Heart and Soul: A New Abortion Strategy

Pope John Paul II, a man ahead of his times in many ways, was again a prophet for our age when, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he exhorted pro-lifers to embrace a “radical solidarity with women.” This was no mere rhetorical flourish, nor was the pope selling out to the feminist agenda. In fact, the Holy Father was putting his finger on the approach that can substantially advance the pro-life position in the public debate over abortion.

The greatest potential for changing opinion on abortion lies in understanding the views of our modern society, and women in particular, with compassion. We can employ the art of personal persuasion to reach out “in solidarity” to those who share our position for the most part, but who are uncomfortable being labeled as “pro-lifers.” The challenge here is that the techniques of personal persuasion are quite different from the techniques of polarized debate, which have tended to dominate the presentation of the pro-life position to the public.

That our movement came to be oriented around principles of polarization rather than persuasion is easy to understand. To start, polarization is natural to the political and legislative arena, where the objective is to push people to take sides. Further, it is a basic dynamic within the mainstream media, where controversy and conflict are exploited to attract viewers and readers. Finally, the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels have been used to create a radical division that is a great disadvantage to the pro-life position. The way the abortion debate is presented in these areas tends to engender a defensive reaction and to harden current opinions rather than creating the opportunity to consider a different viewpoint.

Pro-lifers do not need to convince other pro-lifers, and the small minority of radical abortion activists will not likely be persuaded, so our energy should be focused on reaching and persuading those who are undecided or on middle ground. However, the current dynamics of the public debate work against this: In politics the middle ground is rejected; in the media pro-lifers are portrayed as violent extremists and thus utterly alienated from the middle ground; in the pro-life movement itself moral principles allow no room for a middle ground; and the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels portray the debate as a tug-of-war between extremes. In all four arenas pro-lifers are not persuasively communicating with the very group that has the potential to move in our direction.

Pro-life and Pro-Choice: Not Opposites

One of the most exploited dynamics of this debate is the use of the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Pro-lifers, myself among them, reject “pro-choice” rhetoric as a sham. We may not verbalize our thoughts, but internally we react something like this: “Pro-choice about your favorite ice cream, OK, but ‘pro-choice’ on whether or not to kill a tiny, innocent child? If you consider killing a baby as a ‘choice,’ then you are in fact pro-abortion, not pro-choice. ‘Pro-choice’ is a mere euphemism for an abhorrent and unjust act!” While we reject the term “pro-choice” with logical argumentation, the media convey the impression that the label signifies moderation, openness, and women’s rights in general. When the public perceives “pro-choice” as including women’s rights and basic freedoms, and “pro-life” as including terrorist acts against abortionists and clinics, our chances for bringing people to our side are drastically diminished. Understanding this distorted view explains why abortion advocates have been so successful in portraying the pro-life movement as “antiwoman” and presenting pro-life legislation as “radical and dangerous.” Pro-lifers are perceived as legislating against values that run deeper than the abortion question itself.

Our success at persuasion will be greatly enhanced by understanding that, in the mind of the public, and especially women, “pro-choice” is not synonymous with advocacy of abortion and therefore not a mirror-image opposite of “pro-life.” As long as we appear to be attacking the larger issues surrounding “choice,” we will be unable to persuade those in the middle ground of the abortion debate, which represents the majority of women and the public in general.

Understanding Women and Abortion

More important than understanding how the terms of the debate have been distorted is understanding how women of today really feel about abortion. Beyond legislation, politics, media spin, or labels, why is it that so many women declare themselves to be “pro-choice”? The Caring Foundation, a pro-life group established to reach the public via television, initiated two landmark psychological studies to address this question.

The key finding of these studies is that women understand that abortion kills, but they also view the threat of motherhood to be so serious as to represent a “death of self.” Many young women have not incorporated the concept of motherhood into their self-image. Who they are and plan to be revolves around school, career, and perhaps marriage. Motherhood is so alien to their sense of self that if it is suddenly thrust upon them it is seen as a complete loss of self, a death. When these women consider abortion, they see it as a death to the unborn life within them, whereas motherhood represents a death to themselves (a psychological death but a death perceived as real nonetheless). Ultimately, the choice of abortion is perceived as a choice of self-preservation. There is also the belief that the child is better off aborted, given the difficult circumstances into which he or she would enter the world. In general, our society seems to agree that abortion is not a good thing—in fact, is an act of killing—but most people will not support efforts to see it outlawed or even seriously restricted.

When pro-lifers work to outlaw abortion, women react emotionally out of an instinct of self-preservation. In the pro-life movement, we usually engage the public from our own moral framework, in the belief that highlighting the humanity of the unborn child will inevitably lead to a reaction against abortion. There is no question that the facts of fetal development, and even the graphic depiction of abortion, can be instrumental in changing some opinions. However, it is not so clear that our culture is guided by the moral absolute, “It is always wrong to take the life of an innocent child,” precisely because there is the perceived “death” to the woman as well, which greatly alters the moral equation in the public mind.

Further, pro-lifers are perhaps too dismissive of the very real concerns facing the unwed mother. Giving birth to a child, even in the best of circumstances, involves perhaps the greatest sacrifice a woman will ever make. It is a form of death to the life she had before the child. This sacrifice of the self makes sense within the context of a stable marriage, but even in the best circumstances, life will never be the same. Is it surprising that young women who have not been taught basic virtues of self-sacrifice; who do not have a husband, home, or career; and who do not have a stable future of any kind should view sudden motherhood as a kind of death? A distorted maternal instinct is also at work. These women want their baby to be happy and healthy, but they view their own situation as so alien to the proper environment for raising a child that it appears preferable to end the child’s life in the womb.

Pro-lifers disdain the term “pro-choice,” but we need to understand that when a woman vulnerable to abortion uses the term, she uses it not in the sense of “freedom to kill a baby,” but rather “freedom to preserve my own life.” We may be quick—and rightfully so—to prioritize the real death of the unborn child over the imagined death of the woman, but to do so is to miss the key ingredient that affects society’s attitude toward abortion, namely, the welfare of the woman involved. If we are to stand in “radical solidarity with women,” we cannot lose sight of this dynamic.

This is why the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers is so crucial to the integrity and credibility of the pro-life movement. These centers offer the woman in crisis the practical and compassionate assistance necessary to help her see that pregnancy is not the end of her life and that the future life of the child she carries within her is not without hope.

The Principle of Inclusion

If our goal is to influence women vulnerable to abortion and those uncommitted or conflicted about the abortion issue, a more effective strategy than framing the debate according to the extremes would be to view opinions on the abortion issue across a spectrum. This spectrum would range from a complete rejection of abortion for any reason at one end to the acceptance of abortion for any and all reasons at the other end. Because most Americans do have serious reservations about most abortions, and therefore fall toward our side of the spectrum, we should welcome those who make up this majority as our allies. When we engage the radical left, it only serves to harden the views of those unlikely to change anyway, while furthering the impression among the uncommitted that “pro-life” is an inflexible, extremist position or merely a political group of the right trying to impose its agenda through legislation.

If we move away from labels and polarized debate, the opportunities for reaching women in crisis and advancing the pro-life position improve dramatically. First, in the art of personal persuasion we have the enormous advantage of working from a near universal and instinctive dislike of abortion, regardless of how it is labeled or justified. However, in the minds of women and the general public, the threat to the unwed mother and the potentially difficult future life of the unborn child are sufficiently important to prevent their support for outlawing abortion. If we are to move public opinion, we must sensitively address these concerns. Put another way, reaching a consensus on the life of the unborn child will not lead to a consensus against abortion, because the decision to abort (or protect it as a right) is not based on the child, but on the woman’s own sense of self-preservation.

We can also build upon a universal attraction to children and, though often seen as an unattainable ideal, to motherhood. Many women today see the ideal of a happy mother and child as so far removed from their current situation that it is rejected as a possibility. However, this image remains attractive to most women today, so our task is to present motherhood as courageous, positive, and, most importantly, attainable. Needless to say, we cannot simply present an image, but must step forward in practical ways to help women in need.

We do not need to defeat the “pro-choice” label to win people to our position. Indeed, the less we allow abortion to be anchored to the larger issue of “choice,” the better. Abortion by itself is inherently unattractive to the public and should be kept isolated whenever possible.

Furthermore, in employing personal persuasion we are not dependent on legislative successes, political victory, or advocacy by the mainstream press to reach the public and impact the culture. We can send a persuasive message directly to the American public via print, radio, and television. CareNet has initiated successful billboard campaigns to reach vulnerable women. Birthright and many other crisis pregnancy networks have aired persuasive, woman-centered radio ads.

Implementing the Art of Persuasion

The Caring Foundation utilizes the aforementioned insights to reach the American people via television. Television has the advantage of presenting a combined audio and visual message, near universal coverage of the American public, a high credibility rating, and the ability to focus on particular target groups. The art of persuasion has been incorporated in television in a number of ways. For example, most Caring Foundation ads end with a question, rather than a dogmatic statement. One such ad depicts a woman who admits to having been pro-choice, and who “hasn’t figured it all out yet,” but asks this provocative question, “Why, when I wanted the baby, it was a baby; and when I didn’t, it was something else? Think about it.” This advertisement is intended to prevent defensive barriers being raised against “those pro-lifers,” while introducing a question that helps to undermine the rhetoric of abortion advocates. A basic rule of good marketing is to understand your audience and to appeal to a value, an idea, or an emotion that is already within them, either consciously or subconsciously. One advertisement shows a woman practicing ballet, with a voice-over that says:

Your intuition is a small voice, round and whole. It tells you who to trust, when it’s best to be quiet, and what your best friend is feeling. It doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear, but when you think about it, when was the last time that voice was wrong? If you’re facing an unplanned pregnancy, you don’t have to have an abortion. There are other options.

This advertisement refers to God-given conscience in terms of female “intuition,” something to which every woman can relate and something about which she has very positive feelings. In its “self-referencing” approach, it avoids a defensive reaction, while awakening the woman’s own voice of conscience. This advertisement is not intended to reach the hardened feminist, men, or children. It is a targeted message for a targeted audience.

Crisis pregnancy centers do not have the budgets to air on television; as a result, most women are unaware of the assistance available to them through these centers. The use of a toll-free number is an essential part of reaching out to women with practical assistance. The Caring Foundation helps connect women in need with centers able to help them, via a message that is positive and persuasive. The central miscalculation of unwed mothers, and those who support the pro-choice position, is that the mother would be better off having an abortion rather than carrying to term. To address this, The Caring Foundation has created advertisements that show a woman who has already had an abortion, and who has realized, too late, that things cannot return to the way they were before. The commercial ends by saying, “Abortion changes everything.” This helps women realize that abortion is not in their own best interest and is not, in fact, an act of self-preservation. This message is effective because it does not try to challenge the woman’s access to abortion, and it does not tell her what to do; rather, it shows her the regret and sorrow of a woman who has been through the experience.

This is not to say that we should not make every attempt to achieve legislative protection of unborn children, but only that this should not be presented as the sole or primary interest of pro-lifers. The pro-life movement needs greater diversification and sophistication, not less—there is no “silver bullet” approach.

From the point of view of persuasion, our task is enormously closer to realization than we may have previously imagined. We do not need to attack or to change the most basic instincts and beliefs of women. For example, the foundation’s studies suggest that most women admire the mother who faces an unwanted pregnancy courageously and carries the child to term. The key obstacle is that many women simply do not feel they have the strength to do this. In a sense, the problem is the distance the woman in crisis sees between the reality in which she finds herself and the ideal of what should be. It is not that these women like abortion any more than we do; they simply lack the strength to see beyond the crisis, and abortion offers the illusion of an easier way out.

Effective persuasion will be realized when we approach women “in radical solidarity,” by avoiding polarizing forces, by gently supporting the voice of conscience, by showing that the instincts of maternal concern and self-preservation are not served through abortion, and by making the ideal of motherhood more approachable to the woman in crisis. Fortunately, all of this can be accomplished without reliance on legislative or political advances and without the cooperation of the mainstream press. We can implement the art of persuasion though many channels that are available to the public, such as television, radio, newspaper, billboards, and all outlets for printed or spoken communication. Radical solidarity with women will greatly enhance our movement’s effectiveness and help to realize another goal of John Paul II, namely to overcome our “culture of death” by building up a “culture of life.”

  • Paul Swope

    At the time this article was published, Paul Swope was the national director of market expansion for The Caring Foundation.

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