What a Dialogue on Abortion Actually Sounds Like

By Stephanie Gray

Last week, CCBR partnered with the courageous young people of the University of Manitoba Students for a Culture of Life to display the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP).  During the training, I taught participants to take a lesson from Socrates and engage in conversation with students by asking questions. 

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During the exhibit, I met a student named Trevor, and our exchange was classic for illustrating the power of asking questions, of finding common ground, and of using a person’s words/beliefs against them—as well as the odd and quirky responses pro-lifers often have to face from abortion advocates.  Here is how our exchange went:

Trevor: “This is offensive!  You can’t compare abortion to the Holocaust!”

It’s tempting to explain why what we’re doing is legitimate, but instead I’m going to ask a question.  Go, Socrates!

Me: “Why do you feel that way?”

Trevor: “Because killing living, breathing, thinking humans is not the same as getting rid of a ball of cells.”

Find something you can affirm him on; start with common ground!

Me: “You know, I think you make a good point.  I think you make a lot of sense if you’re correct that the pre-born are a mere ball of cells and not actually human beings. The question to consider, though, is this: Do you believe in human rights?”

Trevor: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, since tiny pre-born children have human parents, they must be human too, so don’t they have human rights?

Trevor: “But they aren’t sentient.”

Me: “Okay, why?”

Trevor: “What do you mean, ‘Why?’”

Me: “Well, why aren’t they sentient?  Why hasn’t sentience happened for them yet?”

Trevor: “Because they are just a ball of cells.”

Me: “And why are they just a ball of cells?”

Trevor: “Because it hasn’t come along yet, it hasn’t developed the structures needed for sentience.”

Where Trevor brings up a fact, acknowledge that, but get him to consider whether the fact is relevant.

Me: “Okay, I think you make an interesting point, it hasn’t come along yet, you’re correct, and that’s a reflection of the passage of time (and lack thereof), and time is reflected in our age.  They aren’t sentient yet but that's because they aren’t old enough to have developed sentience.  To deny them their right to life for that reason would make us guilty of age discrimination.  Do you think we have human rights based on our age or based on being human?”

Trevor pauses to consider, and I seize the break as an opportunity to build a friendly rapport.

Me: [Stretching out my hand] “By the way, I’m Stephanie; what’s your name?”

Trevor: “Trevor.”

Me: “Nice to meet you Trevor.”

Trevor: “But they’re just parasites.”

Me: “Okay, well let’s examine that point.  There are two definitions of a parasite, one of which is the literal definition and the other is a colloquial one.  The latter refers to someone who receives support or advantage from someone without giving proper return, like an adult who is capable of living on his own but drains his parents resources instead, but that kind of colloquial definition still refers to the ‘parasite’ as a ‘person’ who is doing something to someone else.  As for the literal definition, a parasite is a different species from its host, so since the pre-born are the same species, that doesn’t apply.”

Trevor: “No they’re not; I’m a biology major and it can be the same species.”

In the face of a difference of opinion, appeal to an authority beyond the two of us.

Me: “Well let’s look it up then.”

Yay for my iphone, Betsy—yes, I name objects :) 

Me: [Reads dictionary definition which is consistent with what I’d pointed out.]  “Now perhaps that second definition, the colloquial one, is more what you were referring to when it comes to the pre-born, that they are very dependent on their moms, and they certainly are, but with that definition it still acknowledges the pre-born would be people.”

Trevor: “They’re not people; they’re parasites!”

Me: “Hitler once said—”

Trevor: “Don’t you go there.  You can’t compare women to Nazis.”

By rudely cutting me off, Trevor didn’t let me go where I intended to go, which is not where he assumed I was going to go.  I was going to use his obsession with the label parasite to make the point that it is a dehumanizing label that has been used historically when human rights violations occurred (Hitler called Jews parasites) and that his usage of it was reinforcing the legitimacy of the exhibit.  Namely, that in past and present human rights violations, victims are deemed to be inferior to others in society, and unjustly labeled accordingly.  Alas, I decided to not make this good point and instead respond to his outburst:

Me: “You didn’t let me finish my sentence.  But let me ask, where on the signs do you see women and Nazis?”

Trevor: [Looks and is silent, forced to realize that not one sign has an image of a woman or a Nazi, but instead has pictures of victims.  He diverts]: “Well you’re comparing the Rwandan genocide to abortion—your sign says, ‘Butchered children in Rwanda killed by machetes versus butchered children in Canada killed by suction machines.’  You just can’t do that.  You have to consider what people who have been victims of genocide would feel and think when encountering that.  You can’t do this.”

Me: [As he’s speaking] “Mhmmm.”

Trevor [continuing] “It’s just wrong!!”

Me: “Mhmmm.”

Trevor: “You’re not even listening to me!”

Me: [Shocked] “What?”

Trevor: “You’re saying, ‘Mhmmm, mhmmm’; that’s so rude!”

Me: “Trevor, I’m sorry, but how is that rude?  I’m listening to you and those verbal noises were an expression of listening; I thought that would be polite.  If I was staring into the sky and being silent, wouldn’t that be rude?  I’m processing what you’re saying and in fact, precisely because I’m listening, what you said made me think of something; could I share that?”

Trevor: “Sure, fine.”

Me: “Well you bring up a good question by asking how people who have been victims of genocide would feel upon seeing this exhibit.  And I once met a woman from Rwanda who saw the very sign you just pointed out.  She told me that most of her family had been killed in the genocide.  I became very self-conscious representing that message to someone who had experienced such suffering so instead of making assumptions about her feelings or incorrectly concluding I was doing something wrong, I simply asked her how she felt about the comparison.  And you know what she said Trevor?  She looked at the poster in silence for about 20 seconds and then she pointed to the picture of the aborted baby and she said, ‘That’s worse.  Because at least my family could try to run away.’”

Silence from Trevor, and knowing the importance of silence to letting messages sink in and giving people time to process, I didn’t interrupt the silence.

Trevor: “That’s just one woman’s story.  You can’t just listen to one person.  Your shoe is off.”

Yes, that’s right; more random statements—first I’m labeled as rude when I’m being polite.  Now an irrelevant observation has become the focus.  When you don’t have a good response (who would to that woman’s striking statement?) just change topics—really randomly.

Me: [Looking down] “Oh yeah, that’s because my foot is hot.”

Trevor: “Well it’s distracting.”

Whatever you have to do…

Me: “I’m sorry.”  [Slipping my foot back into my flat.]  “Go on.”

Trevor: “Well you just can’t make this comparison.  It’s just so wrong; it’s not genocide!”

He stormed off.  Here’s my analysis:

When Trevor came up, he thought he had a strong argument and assumed I had a weak one.  I could have defended my position, proving its strength; but instead, by asking questions, I compelled him to consider how weak his argument actually was.  By asking a few simple questions, I got him to reveal that he believed in human rights, and that the only differences between the pre-born and born (development and dependency that he focused on) are ultimately age-related differences, which would make abortion age-discrimination.

Because Trevor was acting obnoxious, I made sure to be extra respectful.  Because he was saying things declaratively, and somewhat quickly, I purposefully slowed down in my exchange so as to keep him in the conversation and not escalate things.  I did the following to expose the weakness in his view:

1.      I asked questions, which not only got him thinking, but ensured I was listening, which gives him respect.

2.      I defined terms with him—I didn’t let him throw around words like “parasite” without being on the same page about what we were talking about, and I consulted a source beyond the two of us.

3.      I agreed with him where I could, and pointed out where he was reasonable—he’s right to argue that the comparison is wrong if—if the pre-born aren’t human; so that’s the question—are they?  If they are, then they have human rights.)

4.      I responded to specifics concerns (“you need to consider victims”) with specific examples (the story of the woman I encountered).

I don’t think Trevor had ever heard support for abortion framed as age discrimination, nor had he heard the pro-life perspective explained through the lens of human rights.  He didn’t expect to be listened to (which could explain why, when I was actually listening, he said I wasn’t); he didn’t have good answers (so he randomly talked about my shoe being off).  And when he didn’t get anger or irrational perspectives from me, he re-summarized his frustration and walked away. 

You can’t force someone to be in a conversation, so I can only hope that Trevor will remember the images and that he was treated with respect.

As I reflect on this encounter, I am reminded of a recent epiphany—There are two kinds of people we speak with: Those who are ignorant and those who are in denial.

The ignorant are our target audience for apologetics—the ones who default to pro-choice but aren’t “sold” on that worldview’s logic (or lackthereof!).  They are the ones who genuinely wonder, “What about rape?” or “What if the woman’s life is in danger?” and when we give them our reasoned responses, they are satisfied.

But I don’t think Trevor was ignorant.  I think he was in denial.  As Gregg Cunningham has pointed out, the ignorant “don’t know” but those in denial “don’t /want/ to know.”  That is a very different disposition, which necessitates a very different response.

What can that response be?  Stay tuned for my post on ignorance versus denial.

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