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

So wrote Ben, in a post in relation to the outcome of a recent vote in Kansas. Ciara blogged about this theme also in relation to an Irish Times opinion poll over the summer, and I went so far as to claim that being more upfront about the human rights violation that is abortion, rather than providing information on things like the hard cases, is the single greatest step we can take towards being more effective as a movement. I think it’s fair to say this is becoming a bit of a theme on our blog.

I do think this is a very hard message to get your head around, partly because it’s so subtle – most pro-lifers think that we are already making a strong argument for equal treatment for the unborn, in addition to responding to common objections to the pro-life position. I can see how this appears to be the case to the median pro-lifer – the usual script of pro-life advocacy starts off with the “unborn babies are human and therefore have a right to life” and then start responding to the objections raised: “What if the woman was raped? What if she’s going to die? What if the baby is going to die?” On the surface of it, it makes sense to respond to the objections, one after the other, to try to show how these objections don’t undermine the basic pro-life case.

The problem with this line of approach is that it assumes the person you’re talking to knows too much. It fails to allow for the rather obvious, and yet easy to overlook, fact that people don’t know what they don’t know. Let me give an example.

I think one of the more interesting pieces of research to arise from the Covid pandemic was a behavioural piece of research on vaccine hesitancy. It found that if you simply ask people who reported they were unlikely to get vaccinated what their reasons for this stance were, they were more likely to list risks of the vaccine: they would say the vaccine was created too quickly, or the novelty of the mRNA technology was a risk. However, when the reasons for vaccine hesitancy were tested through an experimental manipulation, it found that lack of knowledge about the benefits of vaccination, rather than knowledge (or false perceptions) of the risks, was actually a major driver of vaccine hesitancy.

The reason this seemingly-simple study is so powerful is because it highlights the fact that when someone doesn’t know something, they can’t articulate that to you – because they don’t know it in the first place! In other words, people can’t tell you what they don’t know. Certainly, it’s rare for someone to tell you the reason they’re pro-choice is because they don’t believe that unborn babies have equal rights with you and me, and they’re far more likely to focus on things like hard cases – but that doesn’t mean they don’t actually doubt that unborn babies are equal to you and me. They just haven’t realised (a) that they doubt the equality of the unborn and/or (b) that equality of the unborn actually means a lot of the “other” reasons for abortion (the so-called “hard cases”) get taken off the table.

You’re not going to pick this effect up in conversations with pro-choice people, or even in surveys or focus groups that merely ask “Why are you pro-choice/why do you support abortion (in certain circumstances)?”. However, the idea that the unborn are not equal to the rest of us surely underlies the hesitancy most people have towards the pro-life position, and so unless that is tackled head on, we can’t make the progress we’d like to make as a movement.This really does require patience and skill. We have to remember that the person we’re speaking to spends very little of their day to day time thinking about abortion, and furthermore that most of us find it hard to realise and acknowledge what we don’t know. It also takes time – we can’t drill into the depths of all the many angles on a topic as complex as abortion that someone doesn’t know about their own position in a pat “two minutes for you, two minutes for me” type of debate (another reason why in-person conversations trump media when it comes to these kinds of conversations). But these are the discussions we need to start having.