Four Lessons From My First Conversation About Abortion

One windy Saturday morning, I was downtown doing a Students for Life display with a few other college students. My dialogue training at that point was minimal, so I wasn’t very hopeful about my ability to help people change their minds. Sure, I knew some general apologetics and how to “Trot Out A Toddler,” and our Students for Life Coordinator had introduced me to the Equal Rights Argument that morning. I wasn’t filled with confidence but I was open to talking with anyone walking by regardless.

My First Dialogue with a Pro-Choice Person

A lady was walking by our display, holding a camera. Let’s call her Maria. I asked if she wanted to see our display. She agreed and glanced at it for a bit. I then asked what she thought about it, and about abortion in general.

Maria’s response was that women go through difficult circumstances, which makes it tough for her to be against abortion. She pointed out that it was tough for me to get it because I’m a guy. I nodded and let her continue. She added, “Even I don’t know what some women go through.” I was surprised at her sincerity. Admitting you don’t know something to someone you just met who probably disagrees with you about a serious subject is a sign of intellectual virtue.

Due to the wind, I had to stand behind some of the display stands and hold them in place so they would not fall over. This made it awkward because she wasn’t that close, and I couldn’t get closer. I couldn’t maintain good body language or eye contact. This all made it tough to listen well and also speak at a low volume.

Maria went on to list examples of women in dire situations: women who feel so poor, alone, and powerless, that they leave their born children out in a dumpster. I told her I had heard of cases like these as well and that I agreed they were awful stories. Then I asked if she thought doing that should be legal, and she said no. The rest is as follows:

Me: So the born child should be legally protected, even if the woman is going through those difficult things?

Maria Yes.

Me: Hmm… Let me ask you this: do you think you and I are equal?

Maria: Yeah.

Me: Do you think everyone around us is equal to us?

Maria: Yeah.

Me: We have so many differences, though. What do you think makes us equal?

Maria: Well, we’re human.

Me: (Nodding) Aren’t the unborn human, too?

Maria: Yeah… That makes sense… It’s just tough.

At that point, I nodded, and she thanked me for the conversation. She also asked if she could take a photo of us for her photography class, and we gladly agreed.

I felt great, and not just because she might have changed her mind, but because this was my first substantial conversation about abortion. I had made the effort to get out of my comfort zone, and this was the fruit of my labor: talking to a sincere person who seemed to really care about people.

It’s true this dialogue was short and that her final position was unclear, but it still provided a good opportunity for me to practice dialogue skills and learn how to better talk with pro-choice people. I’m going to share four lessons I’ve learned since then that have made me a better pro-life advocate. Had I known of these that day, I would have been much more intentional about getting to know her position and figuring out any other obstacles to her firmly becoming pro-life.

Lesson 1: Ask More Clarification Questions

Now that I’ve had more dialogue training and experience, I wish I could go back and ask Maria more about why she thought differently about moral decisions in difficult circumstances for born children and unborn children. I would ask a clarification question like, “Can you explain what you mean by it being tough? Do you mean pregnancy situations are so tough that you think they justify abortion? Or do you agree abortion should be illegal, but you’re struggling with how women can overcome those tough situations?

Or perhaps I would have talked through how I think about it and share my view in clear detail: “Of course, women, even those with born children, go through difficult circumstances. I think we can have sympathy for these mothers while also saying that toddlers should not be harmed for those reasons. Instead, we should help the mother so she can overcome her situation. And because I believe that unborn children are valuable like toddlers or you and I, that same logic applies to pregnant women in difficult circumstances.”

One of the best parts of this conversation was that Maria was so open and the interaction was civil. Of course, civility is not the finish line in dialogues—it is only the beginning. I’m personally striving to love the other person, which goes far beyond civility. I think I could have helped the person in front of me more if I would have pushed her to think a little deeper.

Lesson 2: Changing My Body Language

In the Equipped for Life Course, there is a lesson about body language during dialogues which helps pro-life advocates think through how to best stand or sit to help our interactions not feel so stiff or awkward. If I could go back to that day with what I know now from the course, I would have definitely prioritized standing closer without an object in the way. That was more important than making sure our displays wouldn’t fall over. After all, the purpose of the display was to start conversations and once I was speaking with Maria, it had served its purpose.

Lesson 3: Letting Go of Arguments with Question Marks

The version of the Equal Rights Argument I presented to Maria involved several broken-up questions that led her to a conclusion. This formulation indeed helped me, as a beginner, deliver the argument. Also, Maria was an especially easy person to talk to, so it wasn’t a problem for this dialogue. However, making arguments this way can negatively influence the atmosphere of the conversation. It can easily make others feel defensive in that you’re hiding something and just trying to trap them. Now they might be more worried about saving face than about taking your view seriously. I don’t want people to feel that way. I want to make a strong argument that is convincing and easy to understand, and I want to give people the space and time to think through it.

I found ERI’s lesson above on not making arguments with question marks helpful. I should instead be ending my arguments as a statement. So, in this case, I now would lay out the argument in its entirety, and then ask for the person’s thoughts.

Questions are really important in the conversation, but ERI’s style is to ask clarification questions over leading questions and to make arguments in the form of a statement rather than a question. I have come to appreciate that approach. When I make the Equal Rights Argument, I begin by asking the person to imagine themselves as the ruler of the universe, who has the authority to decide what is in the “equal right to life circle” and what is not. I’d then go through a handful of examples, such as people who aren’t great at math, tall people, not-so-great-looking people, and ask about animals too, like squirrels. After we’ve sorted through what belongs inside and outside the circle, I could ask, “what do all of these (things you put in the circle) have in common?”

Sometimes they give different answers like sentience, self-awareness, and the like. And the Equipped for Life Course talks through how to respond to these ideas and how to make the argument in much more detail than I am giving here. Sometimes the person will reply, “Well, they’re human,” because they have sorted all sorts of human beings into the circle but excluded animals like squirrels or dogs. I could then make an argument for the case of the unborn in one of two ways:

Argument made with a question: “Well, we know that the unborn are human too so don’t you think they should be included in the Equal Right to Life Circle?”

Argument made with a statement: “I think you’re right. I think that there is something about our shared humanity that gives us this right to life and everyone that is human should be protected from violence. That’s why I’m pro-life. I think our humanity is the reason we deserve an equal right to life, and I apply that same thinking to the issue of abortion. The human embryo also shares that same valuable thing that everyone in the circle has, so I believe that they should be included as well. What do you think?”

Making the argument with a statement and then asking for their thoughts gives the other person the opportunity to think through my position for themselves and voice objections without feeling like I put words in their mouth or backed them into a corner with a fast “gotcha” maneuver. And while a leading, confrontational approach is valuable in some debate circles, it is much less convincing to everyday people who are open to thinking through their own views and hearing mine.

Lesson 4: Conversations are Worth the Risk

My biggest takeaway relates to Voltaire’s quote:

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

I’ve realized that sometimes I can still do good with just a bit of training. And, if I have basic civility, this becomes a low-risk, high-reward scenario. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Training-wise, If I get asked a question I can’t answer, I can just be honest and admit I don’t know. And civility-wise, if I get an aggressive person, I at least won’t be yelling or insulting back.

What will I gain? Almost always, real-life experience with someone who disagrees with me, which leads to greater understanding. Starting is one of the most challenging steps, but I had to start somewhere, and I’m glad I did. And for future conversations, I will not only learn lessons that I can later reflect on, but I’ll be able to better cement the relational aspect of relational apologetics. I have friends who find it so easy to call the pro-choice side idiots and extremists, but that’s partially because they only see the pro-choice view portrayed through random people on Facebook or politicians. This all changes when you’re talking to a real person who sincerely cares about others.

And in some of my potential conversations, I might be able to make an impact on the other person. Maybe I won’t always change their mind, but I may at least give them a better impression of the pro-life side. I try to remember what the staff at ERI often say: I might be the first reasonable, charitable pro-life person they’ve ever met.

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The post Four Lessons From My First Conversation About Abortion originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Abortion and Moral Culpability

One of our best tools in conversations about abortion is Trot out a Toddler (TOAT). It’s really helpful because it communicates how we need to think about unborn humans if we admit that they’re persons. Once you accept the conclusion that the fetal human is a valuable person like us, then it’s just as wrong to harm that child as it would be to harm a toddler. Even if there are difficult circumstances surrounding many abortions, if those circumstances wouldn’t justify killing a toddler, then they wouldn’t justify abortion, either. Often this helps the two people discussing abortion identify that they their disagreement on this issue isn’t due to a disagreement about how awful the circumstances of the world are, whether or not people who are suffering need our help, or anything of the sort. Rather, they disagree about the moral status of the unborn human.

There are some nice advantages of TOAT: it’s clear, simple, and reasonably effective. However, it also has a couple prominent drawbacks. Sometimes, TOAT causes pro-choice people to believe that we’re claiming that women who get abortions have both the same moral callousness and the same moral culpability as women who kill their toddlers. We’re not making either claim, but since we’re saying thing X is like thing Y in at least one way, unless we clearly say otherwise, it’s understandable for them to assume that we think they’re alike in other ways. People are fallible and often make assumptions (pro-life people no less than pro-choice people), so as the pro-life advocate is it good practice to clarify what you’re saying if you get the feeling that someone is misunderstanding you.

Just because it’s worth saying twice: we at ERI do not believe that women who get abortions are just like women who kill their toddlers. Even though the child who dies in each situation is of the same value, it takes a twisted heart to kill your toddler in cold blood, and that just isn’t true of most women who get abortions right now. Maybe it seems like I’m splitting hairs; if you’re pro-life, you probably consider it obvious that an unborn baby is just as much a person as an older child, and if it were obvious to everyone, then it would make sense for laws to be the same for both. But for a woman who’s been told that she is just getting a clump of cells removed because she can’t afford a baby, it’s not at all obvious to her that they’re the same. Women have been sold a lie about abortion in our culture. The messaging is politically and financially motivated, but it is a convincing message. And if trusted health professionals are offering her a way out of a difficult situation and telling her that no real people get hurt, she has no malice towards her child because she doesn’t think one is there. She probably wouldn’t get an abortion if she knew that it harms and kills a person. This is clearly and totally different from a parent who kills their toddler, whom they’ve raised and whose status as a person is not in doubt.

The Anatomy of a Pro-Life Conversation

I have decided to share with you a transcript of an email exchange I had over the course of a few weeks with a woman from Canada; the emails have been lightly edited for clarity. At different points, I’ll be sharing my thought process about what’s going on in the conversation. The goal is to provide an illustration of how to implement some of the dialogue skills and arguments we talk about on the blog and in the Equipped for Life Course. Sometimes the pro-life advocates we train ask for us to demonstrate how our dialogue tips and arguments fit together in a real-time conversation. With permission from the woman who reached out to me, I am sharing this example so that it may be helpful to others.

The Anatomy of a Pro-Life Conversation

Hello Andrew,

I am Christian, and pro-life, for myself. Jesus died for my sins, I am ready to die for others. I am not sure if we can impose that kind of requirement on everybody though. I have been thinking over and over about the ethical arguments on abortion since the birth of my son and I was brought to be ambivalent if we can outlaw abortion in all circumstances. And what happens if the foetus has all the same legal rights than the mother, especially during the birth process?

My questioning goes in two levels:

1) An ethical questioning of self-sacrifice versus self-preservation

2) The legal rights of a mother over her own body during childbirth versus the right of the foetus to have their lives protected.

Would you care to give me a bit of your time to help me rest my thinking and solidify my pro-life thinking?



To be honest, my first thought on reading this was, why are you emailing me? This is the first time I’ve ever been contacted by someone whom I don’t know to talk about abortion. Everyone else at ERI has a lot more campus outreach experience than me, and, frankly, I find interpersonal interactions and dialogues a lot more challenging than philosophy. But sometimes you’re the person who needs to give an answer, whether or not you feel completely qualified.

Hello Jane,

Thank you for your message! You’re right in thinking that the moral requirements of Christianity are more than what the state can demand from its citizens. However, it’s reasonable for the government to demand that we don’t kill other people; if we take seriously the idea that the fetus is a human person, then abortion would be an act of killing against an innocent person, and it would make sense to outlaw it.

There is definitely self-sacrifice required in pregnancy, but that sacrifice almost never entails a need to die for the child in the womb. Even in the United States, where we have a higher maternal mortality rate than is typical, that rate is 18 deaths per 100,000 live births. That’s unacceptably high, but it’s also .018 percent of all cases, so while it’s concerning and could be a justification for abortion in those specific cases (a “life of the mother” exception), it wouldn’t be a good justification for abortion in the other 99.982 percent of cases.

So, let’s assume the state can’t reasonably require people to die for their children; what amount of sacrifice can the state demand from parents, and mothers in particular? This is where the question of whether or not the fetus is a person becomes very important. If we believe that fetal humans are persons, then we have a duty not to kill them. Pregnancy is often difficult, and labor is usually extremely painful (my wife’s labor was quite rough); outlawing abortion means women are required to go through a lot of pain and bodily changes, which is a sacrifice. However, I don’t think that the challenges of a relatively normal pregnancy are sufficient to justify killing the child in the womb. Financial challenges, stress, and most health difficulties aren’t good reasons to kill another person. There are certain serious complications which might justify it, but those go back to the “life of the mother” exception.

As far as what happens if the fetal human has all the same legal rights as the mother, I think that this is nothing but beneficial during the birth process. There are at least two patients in the room who need to be treated with care, and I’m not aware of a situation in a developed country which would require care for one party to require death or foregoing treatment for the other. Just as throughout pregnancy, all that would be required is not making treatment decisions that pose unnecessary harm to the child. Even in cases of severe pre-eclampsia requiring very early delivery, the goal of the medical staff should be to ensure the health of both mother and child.

I hope this was helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions.


Andrew Kaake

Does Your Image Need a Face-Lift?

Image: Man choosing from multiple face options.

“Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Socialism”

Don’t Apologize to the Mob”

Do titles like this sound familiar? Sure, the content inside might be entertaining to those who agree, but if you spoke like that in a conversation, would you convince anyone?

It’s really easy to forget the “relational” part of “relational apologetics,” especially when interacting online. It’s hard to remember that there’s a person on the other end of your comment or tweet. In dialogue, it’s critical to treat others with respect, even to give them a more-than-fair hearing. [Tweet that!] It’s the right thing to do, and it also makes you stand out if you treat people charitably in spite of deep disagreement.

Of course, this is hard to do, especially when you’re passionate and you believe your cause is just. You probably know “that guy” who knows all the arguments—he’s got personhood nailed, he has a whole magazine of bullets to bite for sovereign zone objections, and he’s memorized the entire De Facto Guardian paper—and he can’t wait to destroy the weak points of the opposition! It sounds funny to read, but too many people get excited about fighting for truth and justice against the new American way and forget that people normally have to want to talk to you in order for you to help them change their mind.

I don’t want to spend too much time here arguing against the destroy approach—I’ll just say that it’s somewhat fun but not helpful and please don’t do it—because I want to focus on a different question.

Pro-Choice Doesn’t Have to Mean Pro-Roe

American abortion laws are among the most radical in the world. Unfortunately, though almost everyone knows that Roe v. Wade made abortion legal at the federal level, few people understand exactly how the case changed the country’s abortion laws. This gives me the opportunity to educate people when dialoguing about abortion at Arizona State University, and I’ve found that many pro-choice people change their attitude about Roe when they understand it better.

Photo: Supreme Court Building. "Pro-Choice Doesn’t Have to Mean Pro-Roe"

Picture Credit: Duncan Lock, Dflock – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

One Way to Dialogue about Roe

Many people label themselves as “pro-choice,” but this label doesn’t tell us much. People’s views on abortion restrictions can vary greatly, from wanting no restrictions whatsoever, to only having legal abortion available in the first trimester in the case of rape. However, the majority of people I’ve spoken to on college campuses will vaguely agree that they don’t support late-term abortion. After providing them with a few simple facts about late-term abortion, almost everyone will agree such procedures should be illegal. The example dialogue below illustrates how a pro-life advocate can help a pro-choice person realize that they disagree with the extremism of Roe because of their existing beliefs about late-term abortion: