As an officer of Titans for Life at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (one of our wonderful Affiliate Groups across the country), Sally Windler knows ERI apologetics forward, backward, and inside out. Recently, on the way out of a pro-choice panel discussion on her college campus, Sally stumbled upon an all-too-common scene: two men with cameras strapped to their bodies, holding a giant image of a bloody, dismembered baby doll. A camera on a tripod nearby recorded the small crowd that had formed around the pair as they screamed Bible verses at the appalled students.
Unfortunately, this scene is all too familiar to the pro-life advocates we train. In fact, one of the most common questions we receive from sidewalk counselors is how to handle “abolitionist” activists who act like this (or worse). It is often the case that no matter what the more gracious pro-lifer says;, the abolitionist will often get argumentative or just refuse to talk to the advocate at all, making progress nearly impossible.
Yet, after only one conversation with Sally, these two abortion abolitionists abandoned their bullhorns and walked away!
So, how did she do it?
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Tip #1: Lowered her voice (and their defenses)
Sally approached very calmly and began speaking in the quietest voice she could muster. It’s a de-escalation tactic she’d learned from her fiancé, who worked in a jail; if you keep your voice low and quiet, they have to stop screaming to hear what you’re saying. And it worked. He stopped screaming and turned to listen to her, as did the entire crowd. Sally had everyone’s undivided attention.
Tip #2: Emphasized that they were on the same team
If there’s one thing he wasn’t expecting, it was someone who wasn’t pro-choice to approach him.
“I think what you’re doing isn’t really reaching people with the pro-life message.”
Sally quietly explained that she shared his belief that abortion is wrong, but that she was concerned that his tactics were hurting the pro-life movement rather than helping. When he retorted that he’s not “pro-life”—he’s an “abolitionist” striving for the prohibition of all abortions—he was immediately taken aback by her response.
“I want that, too. And it’s exactly because I actually want to end abortion that I think we need to be effective in our methods.”
Expanding upon their shared desire to end abortion, she suggested that bloodied signs like his are pushing people away rather than reaching them, and that reaching them is possible. Compassion reaches people; it opens them to change their hearts and minds. For Sally, as well as the abolitionists (and you’ll see how much that matters in just a moment!), there was one extremely obvious example of compassion: Jesus. Jesus’ ministry and teachings serve as a model for many things, but a particularly important one is how to reach people and transform their lives. Surprisingly enough, Jesus didn’t primarily use visual shock tactics and yelling; He reached people through compassion.
There are effective ways to reach pro-choice people, to change hearts and minds, and to save babies. We want to end abortion, and we know abortion abolitionists do, too. In this case, the example of Jesus and what will actually reach people…they’re the same thing. It’s compassionate conversations.
Tip #3: Followed Jesus’ example
That’s the second thing they weren’t expecting: someone who was a Christian to approach them. Of course, Sally doesn’t usually bring up Christianity in conversations about abortion, but in this case, she took a (highly probable) gamble that religion was a foundational driver for their behavior, and she was right.
They were caught off guard that she was the first one to bring up God in their discussion, and it took them a second to regroup. After one of them referenced a few Old Testament Bible verses attempting to support his aggressive methods, Sally asked a simple question.
“What do you think our mission is as Christians?”
The man fumbled around for a few moments before ultimately settling on “serving justice for the Church of God.”
“I don’t agree with that,” Sally responded calmly. “Our mission is to imitate Christ. Christ was not harsh; he was compassionate. He didn’t scream at the sinners around Him to pronounce that they were going to hell; He met them where they were at, in the mess of their sin, and called them to a better way of living.”
He responded by citing the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple. Sally argued that pointing to this story, and this story only, from the New Testament ignores the totality of his ministry, where he looked with compassion upon the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, who are arguably far more similar to the women of today facing unexpected pregnancies than the Pharisees are.
“So you don’t care about the Old Testament?” he retorted.
“I do care about the Old Testament,” she replied quietly, “but what makes us Christians is precisely our belief in the New Testament. The New Testament fundamentally changed how humans are called to understand God, as the Old Testament was fulfilled in the life and teachings of Jesus. If our mission as Christians is to imitate Christ, then how Christ behaved when He walked this earth must be the example by which we model our lives.”
Then, as Sally brought the dialogue back to this common ground and their shared mission to end abortion, the two abolitionists packed up and left.
The reason they gave?
“We really have to get going, we have to return these rocks.”
“Return these rocks?!” Someone from the crowd looked incredulously at the few rocks propping up the base of the tripod, which were pretty clearly not an urgent matter to “return.”
I can’t sit here and tell you exactly why they left. I can’t speculate as to whether they’ll be back on campus some future Tuesday, or whether what Sally said made them honestly reconsider their ways. But Sally’s respectful and loving pushback made them leave that day, and it opened the door for the pro-choice students listening to hear an effective pro-life message.
“I’m surprised you’re so nice!” A student from the crowd walked up to Sally after the men began walking away. “You feel like someone I can actually talk to about this.”
About a week later, Sally was attending a Walk for Life to benefit the local pregnancy center when, lo and behold, the same abolitionists appeared on the sidewalk. There were no bloody signs or screaming tactics this time; they were handing out cards to the pro-life walkers that said #notavictim, referring to the concept that post-abortive women are not victims.
Sally approached, handed the card back, and quietly told him that she didn’t think this tactic was effective either. Almost the same conversation ensued; he brought up the same points, she kept her voice low and calmly brought up the same common ground and rebuttals.
“Don’t you feel a sense of urgency about this?!” he pressed.
“Yes, I do, and that’s exactly why I behave the way I do towards pro-choice people and exactly why I’m here today supporting tangible help for women. I want to actually change minds. I believe that your methods are causing further division, making people less open to changing their minds.”
“But don’t you think we need to change the abortion laws?”
“Absolutely we do, which means we must change the minds of voters. That’s my goal.”
He had no reply to that.
As he started inching closer to his car, Sally said she’d love to continue their conversation another time, and they could discuss more theology next time, too. She’d studied up on the Old Testament verses he’d brought up at their last meeting and said she’d be happy to chat through those with him.
Abolitionists only have two options to justify their behavior; hypothetically, they can prove that God wants us to behave this way, or they can prove that this is the effective way to end abortion.
But if our mission as Christians is to imitate Christ, then our behavior must be modeled after Jesus, who neither shouted accusations nor offered assurances that sins were no big deal. He accepted our brokenness with compassion while calling us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if effectiveness at changing hearts and minds—actually ending abortion and doing so urgently—is our goal, too, then the behaviors and tactics that actually reach pro-choice people are of the utmost importance. The psychology of persuasion matters.
Here’s the thing: Sally understood the people she was talking to. She knew the kind of arguments they would make, but also the kind of arguments they would respond to. She understood what they cared about, what sort of things made them hold the position they did, and how to connect her pro-life position to those things. It’s the same kind of thing we do with the Equal Rights Argument: we show people who care about equality why abortion is a huge violation of equal rights. But if you’re truly listening to and trying to understand the people with whom you dialogue, you’ll find more opportunities to show them why their worldview should actually lead them to your position on abortion.
Sally’s courage to begin an ongoing dialogue with the abolitionists in her town got them to leave not once, but twice, saving potentially hundreds of passersby from further misunderstanding and detesting the pro-life position. And she opened the hearts of the students on her campus who did see the abolitionists by exhibiting wisdom and compassion.
Don’t be afraid to dialogue with abortion abolitionists or other “difficult” people, pro-life or pro-choice. Your witness can change minds.
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The post Compassion works. Bullhorns don’t. 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.”