Reforming the Abortion Debate

We can’t escape it. Whether it’s sparked by a fierce presidential campaign, by a highly publicized women’s march, by some newly proposed piece of legislation, or simply by an incendiary meme on Facebook, the abortion debate won’t go away.

As much as we seem to talk about abortion, though, it’s incredible how little progress we’ve actually made. If anything, we’re as far from common ground right now as we’ve ever been. And from my vantage point, we seem to be angrier about it, too.

Why is this? Why does this incessant topic of national conversation continue to be such a hotbed of disagreement and hostility? Why aren’t we getting anywhere?

The answers to these questions are far more complex than I can hope to understand, no less write about. But as I’ve watched this debate play out recently (and as I’ve joined the fray on a few occasions), I’m starting to notice a trend. I could easily be wrong about this. But I have a hunch that I’m at least barking up the right tree.

When it comes to the abortion debate in America, we’re not really communicating. And we haven’t been for quite some time.

Sure, there’s plenty of shouting and pointing and burning with outrage. Lots of words are flying back and forth. But in the midst of all our passionate exchanges, we’re not really talking to each other.

This hit home for me recently when I saw an image of a woman at a rally holding a sign expressing what was undoubtedly a deeply-held conviction for her. In bold, eye-catching letters, it said something along the lines of, “Keep your laws away from my uterus!” (I think the phrasing was catchier than that, but you get the point.) Here was an enthusiastic defender of reproductive rights making her statement to the world: The government has no business telling her what she can and can’t do with her bodily organs.

And as a pro-life person, I looked at that sign and I thought to myself, “Yep. I completely agree.”

Taking the woman’s sign at face value, you’d be hard pressed to find anything controversial about it, regardless of your position on abortion. One could just as easily hold up a sign that says, “Keep your laws away from my liver!” Or perhaps, “Keep your laws away from my fingernails!” Who’s going to object to that? Nobody wants the government meddling with our body parts.

But herein lies the problem with the sign – and with our national conversation about abortion in general. It doesn’t actually address anything that the opposing side believes.

If you ask the average pro-life advocate how she feels about a woman having autonomy over her own body, she’ll probably tell you she’s all for it. But when it comes to abortion, autonomy over one’s body isn’t the issue for the pro-life advocate. The issue is the autonomy of another human being occupying space within her body.

You see, one of the foundational beliefs of nearly everyone who holds to a pro-life position is the fact that every pregnancy introduces a living human being into the world who has the same rights as any other human being. And so in the end, abortion isn’t merely about a woman and her uterus. There’s someone else’s interests to consider. And the fact that this “someone else” still happens to reside in the womb doesn’t affect his or her claim to basic human rights.

Now the sign-carrying woman may indeed disagree with the above position. (Most likely she does.) That’s fine. But her sign is missing the point. It may be cute and clever. It may make pro-life people delightfully angry. It may be shareable on social media. But it’s not really communicating anything.

And lest I come across as unfairly partisan here, let me be the first to admit that this criticism cuts both ways. While we’re picking on sign-holders, let’s head to the other side of the street. Because there’s certainly plenty of material to work with there, too. And plenty of those signs are equally adept at missing the point.

When I see Sharpie-crafted letters that announce unflinchingly “Children deserve a right to life!” or “Stop the baby slashers!” I can’t help but shake my head. Although these sentiments might rouse the faithful, they do nothing to advance a highly complex and sensitive conversation. It’s the equivalent of a politician comparing his opponent to Adolf Hitler. Sure, it packs an emotional punch. And heck, it makes for a provocative headline. But it’s woefully lazy. It cuts off real dialogue and glosses over a whole host of important considerations.

Do children deserve a right to life? My pro-life friends all think so. But I’m fairly certain my pro-choice friends do, as well. Should baby slashers be stopped? Again, I think we’re all on board with that.

The real question is not about our opposition to killing babies. It’s about whether or not these sentiments even apply to the abortion debate in the first place. If a person is convinced that the abortion doctor is simply dealing with a clump of cells, there’s no use shouting about baby slashing. If a woman’s abortion is simply a medical procedure as mundane as an appendectomy, then what does a child’s right to life have to do with anything?

It’s easy to pick on home-made protest signs, I suppose. The context of the abortion debate is much larger than that. But still. I for one haven’t seen much more nuance and clarity in the larger discussion that is taking place beyond the protest lines. We’ve all seemingly settled into our positions on the issue and grown content spouting off our canned phrases that do nothing to move the proverbial needle. And nothing to engage the other side in meaningful discourse.

I think that needs to change.

Just imagine how this conversation could be revolutionized if we all agreed to cool our jets and start talking. Forget the poster boards and the Sharpies. Forget the pithy memes. Forget the gratuitous caricatures. What if we actually were brave enough to pay each other the dignity of honest dialogue?

Imagine if a pro-choice person took the time to sit down with a pro-life person and say, “I understand that you are opposed to abortion because you think unborn babies are persons, regardless of their developmental stage. Why is that? What evidence persuades you? How have you come to this conclusion?”

And then imagine if that same pro-life person turned the question back around and asked the pro-choice person why she is confident that the developing organism inside the womb is not a human being endowed with rights. Or why she sees abortion as a matter of reproductive freedom. Or what foundational beliefs about humanity undergird her convictions on this issue.

I’m not naïve enough to think that such a conversation would result in the two individuals miraculously reaching common ground in five minutes and skipping off into the sunset having instantaneously become best friends forever. But at least they’d be talking. At least real communication would be taking place. Instead of lazily throwing clichés back and forth, at least they’d be asking real questions and engaging real arguments and looking at real evidence. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

So why don’t these sorts of conversations happen more than they do? Again, I don’t presume to know. But I can guess. And my guess is simple: Fear.

In the final analysis, it’s just plain easy – and safe – to hide behind a catchy slogan or a bombastic cliché. You don’t have to do any explaining. You don’t have to do any defending. You just have to muster a sufficient degree of outrage to come across as convinced. And anybody can do that.

But when you start actually talking to the other person (rather than shouting past them), you step into a new and vulnerable reality. There’s no emotional smokescreen to hide between. There’s no shouting match to distract people. There’s just logic. And reason. And evidence. And data. And those can be scary, unforgiving, tools to work with. Especially if you’re not great at handling them.

So I suppose I have a decision to make. I can call my pro-choice friends baby killers and unleash a barrage of venomous denouncements upon them – all while never running the risk of having my own blind spots revealed and the weaknesses in my own argument exposed. Or I can open myself up to true dialogue – and true friendship – with those who may well ask a question I can’t answer or show me evidence I don’t like. That sort of vulnerability can be frightening. But it’s not nearly as frightening as a world overrun with mindless antagonism and self-affirming outrage.

We may not solve the abortion debate anytime soon. In fact, I’d expect that our grandkids will still be talking about it when they’re in our shoes. But at least we can leave them an example of how to do so in a spirit of understanding and civility.

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