|Equal Rights Institute banners at a pro-life rally|
Secular Pro-Life has long enjoyed a positive relationship with the Equal Rights Institute, and its president Josh Brahm. The mission of ERI is to “train pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly, and argue persuasively.” Although Josh is a Christian, ERI emphasizes rational and relational techniques that are open to all. SPL president Kelsey Hazzard serves on ERI’s advisory board.
SPL co-leader Monica recently interviewed Josh about how to have productive discussions about abortion in these polarizing times. Their discussion is lightly edited for clarity.
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Monica: Why is it important for pro-life advocates to learn to be persuasive?
Josh: A few reasons come to mind.
First, I want abortion to become illegal as soon as possible. For that to happen, and for babies to be protected in the long-term, we need to convince a large segment of our society that abortion should be illegal. We’re not there yet, at least not when it comes to first-trimester abortions, which constitute most of the abortions. I’m not aiming for short-term victories here; I want to see our culture change.
Secondly, I think truth is an intrinsically valuable thing. That’s why I work so hard to be genuinely open-minded and avoid confirmation bias, for example, by reading and listening to a lot of voices across the political spectrum so that I can discover when I have false or incomplete opinions about things. (If you’re looking for a recommendation, the Tangle e-newsletter is really great for this. You can listen to my interview with their founder here.) Every time my mind is changed so that I believe more truth than I did before, that is a good thing, in and of itself. It’s also good on a practical level because it will influence my attitudes and behaviors related to that subject.
Here’s an example of how both of those things work out. I spent a lot of time listening to what people on both sides said in 2020 regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality. I watched the killing of George Floyd and learned a lot about the Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor killings. I read a lot on the topic in general, and I didn’t restrict myself to what conservatives were saying. As a result, I think I have gained more sympathy for what Black Americans have to deal with. I don’t think I was a racist in 2019, but I care more now.
And that’s a good thing.
It’s good for me to understand better (yet very imperfectly) what I didn’t before, and I’m also more likely to stand up for my fellow human beings now.
Given that truth is intrinsically valuable, and assuming for the sake of argument that I’m objectively right about my belief that abortion is a human rights injustice, then it’s vital for people who don’t know that to discover it! The pragmatic argument speaks for itself: fewer babies will die as more people become pro-life, perhaps to the point that first-trimester abortion could become generally illegal.
Finally, our culture will become healthier if civil discourse becomes healthier. I am incredibly concerned with how divided our country is right now. People are giving up on having difficult conversations because they keep going terribly. There are many causes for the situation we find ourselves in, but I think a big part of the solution is for us to have more epistemological humility. In other words, understand that you don’t know everything, and some of the things you think you know are incomplete or just wrong.
We should spend more time considering what thoughtful people who disagree with us have to say about the day’s news. We should spend less time rolling our eyes at stupid memes from the lowest common denominator from the other side that your favorite news network intentionally amplifies for ratings. If we do, we will naturally get better at having open conversations with the other side and even persuading them sometimes.
Monica: Give some examples of common behaviors you see from pro-life people that are particularly unpersuasive.
Josh: We often refer to a pro-life habit that we call “Fetus Tunnel Vision,” which I define as the inability to see and/or acknowledge human rights injustices without equating or comparing them to abortion. It’s like the pro-lifers who’d say right after 9/11, “Yeah, that’s bad, but think of all the babies Planned Parenthood is killing!” They meant well, but it seems like they only care about one issue, so it seems to the people around them that they have a broken moral compass. That’s a problem because, if people think you have a broken moral compass, they won’t be able to take any of your moral views seriously. Luckily, I think pro-life people are falling into this less often than when I first wrote about it in 2014, but I still see it sometimes. More often, pro-life people continue to struggle to acknowledge that other major global issues exist, I think because they’re concerned about diminishing the evil of abortion. Again, they mean well, but arguably they’re doing the pro-life cause a disservice by making people less likely to thoughtfully consider their statements against abortion.
I also want to mention a few pro-life habits that Rachel Crawford, our former Director of Training, wrote about while working here. She called them “two common extremes of pro-life advocacy” that she was seeing when searching on Twitter for the words “pro-life” or “abortion”:
- Those who tweet about abortion without any careful consideration of how pro-choice people will perceive their words, and
- People who are throwing insults at individual pro-choice accounts and organizations like Planned Parenthood or NARAL.
Neither approach is very effective, but sometimes pro-lifers think it is because they manage to make people frustrated, and in a Twitter debate, that can feel about as close to winning as most people experience online. But as Rachel said:
How angry someone is after your conversation is not indicative of how well you’ve made your case . . . We need to strive for the balanced approach: sharing the truth clearly and doing so winsomely. If people become angry with you during a conversation about abortion, it may be because they hate the truth and they are mad at you for speaking or sharing it . . . Leaving the conversation with a positive emotional experience is not mutually exclusive with having successfully shared the truth about abortion.
Having said all that, I’ll tell you the single most unpersuasive thing pro-life people are doing right now, based on what I’ve learned about the way pro-choice people think. This will be hard for many pro-life people to read, but I’ve thought about it a lot, so please, keep your mind open as you read this. Ironically, it doesn’t have to do with the way we talk about abortion. It happens when pro-life people strongly assert controversial political opinions in general without acknowledging thoughtful counter-arguments. If a pro-lifer argues that people shouldn’t have to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID because it’s not effective, they’d better be simultaneously explaining how their view isn’t based on a lack of concern about the health of those around them. Why? Because that’s the natural impulse of many people who strongly believe in the importance of wearing masks. If a pro-lifer argues that the 2020 election was stolen, they’d better be pointing to persuasive evidence and not the mounting piles of conspiracy theories that have already been debunked. If a pro-lifer expresses appreciation for the pro-life things President Trump did while in office, like appointing originalist justices to the Supreme Court, they should be ready to distance themselves from the problematic aspects of Trump’s character (like the way he has mistreated women) because we don’t want pro-choice people believing that pro-lifers don’t actually care about women.
Again, we need to be more intentional about being accurately understood now than we did before due to the polarization in our society. I’m not saying it’s ideal; I am saying it’s necessary for optimizing your chance to actually change somebody’s mind.
Monica: How about some examples of especially helpful approaches?
Josh: Beyond the inverse of everything I said above, we need to recognize that people don’t actually want to change their mind about anything, so when we have a dialogue with them (whether in person or online) about something we disagree about, their defenses are up. If they’re feeling defensive, they’re not going to be able to feel the full weight of my arguments, regardless of how factually-based or philosophically-nuanced they are. So we need to get better at bringing people’s shields down. As my friends at Justice For All explain, asking lots of clarification questions, spending a lot of time listening to understand the person, and finding genuine common ground whenever possible are essential skills for bringing people’s defenses down.
You also need to understand the pro-choice person’s view so well that you can articulate it as well (or better!) than they can. When you can do that, people will be intrigued by you, because that’s an unusual skill. It also raises the obvious question of why you’re not pro-choice if you can make a better pro-choice argument than they can. It’s implied that you’re also aware of at least one pro-life argument that was more persuasive to you than their steel-manned pro-choice argument.
Here’s a fun example of how you can get positive results from doing this. I’m sure many of your readers will remember when Richard Dawkins got into a controversy in 2014 after inadvertently tweeting that it would be immoral not to abort a baby diagnosed with Down syndrome. The following day Dawkins published a helpful article, apologizing and explaining his views more clearly. I remember reading it at a friend’s house because I was on a fundraising trip out of town. I felt like I understood where Dawkins was coming from, and based on the articles (not to mention Facebook posts and tweets) from pro-life people, it felt like I was the only pro-lifer who really “got” him. So I wrote an article that day trying to translate his view to my fellow pro-lifers. I didn’t say that I agreed with Dawkins’ conclusions; merely that they made sense given his beliefs about fetal personhood combined with his desire to minimize suffering.
The result? That was the only article from a pro-life advocate that Richard Dawkins himself retweeted. That brought us a lot of attention from pro-choice Dawkins fans, who ended up being impressed (if not annoyed) that I understood Dawkins well enough to defend him. My favorite comment said: “It pains me a little to have to admit that the most charitable, most fair-minded, most accurate, most logical, and least emotional analysis of the whole Richard-Dawkins-on-Downs-Syndrome-and-abortion furore has come from a ‘pro-life’ religious activist.”
The more you understand where pro-choice people are coming from, the more you will be able to do what I did in that situation. You can’t just argue for fetal personhood anymore; you also need to understand and be ready to refute bodily autonomy arguments, which I think are more fundamental to most pro-choice advocate’s worldviews. You will be even more persuasive if you understand the more advanced pro-choice argument that’s become more popular in the last year based on abortion as self-defense. It takes some extra work on the front end, but it makes you so much more persuasive down the road.
Monica: Some argue that we shouldn’t focus too much on whether people will agree with us, and instead focus primarily on making sure we speak the truth without wavering. What do you think of that idea?
Josh: I think it’s very understandable for some pro-life advocates to say things like this, especially for older activists who’ve been fighting abortion for decades longer than I have. They understand that thousands of babies are killed every day, and they’ve been watching that happen for a long time now, and they sometimes get impatient. I get it. We all want the killing to stop. Now.
We were getting comments from pro-lifers who felt like we were too nice to pro-choice people and wimpy about speaking the truth within nine months of launching Equal Rights Institute. My brother and co-founder Timothy was the lead author on an article we wrote to respond directly to this concern, and I want to quote a few large portions of it here as it relates to this question:
Here’s the problem: navigating conversations about abortion is tough, because balancing truth and love is tough.
Pro-choice people need to be told, challenged by, and sometimes even confronted with the truth. But we are not telling them the truth just to make ourselves feel like we’ve done our pro-life duty. We want to share the truth with them in the way that is most likely to get through to them, and sometimes that means being patient. Sometimes I spend a great deal of time just listening to someone, partially because I think that will help them to be more receptive to truth later.
I could just lead every conversation by saying, “Abortion is sin, it kills a helpless baby, you’re a sinner, you need Jesus, and you’re going to hell if you don’t have Jesus.” I think those are all true statements, all of which I’d like to get to during the conversation. The reason I don’t lead with that is not that I’m afraid of the truth or that I lack conviction, but because it’s foolish and short-sighted to just blast people with the truth, with no thought to how they are going to respond to it.
I’m not saying “just be nice.” I’m also not saying “don’t be offensive.” I’m arguing that we should love the people we talk to by seeking their best interest, and that means different things for different people. For some people, the most loving thing we can do for them is to graciously confront them with the truth about abortion, even if it offends them. For others, the most loving thing we can do for them is to listen to them, at least for a time.
One of the reasons why we train pro-life advocates to love the person they’re talking with is that loving, truthful people are always more persuasive than unloving, truthful people.