By Lincoln Davis Wilson
The Planned Parenthood sting videos produced by the Center for Medical Progress give the pro-life cause its biggest opportunity ever to make its case in the public square. Apart from the serious questions the videos raise of whether federal law has been violated, they show that the pro-choice euphemisms of “tissue” and “clump of cells” are not used behind closed doors—there, “it’s a baby” and “another boy.” The pro-life cause has been a long struggle of successful but incremental change, but now the Planned Parenthood videos provide the opportunity for the same rapid revolution in attitudes and policies that the last decade has seen on other social issues.
Conservative Christians have been extremely active for the pro-life cause in the wake of these videos, especially on social media, which they are learning is not a tool exclusive to their opposition. Yet there is a grave potential to squander this opportunity and zeal by forgetting about the true objective and getting caught up instead in bad habits acquired over this 43-year struggle. These tactical errors, which have already begun to manifest themselves, may seriously diminish the effect of these renewed efforts.
You can’t define an error without knowing what task you are trying to accomplish, so what is our objective as Christians? Our Lord tells us to love our enemy, to pray for those who persecute us, to forgive those who wrong us. Our fundamental goal with regard to abortion thus ought not to be simply to defeat the opposition, but to win it over, and to win it over graciously. By winning the hearts and minds of our country, we have the opportunity to advance justice for the most vulnerable members of our society, the unborn. This is the moment of harvest for the “persuadable opposition”—those who consider themselves pro-choice, but who can be convinced otherwise if their eyes are opened. And in opening its eyes, our hope is that we may not only change attitudes on social policy, but that we may plant seeds for the gospel and create a place where it can be freely heard by eager ears.
As a litigator who has lived and worked in the New York metro area for a decade, I have learned a thing or two about persuading a hostile opposition. So I want to address what I believe are the three biggest errors I see my conservative brothers and sisters falling into in this conversation, and what can be done to avoid them. They are not the only errors, they are the most significant.
Focusing on Motive
It doesn’t take us long for the gloves to come off. Because of what conservative Christians believe about the reality of abortion, they often cannot help assigning motives to the perpetrators. “How can you intentionally kill your own child?,” they ask rhetorically. “Abortion is the ultimate selfish act,” they assert, and it “comes from racism and eugenics.” “Anyone who can’t see this is blinded by their own sin and incapable of reason,” they conclude.
I’m not going to argue about the above statements, I’m just going to tell you that you should be extremely wary of using them and certainly shouldn’t expect them to get you any results. Here’s why:
- First, motive is subjective. A recent conversation on my Facebook wall illustrated this when it ended with one of my pro-life friends telling a pro-choice friend that she was blind and he pitied her. She responded, naturally, that he was blind and she pitied him. When you make a claim about someone’s motive, there is no shared standard to validate the claim, and so you just get into a shouting match. You also invite what is probably the most powerful response from the opposition: if you say they are selfish, they say you want to control women’s bodies. You’ll soon find yourself trying to defend your own motives while attacking theirs, and also perpetuating the unnecessary construct that abortion is a red/blue issue. No-one will be convinced. Instead, align yourself as much as possible with their stated motives: surely, we both want to help women, yes? We both want to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, yes? So how do we do that?
- Second, focusing on motive stirs the emotions, not the brain, of the opposition. When someone’s motives are attacked, they have a natural instinct to defend the righteousness of their actions. As we all know of ourselves, it is never too difficult to find a good reason for the bad thing we did—I just want to help low-income women, I didn’t want my baby to grow up with anything less than perfect love, the world is too crowded as it is. Don’t get drawn into a debate about the nobility of their urges, focus instead on the logic and evidence on the fundamental question: is an unborn child a human life? If you can convincingly win that point and not let go, it leads inexorably to an indictment of even the purest motive for abortion. After the blow-up on my Facebook page, my pro-choice friend told me in a private message that, much as she didn’t want to admit it, the arguments that were being raised on my Facebook were giving her serious doubts about her pro-choice beliefs. She just couldn’t handle having her character insulted. So win their heads and their hearts will follow.
- Third, and most important, focusing on motive is presumptuous and ungracious. Because I have worked to keep my speech gracious, my pro-choice friend now wants to speak with me and my wife about abortion. But we are not getting anywhere unless our attitudes and actions serve as a conclusive rebuttal to the charge that we only care about babies, not about women. Whatever the motives of these mothers may be, we need to work with the kindness of Christ, who walked in our shoes, tempted in every manner as we, so His sympathy with human experience would be perfect. If we value that sympathy only insofar as it extends to our good Christian sins like anger, greed, and lust, but not to the sins of others, we are missing the point. You are not Jesus, righteously rebuking the hypocritical Pharisee, you are the hypocritical Pharisee. But if instead you lead with grace, you may find that the opposition gets even more belligerent. Pour it on thick, and don’t think it goes without notice—in public debates, you are arguing not just to your direct opponent, but to the curious, silent onlookers. They judge not only the truth of your words, but whether there is love within them.
Wrapping in Other Issues
Because conservative Christians have so long been losers in the culture wars, many are so excited at the opening presented by the Planned Parenthood videos that they want to jam everything else into it. Abortion, they say, is just another symptom of the sexual revolution, part-and-parcel to the other sacraments of the cultural Left, like same-sex marriage, transgender rights, euthanasia, and subsidized contraception. It is based, they say, on the same secular materialism that wants to keep God out of the public schools. And they contend that the pro-choice cause is facilitated in the media through the same dishonest tactics used to exonerate Hillary Clinton for her lies and cover up liberal transgressions. Hey, with a little ingenuity, there’s probably a way to weave capitalism, budget concerns, and the Iran Deal into the debate as well, right?I’m not going to argue about any of those points, I’m just gonna say again that you should save your breath. Three reasons:
- First, as a matter of relative importance, most pro-life Christians would agree that abortion far eclipses all other political issues. Abortion is the reason we get called (should be a compliment) “single issue voters.” Why hack at the dragon’s tail when its heart is exposed? Most would be happy to trade Roe for Obergefell.
- Second, a related principle, we need to focus our efforts where the opposition is weak, not where it is strong. By taking on too many issues, we not only dilute the strength of the assault on abortion, we choose to fight a losing battle against their most fortified targets. They did just win a Supreme Court decision, you know. If you go after those sacred cows, you invite them to paint you as backward bigots, holding onto the 1950s, incapable of reason, unwilling to change. However wrong that is, it is a charge that will stick if you give it an opening.
- Third, wrapping other issues into the abortion debate again lets them make this a partisan issue: this is just the same “war on women” that Republicans have always been up to. We need to be abundantly clear, as pro-life Democrats like Kirsten Powers have shown, that the sanctity of life is not and should not be a red/blue divide. And remember that while Republicans are nominally the pro-life party, they had complete control over all three branches of government for six years and did little to advance the cause. Be skeptical therefore of any Republican candidate who takes a stand on abortion to get you onto his mailing list and over to his donate page. We must be scrupulously clear that our mission is the lives of the unborn, and we are not waging this fight as a proxy for a political platform.
Knowing your audience is fundamental to persuading your audience. Conservative Christians have been preaching to the choir on the pro-life cause for so long that many of us know only how to rally the base, and not how to engage the opposition. For example, if you share a snarky meme that begins “Hey, liberal feminists,” you do not know your audience. If you only share stories from LifeSiteNews, The Blaze, and Breitbart, you do not know your audience. And if you share bloody pictures of butchered babies, you do not know your audience.
Because abortion is thought of as a partisan issue, pro-choice people feel they have license to tune out when they see a message that flags itself as more of the same. If you begin with an indictment of liberal feminism, they see you’re not talking to them, you’re just raging at an abstraction with a well-known trope. It doesn’t matter how thorough and well-reasoned that piece from The Blaze is (and let’s be honest, the pro-life team is not always accurate or completely candid), they simply won’t read it, just like you won’t voluntarily go to read Mother Jones and Daily Kos. And no matter the pathos that should arise from seeing pictures of dead babies, the opposition has a reflex for such things that tells them “extremist—shock tactics—tune out.”
No doubt it feels better to post something from a source you unequivocally agree with. And it can also gratify our martyr and Cassandra complexes to preach the truth vociferously and have it never be heard. But we have to get beyond that because now is a rare moment when the truth might actually be heard. So don’t argue from your premises, argue from theirs. Show why the civil and human rights they support in every other context must be honored also for the unborn. Don’t argue from your sources, argue from and with theirs. A lone op-ed in the New York Times,Washington Post, or Daily Beast carries far more weight by sole virtue of the masthead than a thousand of the most air-tight arguments from Fox News. And don’t shock them with the bloody horror, lead them with the videos gently toward the awful tragedy carried out with calm, professional demeanor, by licensed physicians in lab coats under the authority of the Supreme Court.
Finally, you will never know your audience if you never meet them, if you never love them. If we engage the opposition for nothing but argument, we are mere opportunists. So bring them into your lives. Let them see your faith in action and not only words. Don’t give them any reason to go on saying that pro-lifers don’t care about women and are simply “pro-birth.” Have them over for dinner. And talk about anything except abortion.
I’ll have more to say on this in the future, and I thank Abra for the platform. If you conservatives feel beaten up by this, don’t worry—your liberal friends are next. In the meantime, if you want to do something productive, sign and share this White House petition to get the Administration to watch the videos and engage with their disturbing contents.