An open letter to my friends in the pro-life movement

Dear friends (yes, I count you as friends), I deeply admire your commitment to being a voice for those who don’t have a voice of their own. Christians have long taken it upon themselves to stand up for the marginalized and vulnerable in our midst, and this is precisely what you seek to do. One doesn’t have to read the Bible very long to see where this idea comes from.

You’ve often compared yourselves to some of the great emancipatory movements of the past — namely, William Wilberforce’s long battle to abolish slavery. And the parallels are justified. The pro-life campaign can arguably be characterized as a social justice movement, even though the term might send Glenn Beck into a conspiratorial fit.

At times I wish you showed the same zeal for other marginalized populations at home and abroad, but that’s not what I’m writing today. Your commitment to the unborn is something to admire, period. As someone who believes Christian discipleship is a call to promote justice and defend life in all its forms, I have some advice for my friends in the pro-life movement. Please take it in the spirit it’s intended: from a friend. You’ve won some important legal victories in the years since Roe v. Wade. The abortion rate actually fell in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even though the economy was arguably the strongest correlating factor, that’s still something to celebrate, even as we mourn those whose lives are ended prematurely. Still, you’re not much closer to achieving your ultimate goal. You’ve yet to persuade a majority of Americans of the rightness of your cause. With this in mind, I’d like to offer two suggestions.

1. Don’t forsake the power of persuasion for the power of legislation.

Like many contentious issues, the abortion debate is often reduced to a naked power grab — a no-holds-barred effort by both sides to rack up the most legislative victories and favorable court rulings. Yet in the never-ending battle to score the next political win, it’s easy to forget that while a slim majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life,” 3 in 4 still believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

You haven’t convinced the public that your position is the right one. To be honest, I’m not sure you’ve tried hard enough. Waging a political battle without adequately engaging the public conversation is like putting the cart before the horse. Since you see yourselves as heirs to Wilberforce’s legacy (and with good reason, as I said before), it would be wise to remember his example.

The anti-slavery movement in Great Britain was first and foremost a campaign of persuasion, not a forcible imposition of political will. The abolitionists spent the better part of five decades raising awareness, informing the public about the evils of slavery and demonstrating that, contrary to popular opinion at the time, blacks were not inferior to other human beings. The abolitionists were, generally speaking, not adversarial. They engaged in civil discourse with friend and foe alike, inviting the public to imagine a reality different from the only one they had ever known.

In the end, the abolitionists won the battle for public opinion, which led to victory in parliament. The turnaround was stunning. The first time Wilberforce introduced his bill to end the slave trade, it was defeated 2-to-1. Twenty-seven years later, it passed by a 17-to-1 margin.

Ask yourselves: have you done all you can to articulate the most winsome, compelling case possible for your position? Have you engaged in spirited but civil debate—respecting your audience regardless of their political views, seeking to persuade rather than demonize or score rhetorical points at someone else’s expense?

If, like many in the pro-life movement, you think the best way forward is to inflict gruesome images of aborted fetuses on unsuspecting Super Bowl viewers this weekend, then the answer is probably no.

Still, you have reason for hope. You have compelling arguments to make. There are many of us who wonder, for example, how a 7-inch journey down a birth canal earns someone a “right to life” they didn’t already have. Surely even those who reluctantly favor abortion in some cases can see the absurdity of such an arbitrary distinction.

Plus, for the first time since Gallup started measuring attitudes on abortion, a majority of Americans are calling themselves “pro-life.” As I said previously, this turn of events probably indicates the rhetorical appeal of the term “pro-life” more than anything else (since a strong majority still believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases). But hey, it’s a start. You can build on small starts.

There’s also some indication that younger Americans — though they are more liberal on a host of social issues, from the environment to gay marriage — are also more likely to be pro-life than other age groups.

So make the case.

2. Put the “pro” back in “pro-life.”

When I was growing up, there was a heated argument over what to call each side in the abortion debate. You bristled at the term “anti-abortion,” preferring “pro-life” instead. The other side rallied around the “pro-choice” moniker, though you preferred to label them “pro-abortion.”

Names carry a lot of weight, so this debate was hardly an arbitrary one. But surely “pro-life” means more than opposing a procedure that terminates pregnancy. All of us should take a page from Gabe Lyons’ book. Ten years ago, Gabe and his wife found themselves parents of a child with Down Syndrome. Lyons was rightfully bothered by the fact that approximately 90% of Down Syndrome pregnancies end in abortion. But rather than picket or protest, he chose to help others in his shoes envision an alternative to abortion.

He teamed up with a group of writers and photographers to create a booklet called Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis, highlighting the positive aspects of raising a child with this condition. A major doctors’ association now plans to distribute the book to every OB/GYN office in the country.

“Create instead of criticize,” Lyons likes to say. Help others imagine another reality, as the abolitionists did. And be prepared to walk alongside those who make the difficult but courageous choice to carry an unplanned or unexpectedly complicated pregnancy to term. As I said in another post, 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade represents a significant tragedy. But it would have taken more than a modest token of personal goodwill to care for these children—many of whom would have been born into abject poverty—had they not been tragically aborted.

If we are serious about preventing the next 50 million abortions, then we need to be just as serious about the sanctity of life outside the womb. You have the opportunity to change the conversation about abortion. You have the opportunity to make an even more persuasive case and show with more than just words what it really means to be “pro-life.” I hope you’ll take it.

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