(The following is an excerpt from my new book Persuasive Pro-life: How to Talk About Our Culture’s Toughest Issue. Click here to get your paperback or e-book copy!)
I often get asked, “How do you keep your cool and give such effective answers on Catholic Answers Live when you discuss abortion with pro-choice callers?” Well, I use the following three approaches that I recommend everyone use when discussing this subject, or frankly, any controversial issue.
3. Agree whenever possible.
Some pro-life advocates think that if they agree with a critic on anything, then somehow they have hurt their defense of the pro-life position. In reality, if a pro-life advocate fails to agree with a critic on anything, he will come off as a walking agenda and not as an honest seeker of truth.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, “Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity. It is demanded by the deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where he wills.” One tool that moves our conversations forward and respects the dignity of each person is the use of common ground.
Steve Wagner, author of Common Ground Without Compromise: 25 Questions to Create Dialogue on Abortion, defines the essence of common ground:
“[W]e should build common ground to begin a dialogue about truth. We should also retreat to common ground frequently, not to give up on finding truth, but to gain necessary footing so we can move forward to a new consensus on what is true. If the dialogue we are having is like a car taking us to the beach of truth, then common ground is the fuel. Your dialogue will have to access common ground from the outset if it is to move forward. You will need to stop and refuel at times, too.”
Common ground allows people to focus on their agreements instead of their disagreements. In fact, it’s so enjoyable the participants may be tempted to keep the dialogue only on common ground and avoid the heated topic of disagreement. That’s why it’s important to remember that common ground is not an end; it is a tool that helps us solve our disagreements. In a meeting with more than 200 representatives of other world religions, Pope Benedict XVI said that dialogue is not meant to create good relationships but that “the broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth.”
Here are some questions Wagner considers to be the most helpful when trying to find common ground on the issue of abortion.
“What do you think about late-term abortions?” (If you think they should be illegal, then where would you draw the line? Why did you pick that stage of development to outlaw abortions?)
“Do you believe men should have the choice to abort their fetuses?” (Do you think men should be charged with the murder of a human being if they kill a pregnant woman’s fetus? Do you think the punishment should change if the fetus was unwanted?
“What do you think about aborting a fetus simply because she is female?” (Do you think a feminist can support abortion against female fetuses?)
“Would you prefer there were fewer abortions?” (Why? What is it about abortion that you find unpleasant?)
“Should abortion be legal through all nine months of pregnancy for any reason?” (If not, why not? Where do you think the cutoff should be, and why do you draw the line there?)
2. Instead of making statements, ask questions.
When we make statements in conversation, they can turn unintentionally into speeches that get ignored. A better approach is to ask questions, because this lets us steer our conversations toward the truth without having to “preach” the truth to anyone. I have found that there are four questions that are essential to any good conversation, including those regarding abortion:
“What do you believe?” Too often we assume what someone else believes based on their income, their race, their gender, their religion (or lack of religion), or some other external factor. Never assume what someone believes. Instead just ask.
“Why do you think that’s true?” or “How did you come to believe that?” How a person arrived at a belief, or why he thinks it’s true, can be even more interesting than what he actually believes. It’s vital to discover this so that you can help the person see where his thinking went wrong if he happens to have a false belief.
“What did you mean by [fill in the blank]?” If we don’t stop and define the words in our conversations, we run the risk of misunderstanding the other person. Here are just a few words whose meanings can vary dramatically between people when they talk about abortion: life, choice, rights, fetus, person, human, and even abortion. By carefully defining the words being used, you will be able to talk to people you disagree with instead of talking past them.
“What would you say to someone who says [fill in the blank]?” After you learn what the other person believes and why he believes it, you may want to challenge his belief and show him it’s false. It is not disrespectful to challenge the truth of someone’s beliefs. You can respect a person and be kind to him without respecting any particular opinion he has. By using a question from a hypothetical inquirer, in- stead of a direct accusation from yourself, the person with whom you’re speaking is less likely to become defensive or take the challenge personally.
Asking a question is especially helpful when you have conversations with the two toughest audiences: family and people on the Internet. Conversations with family and close friends can be explosive, since they know us well and can push our emotional buttons.
Conversely, conversations on the Internet can be explosive because those people don’t know us well and can hide behind a veil of anonymity that emboldens their rude behavior. In both cases, a set of questions can lower the level of hostility. With enough practice, without having to make a single statement, you can help a person see that what he believes does not make sense. One way to do this is to ask what I call “dumb questions.”
One time a student told me that abortion wasn’t a big deal because it just terminated a pregnancy. I asked him what a pregnancy was or what it meant when a woman was pregnant. He gave me a confused look, since it should just be obvious what pregnancy is. I pressed him to define it, and he said pregnancy meant a woman had a child within her. I then said,
“Childbirth also ‘terminates a pregnancy’ but would you agree that abortion is very different from childbirth? If abortion terminates a pregnancy without resulting in a live birth, then doesn’t abortion terminate a child as well? He got quiet and looked away until someone else started to talk to me.
To help your conversations on abortion, I recommend asking one of these ten “dumb questions.”
- What is abortion?
- What is a child?
- What is a human?
- What is pregnancy??
- What’s wrong with being pro-abortion?
- Why is it wrong to kill a newborn baby?
- What does abortion do to the fetus?
- Is there a difference between a condom and an abortion? (If so, then what is it?)
- Why is abortion a sad or difficult choice?
- What is so upsetting about pictures of abortion?
1. Don’t be weird.
I understand that our culture often labels people who think abortion should be illegal as “weird.” When I say, “Don’t be weird,” I don’t mean do anything it takes to make pro-choice people like you. If that’s your goal, then you should start paying for abortions! Instead, “Don’t be weird” means don’t engage in activities that will unnecessarily offend those who disagree. Consider the pro-life advocate who dresses up in a grim reaper costume, complete with skull mask and scythe, and holds an
“I’ll see you in hell” sign at an abortion facility.?Now, I bet this person cares deeply about the unborn, and I am glad he’s at least outside an abortion facility.55 But has he stopped to think of what the women going into this facility think when they see him? Instead of seeing someone that makes them feel safe and welcomed, those women see some- one who makes them feel scared and uncomfortable.
When Abby Johnson served as a director of a Planned Parenthood in Texas and saw protesters like these she would think, “If they cared about these women, they wouldn’t look so frightening.” Johnson later quit her job and became a pro-life advocate. She credits her conversion to the group 40 Days for Life who showed her genuine love and compassion while praying in front of her abortion facility.
As pro-life advocates, we become weird when we don’t think about how our words and actions affect other people. St. Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.” (Colossians 4:6)
For example, it’s weird when we are asked about abortion in the case of rape and we spend all of our time discussing how these abortions account for less than 1% of abortions and why the child shouldn’t be punished for the crimes of his father without, even once, acknowledging how awful it would be to become pregnant through an act of rape.
Instead of going into a conversation with the attitude “I’m going to win,” go into the conversation with the attitude “I’m going to be winsome,” and the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us,“ A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
 John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 56.
 Wagner, Common Ground, 6.
 Pope Benedict XVI, “Meeting With Representatives of Other Religions.” Apostolic Journey to the United States and Visit to the United Nations Headquarters, The Holy See, April 17, 2008.
 A similar set of questions along with other helpful examples can be found in Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 149-156.
 See Abby Johnson. Unplanned. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010) 33.The full quote reads, “My immediate thought was that if they cared about this woman, they wouldn’t look so frightening with a Grim Reaper and a huge photo of an aborted fetus on display.” Johnson also says, “We are there to love and befriend and pray for the clients who enter abortion clinics and the workers who staff them. Just as I was prayed for, loved, and befriended (Johnson, 253). For more information about 40 Days for Life visit www.40daysforlife.com