Kansas’s recent pro-life referendum was defeated by a huge margin.

One of the things pro-lifers like to do least is persuade people that abortion is a human rights violation.

Deliberately provocative statement! But has the virtue of being true. It’s certainly true of most pro-lifers, most people who believe in the equal right to life of all humans. Most pro-life people never engage with people who disagree with them. We’ll talk to each other and bemoan the state of things. But actually talking to people who we disagree with seems very scary so most of us just don’t.

Even more provocatively, this is also true of most pro-life activists. It’s much easier to issue a press release or write a blog or host an event talking to other pro-lifers than it is to open any kind of dialogue with pro-choice people or middle-grounders. This obviously isn’t true of all pro-lifers. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d have to conclude that the average number of actual conversations even committed pro-lifers have with pro-choice people about abortion in a given year is very low.

This is one of these issues it’s somewhat hard to talk about because every individual person thinks they have good reasons for not talking about abortion more. Many of them actually do! Not everyone needs to have conversations about the issue. There are many other ways to do pro-life work – direct assistance, organisation, social media, political lobbying.

But it’s also true that many more people need to start talking about this issue directly. The alternative is that people’s minds do not change and innocent humans continue to die.

The idea that this can be sorted from the top down is, unfortunately, a fantasy. There is no plausible path to ending abortion that doesn’t run through building widespread and enduring support for human rights for all humans.

If there was any doubt still left about this, let the recent referendum in Kansas dispel it. Kansas is a conservative US state which Trump won by 15 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election. The state’s supreme court ruled in 2019 that the Kansas constitution guaranteed a right to abortion. A referendum proposal – the Value Them Both Amendment – was launched to remove this right and allow the legislature to determine the state’s abortion laws. The thing was, the whole campaign was somewhat theoretical. Roe VS Wade still upheld the right to abortion accross the US, regardless of what Kansas’s constitution said. The result might have changed whether certain abortion restrictions would possible or not but it wasn’t going to change the big picture on abortion’s legality.

That all changed when the US Supreme Court handed down Dobbs v. Jackson, its recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade and returning abortion policy to the states. Suddenly Kansas’s referendum, scheduled for this summer, became incredibly high-stakes. If the referendum passed, the Republican legislature would be free to pass any restrictions they wanted. The referendum could make the difference between highly deregulated abortion laws and an almost complete ban.

Earlier this month, on the second of August, the referendum was defeated, 59 per cent to 41, on an unusually high turnout for referendum campaigns. The Washington Post have a write-up of the result here – it’s as sympathetic to the pro-choice side as you’d expect, and is all the more worth reading for that reason.

There’s a lot that could be said about the referendum campaign, and plenty of things about it were unusual. But if you look at the strategy of both campaigns, what became clear was that the supporters of the Value Them Both amendment could not rely, even in this quite red state, on voters actually supporting a near-total ban. They argued instead that the choice was between “limited abortion and unlimited abortion”, while the pro-choice side argued that passing the amendment would soon lead to abortion being banned in the state entirely. When faced with that choice, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected the amendment.

Some of the pro-life response to the referendum has been a little strange. Alexandra DeSanctis Marr had the following to say about it.

While I’m certain that Democrats are over-reading last night’s results, I’d also offer pro-lifers two general words of caution in reacting to this news. The first: Don’t allow Republican politicians to consider the outcome in Kansas evidence that being pro-life is electorally toxic. One bad result on a confusing amendment in a state that’s relatively moderate on abortion isn’t indicative of how Americans feel about abortion policy. And the second: Remember that the Democratic Party is deeply out of step with Americans, and its own voters, on abortion. It’s true that most Americans oppose enacting total protections for unborn children, but most Americans also oppose allowing abortion for any reason until birth. This debate is in many ways a messaging battle, and we will be more successful in the long run if we continue to highlight the grotesque extremism of the other side than if we allow them to put us on defence.

I don’t mean to single out DeSanctis Marr, and want to be clear that I generally appreciate her writing. But what exactly is the long run goal here? Let’s say most US states got rid of the extreme laws DeStancis Marr is talking about. An end to late-term abortions would be a huge victory for the US pro-life movement, but it would leave the country with laws that looked a lot like… post-repeal Ireland’s, or those of most of Western Europe. Under those laws, the vast majority of abortions are still legal, and abortion is firmly entrenched as a social practice.

I’m all for incrementalism, but incrementalism has to involve preparing the ground for the next steps. Otherwise it’s progress not towards human rights for all humans, but a European equilibrium where some of the most obviously horrifying abortions are banned but millions still die every year. That’s the potential future of US abortion laws, and it’s very much the present for us in Ireland. If we want to change that, we have to actually convince people to agree with us.

So what does that mean? It means a lot of things. But above all it means that each one of us has to take a good hard look at ourselves and be honest about how good our reasons for not talking about abortion really are. The work that is hard is the work that needs doing. I can personally confirm that these conversations can and do work. The other day I had a great chat on an aeroplane with a guy who brought up the issue in the context of a broader conversation that had been going on for a while. He was sympathetic to the pro-life position but very dubious about whether abortion laws reduced abortion rates. Instead of awkwardly changing the subject, I chatted through some of the points I raised in this post and we made real progress (and what’s more, stayed civil and friendly).

We’ve been trying to help people help conversations like this happen, and to help them go well once they do. Check out the ‘Conversations’ tag on our blog, check out the Equal Rights Institute, send us an email. You can do it.