I had the privilege of joining with a pro-life exhibit at the College of the Sequoia’s this week. Some pro-life activists from Sacramento put together a small display, similar in many ways to Justice For All’s wonderful exhibit, brought it to COS and invited me to dialogue with the pro-abortion-choice people there.
Overall, it was a great day with many fruitful conversations. I want to share one memory that stuck in my mind. While I was talking with one of the pro-life volunteers, I overheard one of the younger pro-lifers engage with a frustrated pro-choicer. We’ll call the pro-lifer “Charlie,” since I’m not here to embarrass him, and overall he did a wonderful job at the exhibit, and I expect great things from him in the future. He could have just handled this particular confrontation a bit better.
The pro-choicer made a comment along the lines of, “I don’t like abortion, but if it’s made illegal, women will be hurt in back-alley abortions.”
Charlie’s response? “So you think we should legalize murder?” (Add a hint of combative attitude to the tone, and you’ve got the picture.)
Now, I know where Charlie was going with this - he wanted to explain that we shouldn’t make or keep immoral things legal to make the crime safer for the felon. For example, we wouldn’t make murder legal to make things easier and safer for murderers, because murder is wrong. Unfortunately, our pro-choice friend who had probably never explored that logic, misunderstood where Charlie was going with this.
Instead, he responded, “Now, that’s called a strawman argument. That has nothing to do with what I just said.”
So to be clear, Charlie hadn’t made a strawman argument; he just wasn’t very clear in his argumentation.
I wasn’t able to hear all of Charlie’s response, but it was basically a second try at responding to the original pro-choice objection, and it still had that same combative tone. Then the pro-choicer starts talking about red herrings. He obviously wasn’t getting it, and he stormed off before I could catch him to continue the discussion.
Several hours later I was eating lunch with Charlie and another young volunteer, when the subject of effective dialogue came up.
I started by explaining how sometimes we hear an argument that we’ve heard over and over, like the back-alley thing, and we want to zero in for that “gotcha” moment. I added, “But in one-on-one conversations, we need to remember to take people slowly through our argument, making sure we make a clear case, and avoid asking pointed questions that will make the person feel defensive.” As Steve Wagner brilliantly put it in one of his recent newsletters, sometimes it’s more important to have “I get you” moments than “gotcha” moments.
Charlie responded that it can be easy to lose track of where you’re going. I agreed, and responded that we need to be careful not to get pulled down rabbit trails. I said,
“This morning you spoke with someone who was concerned about back-alley abortions. Now, that’s a legitimate concern that we should be willing to talk about. While I think it will be a lot rarer than some people say, I do think that illegal abortions will probably happen in one form or another, and it’s a valid concern worth discussing. So, stay focused on that for a while.
Sometimes I start by explaining that while illegal abortions happened before Roe vs. Wade, the vast majority of them were performed in doctors’ offices, not back alleys. That’s according to the former medical director of Planned Parenthood. Also, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the co-founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), admitted to exaggerating the statistics about how many women were dying from illegal back-alley abortions!
Sometimes it’s after explaining this that I’ll bring in the more important point: As Scott Klusendorf has said, this argument begs the question. It assumes that the unborn are not human, or else the pro-choicer is saying that because some people will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. That just doesn’t make sense.”
So to sum up:
A gracious answer +
knowledge of the issue at hand +
common ground questions –
will often =