At the Minimise Project, we’re committed to having better conversations about abortion. We think it’s an important thing to do. A lot of our blogs touch on this topic. We’ve got quite a few posts that give advice on how have better conversations about abortion, or talk about our own experiences trying to do so. (1)
I used to chair a feminist society, and be against legal restrictions on abortion. I came to the position I have now mainly as a result of on-going conversations that challenged me and introduced me to new ideas and ways of thinking about things over time. This post is about how to avoid a conversational ‘pitfall’ that I’ve run into several times myself, and that I’ve seen other people run into.
Sometimes, when the person you’re talking to brings up a ‘hard case’ like pregnancy from rape, or diagnoses of life-limiting conditions, it can be tempting to respond by trying to ‘make the problem go away’ rather than genuinely acknowledging the real suffering of people who want abortions but can’t legally access them. Muireann and Ben have written a post about how important it is to acknowledge that
In the imperfect, broken world that we live in, the pro-life position sometimes puts people in horribly traumatic and heartbreaking situations – rape victims, parents of babies with LLCs, people carrying pregnancies to term that they do not want. We want to do everything we possibly can for those people short of killing, because, if we are right, preborn children are our moral equals and killing an innocent person is always wrong. But even doing everything possible will not remove or even alleviate the trauma that these situations can cause.
This kind of acknowledgment can be particularly important if you’re talking to someone and they bring up one of these types of cases. If someone mentions real suffering or trauma (whether they’ve personally experienced it or not) you don’t want to act as if it isn’t real, or as if it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t do justice to the truth, or to the people involved.
But even if you agree with this in theory, in the spur of the moment, you might feel like acknowledging this kind of ‘inconvenient truth’ amounts to conceding a point in an argument and losing. You might feel likeyou’re failing to give a good defense for the pro-life cause. It can sometimes be hard not to have a knee-jerk defensive reaction.
There are three common ‘defensive moves’ that I’ve noticed people make in situations like these (‘people’ includes me). I’ve found it worthwhile to think about these, and about what I could say instead, so that in future conversations I’m less likely to react badly, get stuck, and instinctively default to using one of them. So in case this kind of ‘forward planning’ is helpful to anyone else, here are three mistakes to avoid!
- The ‘But have you considered that your side do X, which is worse or as bad!’ response
There are times when it seems fine to respond like this. If your pro-choice friend is talking to you about how he knows that pro-lifers are terrible because he’s getting hateful tweets from them, and it doesn’t seem like he’s completely traumatised by the experience, there’s nothing wrong with responding that you get the same kind of abuse from pro-choicers if that’s actually true. (Though, depending on your relationship with the person, I still think that it’s often good to start by stating the obvious and say that you’re sorry that they received that abuse and that it was wrong of people to send it to them. This is especially the case if you don’t know the person.)
That being said, if someone is talking about something they experienced that obviously really upset them, or about something that is very serious, it’s usually good to acknowledge that rather than changing the subject and starting to talk about bad things that the pro-choice movement has done. If someone talks about a pro-life person who harassesd them them for getting an abortion or said they were going to hell for it, it’s usually a bad idea to say ‘well, a pro-choicer once screamed and waved hangers at me and said I hate women.’ You’re better off agreeing that the person was wronged. Just because this fact makes the pro-life movement look bad doesn’t mean you should try to swat it away like a fly you don’t want to contemplate. It’s not that you can’t defend the pro-life movememnt at all, but you should acknowledge the wrong done first. If I was in this situation, after I’d agreed that they were wronged, I might also say that can those people who said that weren’t being truly pro-life and were a disgrace to the pro-life movement, but that most pro-lifers I know aren’t like that.
The example used is a kind of obvious one. While in the spur of the moment or in the heat of an argument, someone might respond to the person I’ve described by making a ‘well pro-choicers do X’ type comment, most people wouldn’t actually think that doing so would be ideal. In practice, part of avoiding this kind of ‘defensiveness pitfall’ is trying to make sure that you’re on your guard for it so that you don’t fall into it even if you’re having a bad day and something like this comes up unexpectedly.
How you should respond will depend on who you are, what your conversational style is, who you’re talking to, the broader context and the topic being discussed. But as a general rule, if someone brings up a fact that makes the pro-life movement or pro-life laws look bad, you shouldn’t try to ‘make the point go away’ as quickly as possible by drawing attention away from it and onto some bad thing pro-choicers do. When people have made this kind of move in conversation with me, it’s just made me feel like people weren’t really willing to engage with my criticisms and weren’t listening to me. I think that’s a pretty common reaction.
- The ‘X is bad but it doesn’t happen very often’ response
One example of this that I’ve heard a few times goes something like this. A pro-choice person says ‘Would you deny an abortion to a woman who was raped? For some women the experience of carrying a pregnancy to term after rape is extremely traumatic.’ Their interlocutor responds by saying something like ‘Many women who are raped don’t want abortions and find the pregnancy healing.’
Now, it’s not that I think that you should never give statistics about the number of women who, after becoming pregnant through rape, go on to give birth and don’t regret doing so. But I think it’s unwise for that to be the first or only thing you say in response to this kind of question. First of all, even if only a small proportion of women who experienced pregnancy as the result of rape wanted an abortion and and found their pregnancy traumatic, that would still be really, really bad. Just because a particular kind of suffering is rare doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter, or that we should brush it away. Whatever you say next, it’s important to acknowledge that suffering rather than trying to gloss over it.
It is often difficult to know how to respond to people who argue for legal abortion using examples involving tragedy, extreme suffering, or people whose rights have been violated and who have been extremely wronged. But as a basic starting point, it’s good to acknowledge that the suffering, tragedy and injustice are real.
Again, even though I accept this in theory, most of the struggle for me is keeping this in mind in practice. If someone mentioned one of these examples in conversation, I might feel threatened because my interlocutor would be making a compelling objection to my position. I might have a similar reaction if they said that that travelling for abortions in secrecy and shame is a traumatic experience for women, or that carrying unwanted pregnancies to term can just be really difficult for some people. Instinctively, I might feel defensive, and want to flinch away from the reality of this. But I think that instead, it’s better to acknowledge the suffering, and to explain why I’m pro-life without trying to minimise it. (The ERI have an example of how you might do this in a case like this one above and Ben and Muireann also wrote about doing this in the post I linked to above.)
- The ‘There’s an easy solution to this!/ This isn’t a real problem’ response
I’m discussing these two kinds of responses together. In some ways they’re more blatant – but also more tempting – than the other two: trying ‘to make the problem go away’, not by drawing attention away from it and onto a different problem, or by saying that it’s a rare problem, but by talking about a cost-free, easy solution that could allegedly make it go away completely (but that isn’t really going to sound plausible to most people listening to you)…. or just trying to deny that the problem is real altogether.
An example of the latter kind of response might be something like this. Someone says that some ‘women want abortions and not being able to get one can cause them suffering and trauma’, and the immediate response to this is just that ‘many women regret their abortions’ or that ‘there are always better alternatives to abortion that are better for women too’ as if this somehow shows that no woman really wants an abortion even if she thinks she does, or or that all women benefit from abortion bans. Or someone says that some women just don’t want to have children, and the response might be that ‘the joy of having children is really wonderful and the best experience of many women’s lives’ as if this is somehow a response to the concern that was raised about women for whom this is not true.
An example of the former kind of response would be something like this. Someone says that carrying a pregnancy to term can be very difficult if you know your baby will die very shortly after birth, and the response is that perinatal hospice care is very healing as if this could just make the hardship parents face disappear. Or, if someone says that women going through unplanned pregnancies face stigma, financial hardship, and discrimination, your response usually shouldn’t be to cut in immediately by saying ‘well, in a truly pro-life society, this would never happen to women.’ (This isn’t much consolation to someone living in our actual society.)
This isn’t to say that it’s bad to talk about solutions to problems. On the contrary, that’s good. It’s just you shouldn’t use a potential solution to a problem as a way of ‘making it go away’. Whatever else you do, you should acknowledge the problem. Quickly bringing up solutions and acting as if they will to completely erase all of the suffering that carrying a pregnancy to term could involve can feel a bit like you’re just trying to avoid thinking about that suffering. I’ve even been in conversations where I’ve felt like these solutions were offered in a ‘gotcha’ kind of tone. (It’s also worth honestly thinking about whether the solution you’re putting forward really is actually going to completely get rid of the problem – not just defending from criticism it ‘like a lawyer’, but actually investigating the criticism in an open-minded way ‘like a detective’. Again, I’d recommend Ben and Muireann’s post.)
Again, what you should say in this kind of situation will depend on the circumstances. But I think it’s always good to resist the defensive reflex to deflect other people’s suffering or hardship as if it’s a blow to us and our position.
So that’s it, here are three conversational moves I try to avoid. There’s probably more to be said about what to say instead, but that’s a blog post for another day!
- Here’s one that Ben’s written about different kinds of conversation you can have about abortion – sometimes you might just want to let people know that you oppose it and “aren’t a monster”, sometimes you might you might want to say some things about why you have this position but without necessarily getting into a big debate there and then, and sometimes, you might want to put everything on the table really get into a big in depth discussion about it. He’s also written about his (surprisingly positive!) experience using the Equal Rights Argument when giving a talk to a bunch of pro-choice teenagers; about two different debates that it’s helpful to distinguish between when talking about abortion: debates about pershonhood and debates about bodily autonomy; and about the temptation to think that your opponent in an argument or political struggle is worse than they actually are. Muireann’s written about straw men, why it’s helpful to avoid them, and a few particuar straw men that often crop up in abortion debates; about asking pro-choice people questions to help understand why they believe what they do (and to avoid misunderstanding what they believe); about the need to make arguments that will change people’s minds about abortion altogether rather than giving them information that will nudge them towards feeling slightly more uncomfortable about edge cases, or being in facvour of a few more restrictions; about needing to do more than just show that unborn babies are human in these kinds of conversation; about the importance of having normal friendly interactions with people who are pro-choice and so on. I’ve written a post specifically about talking to pro-choice feminists. That’s a selection of what we’ve written about having conversations so far!