9 Things I Would Ask an Abortion Practitioner Over Coffee

Photo credit: Jenny Downing

Photo credit: Jenny Downing

Daniel from Canada recently asked me this question: “What should pro-lifers say to someone who performs abortions?” He commented that this would be a good follow-up to my recent posts on what pro-lifers should say to someone who wishes they had been aborted, is happy about her abortion, or someone who has post-abortive friends.

There were recently good discussions on this question at the Secular Pro-Life and Jill Stanek blogs, and I also asked the question to my followers on my Facebook page. This post is a combination of my own thoughts and my favorite comments from other pro-life advocates on this topic.

unplannedThese opportunities can actually happen. Sidewalk counselors are in an especially good position to develop friendships with abortion practitioners. Abby Johnson’s book “Unplanned” recounts the impact that the kind members of Coalition for Life had on Abby. I had the great privilege of coaching my friend Don Blythe, a sidewalk counselor in Modesto and Stockton, who was having a congenial email exchange with the abortion practitioner at his local abortion facility. He’s also had multiple conversations with other abortion practitioners since.

Before I get to the list, I think that the best environment for conversations like this would be at a neutral place like a coffee shop, as opposed to the sidewalk in front of the abortion facility. This may not always be possible, but if the abortion practitioner was willing to meet once a month for coffee, I would take that opportunity in a heartbeat. (No pun intended.)

To my non-Christian readers, religion is about to happen, but it’s important to explain where I’m coming from on this topic.

As Paul, commenting at Jill Stanek’s blog, points out, sharing a meal with a person that some consider “scum” would be following in the footsteps of Jesus:

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Matthew 9:11-13 (NIV)

Commenter Sydney posted a wonderful Charles Spurgeon quote on why we should be willing to meet with people like this:

If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.

If meeting for coffee wasn’t possible, I think an email exchange can be very fruitful if you’re especially careful to point out common ground when possible. Remember, in an email exchange, you can’t benefit from nonverbal communication, which makes a huge impact when discussing a contentious topic like abortion.

Note: According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, there were approximately 1,720 abortion providers in the U.S. in 2011, a 4% decline from 2008. There are both men and women performing abortions, but for the sake of this article, I’m going to use male pronouns when referring to the hypothetical abortion practitioner I could talk to. I’m not trying to imply anything about men or women performing abortions with this choice – I simply don’t want to say “him or her” every single time I refer to this image-bearer who performs abortions for a living.

If I could meet with an abortion practitioner, I might ask one or more of these questions:

#1: Are you married?

When I interviewed my friend Abby Johnson for this article, she explained that when she meets an abortion practitioner for the first time, she tries to get to know him and doesn’t ask a ton of questions. “Spend most of your first meeting listening to him,” Abby said. “Get to know him! Is he married? What’s his family like? Does he have kids? What do they love to do? Ask the kinds of questions you would ask someone at your church that you’re getting to know.”

Abby urged that pro-life people should take a relationship like this slowly. Don’t try to convert him in one meeting! “Take it slow. Conversion takes time and trust,” Abby said.

Given that good advice, I’m going to offer some more questions you may ask, but these could be spread out over a long series of meetings. Most of these may be more appropriate for after you’ve gotten to know each other and built some trust. Each person will probably be different. Some of these you may never want to ask the person, and you’ll develop the art of learning what not to ask if you spend enough time talking to people who believe differently than you. (It may even take making some mistakes to learn what signs to look for.)

Think of the rest of these questions as tools for your toolbox.

Keep something else in mind: Many abortion practitioners fear for their very lives when they see pro-life advocates. Obviously we shouldn’t all be lumped in with the people who have killed abortion practitioners. (I don’t call these people “pro-life.”) But if you put yourself in the shoes of someone who performs abortions and get in touch with the fear that many of them live with every time they go to work, you may develop an empathy for that part of their lives. Nobody wants to go to work thinking they might be killed or blown up. Many abortion facilities even have bullet-proof glass.

Given that, I think it would take a lot more courage for an abortion practitioner to meet with you than it takes for you to meet with him.

Abby Johnson agreed and said, “Be thankful that he took this courageous step in the first place.”

#2: Tell me how you got involved in the work that you do.

This is one of the first questions Abby Johnson asks abortion practitioners.

Notice this question is much more conversational than something like, “You didn’t grow up wanting to kill babies, did you?” One question is asked with an open-heart, and the other is accusatory and will probably shut down the conversation before it’s really begun.

Abby offered another piece of helpful advice: Don’t make any assumptions about this person. “Don’t call him an ‘abortionist,’ because he might do other things too,” Abby said. “There are very few full-time abortion doctors in the United States right now. This person might be an OB-GYN and deliver babies four days out of the week!”

I think there’s a second reason not to call him an “abortionist,” which is also a point Matt Casper made on my Facebook wall. Dialogues tend to go better when you call people what they want to be called. In this case, this person would want to be called a “doctor.” Regardless of whether or not you believe pro-lifers should refer to abortionists as doctors among themselves, I wouldn’t call this person an abortionist to his face because the potential value of our good conversations is much higher than the supposed value of calling him an “abortionist.”

UPDATE 7/13/15: See the note at the bottom of this post for why I now believe that “abortion practitioner” is a better label than “abortionist.”

#3: Do you find your work meaningful, and if so, what makes it the most meaningful to you?

My friend Jasmin Aprile posted this question on my Facebook page. It’s similar to a very common question that pro-lifers recommended asking, “What drives you to perform abortions?” I like Jasmin’s because I suspect it won’t come across with the judgmental attitude that this abortion practitioner is certainly expecting to come from a pro-life advocate.

Remember, you can have the right heart, but still ask a question that the other person is likely to misunderstand. You may have a genuine curiosity about this person when you ask, “What drives you to perform abortions,” but the abortion practitioner may hear you asking, “What motivates you to kill babies every day?”

Everybody wants to find meaning in their work. Unless this person is in this solely for the money, and people’s motivations are usually much more complex than that, this person probably believes that he’s doing something good for the world. Perhaps he believes that he’s helping protect women from being enslaved by their reproductive systems. Perhaps he believes that he’s helping keep abortion access available in his area at a time when the number of abortion practitioners is dwindling.

You will almost certainly disagree with the premises that lead to this person choosing to perform abortions for a living, but you won’t learn where this particular abortion practitioner is coming from until you ask questions like this.

#4: Do you think pro-life and pro-choice people should work together to provide resources and support to women in crisis?

Jasmin Aprile recommends asking this:

common ground arrow 2I assume we both agree that it is incredibly important to help women in crisis; (if so) I think we simply differ in the best means to accomplish that. Would we agree that both pro-life and pro-choice people should work together to provide resources and support to women in crisis so that those who do want to keep their children are empowered to do so?

This question has great potential for finding common ground. You both might have a discussion on what would be the most helpful to women in crisis, but you will both learn more about each other’s views by engaging in that discussion.

The abortion practitioner may get into a rant about dishonest crisis pregnancy centers, but you can just respond that you agree that pregnancy resource centers should never use dishonest tactics. Click the embedded video below to watch an interview I recorded with our local Pregnancy Care Center director about this subject.

#5: Do you believe the unborn is a living, human organism?

My formerly pro-choice friend Deanna suggested this one. I like how clear it is. If you just ask, “do you think the unborn is human,” you open the possibility for equivocation. That’s when two people are using the same word in a conversation, but they mean different things by that word. You may mean “biologically human” while the other person might think you mean “valuable person with rights.”

With this question, it’s pretty likely the person you’re talking to understands that you’re asking a question about the biology of the unborn. Is it biologically alive? Is it biologically a member of the human species? Is it a unique organism, separate from the mother?

8 weeks after fertilization. Image credit: Life Issues Institute

8 weeks after fertilization. Image credit: Life Issues Institute

Deanna also recommended this follow-up question, about the philosophical side of the debate:

#6: What do you think makes life valuable?

Why is this question worded so well? It assumes (almost certainly accurately) that the abortion practitioner believes that there are people whose lives have value.

When I hear some pro-life advocates talk about abortion practitioners, the implication is that the abortion practitioners not only believe that there are no morally relevant differences between the unborn and the born, but also that orthey don’t think any life has intrinsic value.

I think it’s much more likely that abortion practitioners agree that born people have value, but they ground that value differently than pro-life people do. Perhaps the abortion practitioner thinks you need to be viable to have basic rights, and he only does abortions on pre-viable children. Perhaps the abortion practitioner thinks you’re not morally relevant until you have a fully-functioning neocortex. He may even believe that you’re not a person until after you’re born and are self-aware (by some definitions). Those views are still different from having this dark view that no life is valuable, and any life can be taken at will.

We’re trying to understand where the abortion practitioner is coming from, and asking an open-ended question like this may successfully draw out his perspective.

#7: What would it take to change your mind about the morality of abortion?

Everybody should be able to answer this question. I know that my mind could be changed about abortion legality if I was convinced that bodily rights arguments successfully accomplish what they are designed to accomplish. I would also need to believe that when the Bible talks about caring for the most vulnerable in society – like widows and orphans – it doesn’t include caring for the unborn.

If the abortion practitioner is a thoughtful person, and some absolutely are, he will already know what it would take to change his mind about abortion. This information will reveal a lot about his thinking on the topic.

Jasmin Aprile recommends this alternative:

Would you say that, hypothetically, if the unborn are valuable persons like you and I, that abortion would be wrong?

[If yes: proceed to the Equal Rights Argument. If no: proceed to the way we respond to bodily rights arguments.]

#8: Are there any situations where you would not perform an abortion?

Kim Sheldan Padan recommended this question and these follow-ups:

Would he refuse aborting after 20 weeks gestation? For gender selection? And if so…why?

I love this question because it’s total common ground territory. You might even consider asking this one early in the conversation, especially if the abortion practitioner seems hostile. If he responds, “Yeah, I wouldn’t do an abortion on a girl if I knew the parents were aborting solely because of gender,” you can respond, “Yeah, I disagree with sex-selection abortions too. I’ve talked to lots of pro-choice people who are also opposed to sex-selection abortions, but often for varying reasons. Can you help me understand why you wouldn’t perform a sex-selection abortion?”

#9: Are you aware that there are resources for abortion doctors who want to change their career path?

attwn

He may already be aware of Abby Johnson’s And Then There Were None ministry, but I would want to make sure of it. I believe there are some people in the abortion industry who are there mainly because they feel trapped. They don’t think they could get another job and it’s a bad economy. Abby’s ministry has helped 115 clinic workers leave the industry, and this abortion practitioner you’re talking to could be the next if he knows about the resources and has an openness to changing careers.

Question: What would you add to this list?  If you could have coffee with an abortion practitioner, what questions would you ask?

UPDATE 7/13/15: In the original version of this post I used the word “abortionist.” I’ve changed that to “abortion practitioner.” After hosting an online discussion on the best word to use to describe the medical practitioner who performs an abortion, I’ve become convinced that “abortion practitioner” does the best job of not being rude and also not removing all stigma from abortion, both things I think are important. You can jump straight to the discussion about whether that brings too much stigma to abortion here. You can also read my thoughts on how we ought to think of “shame” as it relates to this discussion here.

The post “9 Things I Would Ask an Abortion Practitioner Over Coffee” originally appeared at JoshBrahm.comClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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  • Acyutananda

    “I know that my mind could be changed about abortion legality if I was convinced that bodily rights arguments successfully accomplish what they are designed to accomplish.”

    Do you single out bodily-rights arguments in this way?

    • I assume you meant to write, “WHY do you single out bodily rights arguments this way.”

      That wasn’t an exhaustive list of what would change my mind. I think a combination of the biblical thing and believing that the unborn are not morally relevant human beings or persons would do it as well. I think bodily rights arguments are more likely to succeed, so I used that example instead.

      • GEIxBattleRifle

        Hello Josh. I hope you don’t mind if I post this comment to you and hope it’s not breaking the rules regarding your comments policy it is very very serious.
        When will the intensive focus on species membership stop? I been debating personhood among with my brother Seth for about a full decade now and who you have talked to numerous amount of times over the phone. We started up groups in our high school talking about ET’s and AI’s which I still do daily and my brother graduated not to long ago. It would be good for both sides of this debate to stop what they are doing and learn what words mean before debating. This is very worrying that there is no discussion at all about ET or AI’s yet. There can indeed be a huge difference between being a human and being a person. We have about 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe and last astronomer Carl Sagan estimated roughly that there are probably about one million technological civilizations in our galaxy. There is a particular science fiction show which showed what happened when humans came across a civilization that was less technologically inferior to there’s and that was shown through the movie Avatar. Why is your movement josh telling us when the humans where slaughtering off all the na vi and there children that it could not have been murder since your movement placed them in the non person category? My brother Seth did a survey in our community about what happened and everyone who he polled did agree that it was murder. It is of no surprise since even you yourself among with other pro choicers and pro lifers already accepted decades worth of science fiction displaying to you persons that were not humans at all.

        I do believe you said you were going to go more into ET or AI’s in your new organization from what I heard from my brother. This is just a suggestion, but I would try to do extraterrestrial life first here is why,

        1. It is easier to get information on it. Facts about stars and galaxies and specific names of galaxies and plus if you want to go real deep into it, you can keep up on what NASA has to say on the matter since that is one of the bigger things they do.

        2. From what I see in my brother notebooks he has on ET’s, he has various polls done on how many believe ET actually exists and from rounding it up, it is estimated that 60% of Americans do believe ET exists.

        I could go into Artificial intelligences as well since I happen to be a computer programmer who works with them daily but that will be all for this comment.

        I won’t let my and my brothers work go all to waste and everyone else’s work I will see what I can do to get some more talk on the matter.

  • Charles

    Why on earth do you call those who disagree with your position “abortionists?” Good Lord, is that hideously unkind! Shame on you Josh! Do you believe that all people who are not hard-line prolife are atheists? Some of us are Christians, evangelicals, and clergy.

    • Wow, you’re really misunderstanding what I mean with that word, Charles. Did you read this post before commenting? Because I think the context makes it really clear what I mean by the word “abortionist,” but I’ll still clarify here as well.

      I absolutely do not call everyone who disagrees with me an “abortionist.” I call them “pro-choice,” something that has invited critique from several of my fellow “pro-life” colleagues.

      I actually think all of the labels are somewhat unhelpful because people are more complicated than the labels we give them. I’m pretty effective at avoiding them when talking to people, but it’s harder to not use any labels when writing about groups of people.

      Here are a few pieces where I expand on that:
      https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/accurately-describe-peoples-positions/
      https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/call-anybody-pro-abortion/

      In this piece, by “abortionist” I mean a doctor who physically performs abortions as a living. I’m going beyond encouraging pro-life people to have friends who are pro-choice, (https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/category/relational-apologetics) and encouraging them to actually ask questions of an abortionist if they had the opportunity.

  • Charles Stanley

    I was just reacting to the title, Josh! Your explanation disturbs me even more. Acknowledge please that some mentally ill people have attacked and even killed doctors who perform abortions. The last thing we want to do is use pejorative and dehumanizing names for them like “abortionist.” The first step in being able to kill someone is to take away their humanity. So we call a baby “the products of conception,” and we call our enemies “gooks, krauts, etc.” You were talking about a medical professional (Ob/gyn perhaps), a medical school graduate, and a doctor who likely provides all kinds of medical care to his or her patients. If you are talking about “doctors who perform abortions,” you should have titled your article, “Nine Things I Would ask a Doctor who Performs Abortions,” and not use the word “abortionist,” which is innacurate and demonizing.

    Let me ask you one question: Do you really want to talk about this issue in a way that is truly helpful? Or are you just teaching prolife people how to not be such big of jerks so other people will keep talking to them so you can convert more of them to your position? The former is what we need. The latter is what you seem to promote.

    Our nations needs this dialogue. I have been on both sides of this issue, and I do not find the extremes helpful. I think the problem is not the issue. It’s us. It’s how we insist on talking about it. It’s how black and white we insist this issue must be. Josh, if you are sincere about this effort, please change the title of the article in question, and maybe we can continue this conversation.

  • Charles Stanley

    Josh, you should not call people who do not hold to your position “pro-choice.” That too, is pretty unkind. Only some of people you’re talking about are promoting “choice,” as an ethical value. But others, like me, do not identify as prolife. Many are pro justice, pro-ethical, pro-complexity of the issue, pro-ethical reflection. pro-dialogue. My position on this issue comes directly out of my faith in Jesus Christ. I am totally convinced we need to abandon words like “pro-life” and “pro choice” as those labels reflect an approach to the issue which has gotten us nowhere and divided the nation. Don’t you agree?