So many pro-choicers, but so few who say the exact things I have ready made responses to.
Photo by Bas Masseus on

Last week, I wrote about being prepared to have the kind of conversation about abortion that you don’t want to have. This week, I’m talking about the opposite problem.

There are some conversations you might wish you could have: your interlocutor would say exactly the things you’d have brilliant rejoinders to, or react exactly as you’d hoped to something you said; maybe they’d say something you heard a lot of people say during the 2018 referendum and have since thought of a response to; maybe they’d miraculously cooperate in a re-enacting a better version of a conversation you had three months ago that went terribly and that you’ve been mulling over since; maybe they’d finally give you a chance to refute an annoyingly wrong opinion you see people share on social media all the time. Sometimes these conversations actually eventually happen! Sometimes they don’t.

Anyway, I know that when I talk to someone about abortion, I can sometimes feel a vague sense of hope that maybe this time they will have the beliefs it would be most convenient for me to challenge; and I can sometimes just be too quick to assume that I know what they think because I’ve talked to people who seem similar to them before. Either way, I try not to let this stop me from really, genuinely listening to and understand the actual views of the person I’m actually talking to. This isn’t always easy: listening well is often hard!

  1. Ask questions!

This is really important. Muireann wrote a post about this awhile ago. I’d highly recommend the whole thing! She illustrates why asking questions is so important if you want to engage with someone by way of an example from debates on a different topic:

As part of my day job, I often find myself discussing things like carbon taxes and renewable energy with various people and organisations. Sometimes, I find myself discussing these issues with people who are described as “climate skeptics”. This is a term used to describe those who disagree with the need to reduce and eventually eliminate our carbon emissions. However, over the course of many conversations with many such people, I have found that those whom we collectively call “climate skeptics” actually fall into three distinct categories:

1. People who do not believe climate change is happening.

2. People who believe climate change is happening, but don’t believe that human activity or carbon emissions have anything to do with it because they believe the climate is changing naturally of its own accord.

3. People who believe climate change is happening, and who believe it is caused by human activity, but who don’t think it’s a bad thing overall, and that the good caused by climate change will outweigh the bad.

If I want to explain to someone why I think we should reduce carbon emissions, I must first understand why they’re not convinced of that in the first place. It’s no good telling them that we have to reach zero emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius if they already agree with that, but just don’t believe warming the planet beyond two degrees is a bad thing. Similarly, it’s no good showing them data demonstrating conclusively that the planet is getting warmer if they already agree it’s getting warmer, but just don’t think humans are causing the warming. In order to show them why I believe what I believe, I must first understand why they believe what they believe

So ask questions! Here’s a useful framework to have in the back of your mind when doing so about the difference between pro-choice arguments based on bodily autonomy or personhood. But ultimately the most important thing is to listen.

2. Slow down!

To really listen and understand, it’s important to slow down. A few weeks ago, Blánaid wrote about why it’s good to acknowledge it when you don’t know something. Admit this to yourself too: don’t hear a buzzword like ‘autonomy’ and then assume that the person you’re talking to definitely endorses bodily autonomy arguments you’ve heard before. If you want to know why they believe what they believe, ask them. If they haven’t told you, you’re just making educated (or not so educated!) guesses.

3. Listen don’t diagnose!

Sometimes, when I talk to people about abortion, they assume that I’m very socially conservative. I sometimes feel like they’re listening out for ‘tells’ or ‘symptoms’ of this, rather than paying attention to what I’m actually saying. For example, if a relative or friend is worried I’ve fallen in with a reactionary crowd and been influenced, they might try to understand me by searching for symptoms of this. This is probably a caricature, but for example, if I say the word ‘vocation’, I might see their eyes light up in understanding as if they’re thinking ‘Aha, she’s probably Christian, so she’s probably against abortion for those reasons’. Or if I say ‘I don’t like wearing tight clothing’, I sometimes get the impression they are thinking ‘Oh, she’s into modesty, so she thinks sex should only happen inside marriage, and might not like abortion because it’s modern and liberal.’ In other words, they’re reading too much into what I’m saying, and then using the extra, added meaning to understand me rather than what I actually said. But I might just not find tight clothes comfortable, and more importantly, this ‘diagnostic’ method isn’t really what I’d want anyone to do to try to understand me better. It’s good to avoid doing this in the reverse! 

It’s obviously best not to make assumptions like this, especially given the common temptation, noticed by C.S. Lewis, to think ‘our enemies’ are worse than they are; or to make pro-choicers into boogeymen.

3. Easier said than done

All this advice might seem overly obvious. But I still think it’s worth thinking about every so often. A lot of this is easier said than done, but I find that thinking and saying these things every so often makes me more prepared to put them into practice in the moment.