My First Pro-life Display Was a Flop

My first pro-life display wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was pretty close. My goal was to get the ball rolling and build up some campus presence. It bugged me that no one seemed to know my pro-life club existed, and I wanted to change that. One way to do so was outreach. The goal of outreach is to raise awareness and educate students on the issue of abortion. It also gives you a chance to recruit new club members.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.

Image of college campus.

Our group decided to use a display board that showed how many abortions happened in just the past hour, while students were in class. The board had painted baby feet, one for each child killed by abortion. Creating the display was a fantastic bonding opportunity for our group.

I was advised by one of our coordinators not to have too much on the table to avoid it looking cluttered. So I only picked out handfuls of our club info flyer, pregnancy resource cards, and pro-life merchandise. There was also a short stack of papers with what I took to be general pro-life material, based on a quick skim before the tabling. So we had our display as our attention-getter, and then the materials neatly laid out next to it.

At the outreach, we each grabbed a chair and sat behind the table, eagerly waiting for student interaction. Unfortunately, that wait lasted the majority of the day. Most people ignored the display, which was disappointing because I thought it would help stir engagement.

Then, one of our members, Mike, spotted his friend walking near us. Let’s call her Julie. They casually talked for a short bit, and then he asked her what she thought about abortion.

Julie: “It’s my body” (gesturing to her stomach).

Mike: “It’s not your body.”

Julie: “But it’s in my body.”

Mike: “But it’s someone else’s body.”

She seemed a bit frustrated towards the end (reasonably so, as he was misunderstanding her position), and then she turned away from him and towards me.

With a calm tone, she tells me, “Hey, I just wanted to say that I don’t like abortion, but your display…I think it could be seen as kind of harsh by some people.” I was a bit confused at the complaint, and replied with, “Well, people can get offended with just about anything, right?” Julie then clarified that her concern was for women who’ve had abortions. If they saw our display, it could make them feel awful—like we’re singling them out. I remember the words she used because they caught me by surprise: She said she felt like we were “targeting them.”

I assured her that was not our intention at all. I told her we were trying to raise awareness about abortion by getting people’s attention—whether from the display or the shocking numbers. Then I reached for the stack of papers. “And we have this,” I replied, pointing to a section on post-abortive help and reading aloud, “For healing and forgiveness after abortion.” She wasn’t exactly happy with that. “Forgiveness?” She scoffed. Her expression and tone were that of growing impatience and disbelief as if I had to be joking.

I scrambled for words, realizing I had made a colossal mistake. My eyes darted around the table and found our pregnancy support cards. I pointed them out to her, and this calmed the tension a bit. I quickly recollected myself and acknowledged she had a point. I expressed to her that our group would be more mindful of women who’ve had abortions; that we’d be more intentional about the resources we bring.

She thanked me for listening. By her tone, I could tell that this subject was really important to her, and she appreciated that I cared about it too.

We shared goodbye’s in a friendly manner, and she walked away.

My Club Has Changed The Way We Table

The conversation with Julie was one of the few conversations that day; in terms of engagement with our peers, the display was a disaster. However, we tried to table for the first time, and everyone has to start somewhere. Here are some of the ways we learned from our mistakes; use them so you can start from a better place than we did.

We Know To Actively Engage Students

Our group didn’t have many conversations that day because we were sitting down behind the table and expecting people to come to us. We underestimated how easy it is for students to look straight ahead, keep walking, and ignore us.

The particular way to reach out varies, but in our case, we should have been asking students if they knew about the statistic. Our group lacked training in dialogue, so a “Did you know?” might have been our best bet. That would have also helped us find pro-life students and invite them to our club.

Dialogue-trained groups can find creative ways to start conversations, such as asking students to check out their display or answer a poll question. And if introverted members struggle with this, the outgoing members can help by bringing students over from the flow of traffic. Extroverts, lead the way!

We Read All Materials Thoroughly Beforehand

I made the mistake of not thoroughly knowing what was in the post-abortive pamphlet before I pointed it out to Julie. If I had been more familiar with its content, I wouldn’t have brought it up in the conversation the way I did. The religious messaging about forgiveness after abortion was off-putting to her and distracting to the point I was trying to make. I wish I would have emphasized the social support group opportunities, where women with similar experiences can connect. I think it would have been more relatable for her.

Now when I have resources out on the table, I’ve pre-screened everything thoroughly to consider two factors: first, how will this resource be a reflection of our group? Is that the way we want to be perceived? That means merely having “pro-life” slapped on it is no longer enough. Second, does this resource directly serve the needs of this display, or would it be better to use it at another event? Just because a resource is great doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for the particular goals of that day.

We Listen Carefully

When Julie expressed her concern about the display, I could have responded with, “Like it or not, that’s the truth, ma’am.” After all, I was initially a bit defensive about the display and assumed she was wrong. But how would that approach get Julie to even consider the pro-life message if she thought I didn’t care? And how would prematurely disregarding her opinion help me be a better pro-life advocate?

I listened to Julie’s concerns and admitted she had a point, even though I was tempted to do otherwise. Now when I talk with people, I feel more prepared for them to criticize something about that display; I plan to use that criticism to both improve our approach to be conducive to conversations and as another opportunity for abortion dialogue.

We Consider How Post-Abortive Women Will View the Table

Thanks to Julie, I started to think of the impact of how we package our message, especially for post-abortive women. Whenever we have a table we always include support cards explicitly made for women who have had abortions.

Her comments also pushed me to be more intentional in my everyday life, whether on social media or in conversation. I’m working on the habit of thinking, “Will this unnecessarily bring distress to people who need healing from abortion?” This consideration is in my mind before I post something online or use a sign.

We Consider How Pro-choice People Will View the Table

As I’ve been involved on campus and listened to pro-life advocates, I’ve also learned more about pro-choice people and how they think. It turns out your typical pro-choice person doesn’t like abortion and wants some restrictions on it, but hasn’t figured out specifics. This person also tends to find abortion discussions to be uncomfortable—partly due to the controversial nature of the topic, but also due to how these discussions usually play out. You could say this person is “in the middle.”

Given that my club wants to educate students and help to change their minds on abortion, the “mushy middle” pro-choice student is our primary audience. Hence, we consider, “What are people in the middle going to think of this? How will this help them think about abortion in a new way?”

To illustrate our new thought process, let’s run a cost-benefit analysis of two possible displays. The first has a similar approach to the display we used at our first tabling. It is a sign that says, “Face it: Abortion kills.” The second says, “Do you think abortion kills a valuable life?”

One metric can be whether or not the display invites conversations. Imagine a student who is in the “pro-choice middle” passes by and sees the first display. It might come across to them like our club is looking to monologue rather than dialogue. They might be afraid to ask questions or talk with us. What about the second display? It might seem like our group is open-minded, and asking for what others think of the issue. It’s a great way to start a conversation, and their answer will help us understand what kind of pro-life argument will be helpful for them.

Being more inviting can not only help to start conversations but also gets those conversations off to a better start. If you ask students what they think after they read the first display, they will probably have negative assumptions about you, such as you being uninterested in what they have to say. On top of that, they may also be defensive because you’ve asserted a position and now they must respond.

For the second display, there is nothing to defend—it’s just an open question.

Another metric is whether the display has any unnecessary negative effects. Being a group who publicly opposes abortion, we’re automatically going to upset some people. And I think it’s okay to make people uncomfortable with activism; That’s necessary for people to encounter ideas they disagree with. The goal isn’t to avoid all controversy, otherwise, we’d not table at all. Instead, the goal is to not do anything that would needlessly upset people or give them the wrong impression about who we are. This way, they don’t become even less receptive to the pro-life message. We’re already fighting an uphill battle to get people to talk about abortion—why would I want to turn them off more?

This sort of evaluation goes through my mind whenever my club is deciding what tabling display to set up at our next event. Having conversations with our peers who disagree is really important to us, so we choose to use questions that are inviting and that avoid unnecessary turmoil. Making these small changes has helped our group to get into more dialogues and have them start out in a more relational and relaxed way that lays the groundwork for minds to change.

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Aldo Gonzalez is a sophomore at St. Norbert College, double majoring in Communication and Computer Science. He is involved with the college newspaper, writing pieces as an Opinion Columnist. Aldo also currently serves as the president of Knights for Life, the pro-life group on campus.

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