Recently, I stood in The Pit at UNC – Chapel Hill and answered challenges from the student body. Greg Koukl's advice that “if anyone gets mad you lose” was foremost in my mind as I dealt with all the common objections when the gathering crowd locked in on the rape exception. As always, I opened with the acknowledgement that rape is grave moral violation of the woman and that I understood that many women may feel that the continuation of the pregnancy is a continuation of that violation. From that foundation, I built the argument that we must address the identification of the life created during the rape and consider our duties and obligations to that life in addition to the emotional condition of the mother. With hundreds of female college students in earshot, I knew that there was probably a young woman that had endured rape listening to me as I made my case.
An angry young man yelled at me, “So you think it is fair to force a woman to have a baby when she was raped?”
This is not rhetorical tennis and it is not required that I hit back the shot served to me. Understanding that we are talking about real people experiencing real fear and pain I responded, “I have been clear from the beginning of this conversation that there is nothing fair about what happens to a woman who has been raped. Whatever happens to her from the moment some man decided to assault her to satisfy his perversity is grossly unfair. When I say that I believe our moral obligations to the unborn human life conceived in that assault require that she not be party to destroying that life, I recognize that I am saying something that is hard for you to like.”
“That said, I don't think it is constructive to argue that she will either be able to get an abortion and begin healing or she will be forced to carry the baby to term and be further victimized. I am not convinced that the seemingly clear answer of allowing abortion in the cases of rape and incest are as superior in consideration of the woman as that simple way of looking at it portrays. I believe we have a moral obligation to protect the unborn life, and I also believe that we have obligations to the born as well. A wounded and hurting woman needs us to step in and offer her love at this point. To make certain she gets counseling, reach her in her needs, and help her to place the child in adoption if she chooses. The argument that human beings matter requires us to offer help and community to these women and not to abandon them to seemingly easy answers.” As students asked what that looked like, I was able to assure them that I have seen people do exactly those things in local pregnancy centers and this was not a case of wishful thinking.
This past year offered me the opportunity to talk to a lot of people from both sides of the issue of abortion. One of the most interesting things I have noticed is how little faith both sides have in each other in general. I think that this is where my past as an atheist and pro-choicer helps me a bit. I am convinced that good arguments by good arguers can make a difference because they made a difference in my life, and when a college student comes at me with guns blazing I picture “college Jay” and think about how to reach that young person. Attitude is unquestionably as important as content in that endeavor.
When I train groups I tell them it is important not to trivialize the felt needs that drive people toward abortion. Our argument is that the unborn are fully human and possess intrinsic moral value and worth. Our argument is not that women who get abortions and people that support abortion are contemptible by nature. Though some people may hold contemptible views or express themselves in contemptible ways, the person in front of me is another human being with intrinsic value and worth and the goal is to convince them they are mistaken on a vitally important moral issue. We should not merely appear as if we care about the person in front of us but actually care about their concerns and ideas.
At a another recent event a woman raised her hand. “What do you say to someone whose argument is that the world is so terrible and awful that it would be wrong to bring a child into it?” We train people in Greg Koukl's tactical approach to conversations using questions to help progress the dialogue, and this group was working on that skill when she asked her question. They waited to hear my response, but I momentarily paused. Not because I didn't have an answer, but because it is too easy to instinctively play that perverse game of rhetorical tennis without noticing something troubling.
I asked her, “Has someone said that to you? An actual pregnant woman considering abortion as opposed to a hypothetical discussion on campus with a student that disagrees with your views?” She nodded. “It is important that you proceed in that conversation with special care. Obviously my first question to her would be to find out what she means when she says the world is terrible and awful. Certainly there are terrible and awful things that happen every day, but there are wonderful and beautiful things that happen as well including – for me – my relationships with my children. Be mindful that the person in front of you may be wrestling with profound difficulties. If someone is convinced there is nothing good in the world and the only response to this is to deny their unborn child the opportunity to be born and live their life - in essence arguing that the ultimate expression of love toward her child is to kill him before he grows to become as miserable as she is - they need more than a good pro-life argument. They need help. They need community.”
Discussing abortion effectively does not require that we immediately access easy answers that settle our every doubt. Leon Kass points out in Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity that our ethical reflections will ultimately be applied by the real human community. That community is messy and complicated and sooner or later we will be forced to confront problems for which there are no easy answers. The presence of suffering, pain, and emotional confusion is not a counter argument to the identification of the unborn as intrinsically valuable human life. The profound pain of a raped woman or the paralyzing depression of a soul that lost all hope in life are not marginalized by arguing that unborn human life has a fundamental right not to be unjustly killed. Nor does the introduction of the choice of abortion act as a magical cure for such things. They are issues for which there are no easy answers and so the pro-life view does not suffer for failing to do what can't be done. There is no world of easy answers to terrible realities.