like anything that kills a living being, but don’t think it’s as bad as killing a toddler, or even in some circumstances, a dog or a horse. I think a major problem with the pro-life movement is that we fail to distinguish between these two types of people.
Someone who falls into the first category thinks abortion is and always will be wrong. Such a person will hopefully always respond to incredibly difficult scenarios regarding pregnancy and parenthood with kindness and compassion, and will do everything in their power to alleviate the suffering involved. However, they will never agree that killing the baby is an acceptable way to alleviate the suffering involved any more than they would agree that it is acceptable to kill a toddler in order to alleviate dreadful suffering. This describes the majority of passionate pro-life activists.
Someone who falls into the second category, on the other hand, has the potential to think that abortion can be ok in at least some circumstances. While they may not realise it themselves, they essentially believe you have to weigh up the ill-effects of an abortion against the ill-effects of not having an abortion, and decide whether or not abortion is justified. The “tipping point”, where an abortion becomes justified, is at a different point for different people, depending on (a) how bad they think abortion is and (b) how bad they think the suffering is, but as long as someone thinks abortion is or could be justified in at least some circumstances, then the job of the pro-choice activist is clear: inform people of incredibly difficult pregnancies that inflict unbelievable amounts of suffering, thereby showing everyone that their personal “tipping point” exists. Crucially, however, it only works if the person you’re talking to belongs in the second category, because if you belong in the first category, there is no tipping point. Abortion is always wrong, just as infanticide is always wrong. The fact that this pro-choice strategy proves so effective, not just in Ireland but all over the world, shows that the majority of “pro-life” people, defined as people who might tell you they’re “against abortion”, actually fall into this second category.
The pro-life movement has different potential responses to this strategy. The first is to try to provide people with information that might help nudge them away from their personal “tipping point”. In other words, do the same thing as the pro-choice activist, but in reverse. The idea is to move people away from “The suffering that lack of access to abortion causes means that abortion should be a legal option” and towards “The bad consequences of abortion are high enough that abortion should not be a legal option”. Unfortunately, this strategy can sound a bit like this (even if no pro-life person actually says the following):
“Yes, of course, I understand that having a baby with a life-limiting condition is incredibly difficult – but did you know that lots of families found that a perinatal hospice care model can greatly alleviate the suffering involved, and even leave the family with some precious memories that they eventually treasured?”
“Yes, of course, I understand that the father of your baby absolutely refuses to help you – but did you know that your baby already has a heartbeat, and is forming fingers and toes?”.
“Yes, of course, getting pregnant as a result of rape is the worst thing anyone can imagine – but did you know that many women actually go on to greatly regret their abortion?”
In these cases, the pro-life person is providing information, often (hopefully always) honest, factual, accurate information, in the hopes that the person will eventually decide the costs of abortion are greater than the benefits. However, in so doing, I would argue that we’re actually buying into the idea that there might indeed be a point at which abortion is justified, and we’re simply trying to inform the person that, in fact, we’re not at that point. What if, instead, we tried to persuade people to leave the second category altogether? What if we attempted to persuade people that, even if there is great suffering involved in some pregnancies, ending the suffering by ending the baby’s life is not an acceptable course of action?
I have heard very few pro-life advocates use these persuasive arguments. I can understand why: they involve leaving aside real life cases of suffering, like rape victims and women with babies who died shortly after birth, that you can read about and listen to and identify with, and instead grappling with abstract philosophical questions like the nature of personhood, or the limits of bodily autonomy. They require us to trot out toddlers, or concoct strange thought experiments. They require us to sound cold, and detached from the realities that people face, and it takes a great amount of skill to do so carefully and compassionately. However, I am more and more convinced that it’s the only way forward. As long as someone believes that abortion might be justified if it alleviates enough suffering, stories about people who regretted their abortion, or who had their baby and can’t imagine their world any other way won’t cut it. We have to make the case that abortion is, in itself, always a great injustice, even if it might be seen to alleviate great suffering in some circumstances. We should equip ourselves with the tools required to persuade people to move from the second category to the first category of pro-lifer.