We will never succeed in changing our nation’s abortion policies and practice until we change the language of the debate. Rhetoric is the stuff that our private and public lives are made of. The words we use, the way we talk, the stories we tell will ultimately determine what we believe and what we do.

Proponents of abortion have succeeded in selling their version of the moral context for the debate. In voicing their positions, they have repeatedly used moral terms such as compassion, freedom, and choice, so that these words have become part of a shared public vocabulary, to the point where their rhetoric appeared generously—“fundamental right to choose” and “freedom to choose”—in the wording of Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade back in 1973.

It is time for prolife advocates to understand the power of words and to go on the offensive. We have got to make our appeal for life, not just to the courts and legislatures, but to the hearts and minds of the American people. We have got to reach that 60 percent in the middle, those who are either uninformed, misinformed, unmoved, or undecided.

We are taking part in a great historic battle—a cultural battle—a social war to define what America is and what human life is as we enter the next millennium. And this battle is being fought not just with legislation and legal argumentation, but with words flowing to and from the public at large.

Reclaiming An Ancient Art

Understanding the power of words is nothing new. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that “word is a shadow of deed.” Plato said the same thing, only negatively, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” The biblical letter of James tells us that those who can master their tongues can master anything. And Shakespeare warned, “In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt / But, being season’d with a gracious voice, / Obscures the show of evil?”

In the midst of the struggle over slavery, Lincoln said something that mirrors our predicament about the use of language in the abortion debate today:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty. And the American people just now are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty, but in using the same words we do not mean the same thing.… Each of the things is by the respective parties called by two different and incompatible means, liberty and tyranny.

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Nazi leaders certainly understood the pernicious power of words when they called their facility for carrying victims to the killing centers “The Charitable Transport Company for the Sick,” or when they defined the genocide of Jews as “the final solution.”

And Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the positive power of words and symbols when he delivered his speech for civil rights before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. As you read the following excerpt, listen for the allusions to those words and images held dear by all Americans:

This situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning—my country ’tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing.

Those who heard him that day found themselves drawn away from their troubles and toward a vision of the way the world should be. And that is what rhetoric should do: present a case or a story that allows listeners to see anew, to gain a fresh perspective on the matter at hand.

While the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, this is not the only criterion for judging success. If we want to direct the flow of social meaning, we must be sure that our words and stories are in fact connected to the real experiences of people. Our communication has to do with our sense of belonging to a community. Our communion, so to speak, comes through our private and public dialogue about shared hopes and concerns. We must prove, not just say, that we have everybody’s interests in mind.

Our task is to use words and stories to create a vision of a prolife world—where the least among us is protected and cared for. But we need to capture the public imagination to do so.

A History Of Abortion Rhetoric

Before we talk about how to create that vision, we need to review the evolution of language in the abortion debate during the last 30 years.

In 1962, a story surfaced that would begin a dramatic shift in the way Americans would think about abortion. Before, abortion had been almost universally seen as an act that killed a child and was thus criminal. Afterward, the law prohibiting abortion was perceived as an injustice that denied help to desperate women.

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The subject was Sherri Finkbine, the “Romper Room” television host from Phoenix, who loved children and who had four of her own. Not knowing the risk involved, she took her husband’s thalidomide tranquilizer while pregnant with her fifth child. It was only later that she read about the horrible deformities caused by the drug.

She sought an abortion with the consent of her doctor and local hospital. But she wanted civil authorities to approve publicly of what she was doing. When she could not get a public statement to that effect, she flew to Sweden, as one newspaper put it, “to find a more civilized attitude toward her plight.” And she got the abortion.

Finkbine was intelligent and attractive. Happily married, she represented an American ideal of a nurturing mother and teacher of children. She became a heroine, a moral woman up against an immoral law. A woman who, in Sherri’s own words, “couldn’t, in all conscience, bring into the world a child whose chances seemed so utterly hopeless.”

In the course of telling her story, reporters first referred to Finkbine’s unborn child as a baby, but later as a fetus. Parts of the story went unreported: there was only a 20 percent chance that her baby would be deformed at all. And several people offered to adopt her child, no matter what.

A Gallup poll taken shortly after the incident showed that 52 percent of Americans thought she had done the right thing. For the first time, a majority of Americans believed abortion could be a positive act.

In addition to Sherri Finkbine’s situation, stories abounded during this period about desperate women taking desperate and often fatal measures to get abortions. Perhaps the most gruesome was the 1962 story about a woman who died during an abortion and was cut up into pieces, bones and flesh, and stuffed down a sewage line.

From 1965 to the present, proabortion communicators have also worked at integrating the right to abortion with the aspirations of the women’s movement. Again, they have worked at soliciting public support by using the most inclusive public vocabulary possible. Equal rights and discrimination now pepper the discussion. The newly created concept of “women’s reproductive rights” has quickly gained popularity and usurped the fetus’s right to life.

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The idea of equality with men and personal reproductive freedom came together in the word choice, NOW’s Molly Yard furthered the concept by claiming that the “antichoice zealots” are trying to force women into “compulsory pregnancy.” That is, women, like men, should be free to walk away from sexual encounters without fear of being stuck with the reproductive consequences.

Few realize the sharp contradiction between the push to link abortion with women’s rights and the claims of historical feminism. Susan B. Anthony, a leader for the women’s suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century, referred to abortion as “the horrible crime of child murder.” Alice Paul, who drafted the original version of the Equal Rights Amendment, called abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.” Through decades, the women’s movement consistently used a rhetoric that focused on equal rights and social reforms that would benefit women without disadvantaging children. It is only within the last 30 years that feminism began using the vocabulary of “choice” as the public cry for equality.

By the 1980s, even television got into the act of shaping public discourse on abortion. Mostly, television has promoted the choice mythology. For better or for worse, TV functions as a primary source of shared stories that define what it means to be an American.

One episode of the now-syndicated “Cagney and Lacey” provides a good example. In this episode, Detective Sgt. Chris Cagney, who is Catholic, protects an indigent, Hispanic woman seeking an abortion and tracks down an abortion-clinic bomber. Cagney’s father urges his daughter to get off the case, because the “big boys” downtown, who are Irish Catholic, would not like her involvement in this abortion activity.

So right away we have older men and the church pitted against women and their right to abortion.

Mrs. Herrera, the Hispanic woman, initially contacts Cagney for help in getting through picket lines to get her abortion. She is poor. Her husband is on disability. She says, “I don’t want to be on welfare. I want to finish business school.” Here we get the economic justification for abortion.

The abortionist does his part, too, in voicing the abortion rhetoric. He says the prolifers are so worried about the unborn—but what about the babies that are already here? After the bombing of his clinic, he says, “Now what kind of brand of compassion forces a child … to go through an unwanted pregnancy?” Choice now becomes compassion for the child.

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For the last 30 years, prolife Christians have been on the defensive. The proabortion forces have done a good job in telling their stories their way, and the media have gone along. Proabortionists have shaped the language, and therefore have shaped the beliefs, policies, and behavior of Americans.

Reversing Images

Meanwhile, prolife advocates have failed to capture public imagination as we make our plea on behalf of the unborn. The Gideon Project abortion-clinic bombings in Pensacola, Florida, on Christmas morning, 1984, show why. Their impact on public memory, as exploited by the rhetoric of abortion advocates, has lasted to this day.

The bombers described their action as being in accord with “God’s will” and “a gift to Jesus on his birthday.” Such language reinforced the activists’ own commitment, but projected a public image of extremism and violence.

Some of the more strident activists of the prolife movement have yet to understand that they discourage rather than encourage a prolife consensus in the public mind. As Molly Yard helps the prolife cause when she affirms China’s coercive abortion policies, Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry helps the proabortion cause when he advocates what sounds a lot like theocracy to humanistic and otherwise pluralistic ears. Such language and law-breaking rescue activity serve the opposition’s stereotyping of prolifers as religious zealots, a gang of fanatics led by bullying white males indifferent to the needs and concerns of women.

Such images have proven so powerful that the public, according to a recent Gallup poll, more typically sees those trying to protect unborn children as more violent than those who promote abortion.

So how do we go about reshaping public sentiment and policy?

To overcome the inertia of the proabortion rhetoric, leaders of the prolife movement need to tell what they are for, rather than what they are against. Proabortion leaders say they are for compassion, helping the oppressed, “a fundamental right to choose,” equality for women, and a right to privacy. At the same time prolifers appear to be angry and uncaring, against abortion, against women, and even against the democratic process if it yields policies that conflict with religious beliefs.

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Instead, public voices must say in reasonable and compassionate terms that the prolife movement is for a public good that benefits everyone. Leaders must use language and stories that build a public vision of caring, which embraces women and children, before and after birth.

We must show that we are caring, sensitive, and inclusive. We must affirm all human life. That includes women burdened by unwanted pregnancy. It includes feminists. It includes members of the black and Hispanic communities. We must use prolife language that resonates with all of these groups if we are to be successful. As soon as we appear to be speaking on behalf of the partisan, Catholic, and evangelical Religious Right, we will lose the potential for developing a shared public vocabulary.

With few exceptions, it must be women who voice the new vision in the public arena. Contrary to Molly Yard’s claim that abortion is “for the women of America,” a 1990 poll conducted by the Gallup organization shows that more women hold strong prolife, rather than proabortion, convictions. The poll also shows that a higher percentage of women are prolife than men. (The group that is most consistently prochoice is actually single men.) Women-to-women public communications will build on this prolife conviction, which is already inherent in a large segment of the female population.

Prolifers need to talk about women and their unborn children as being victimized by abortion. Abortion policy and practice have liberated men to have sex without the potential obligation of providing for the woman or her child. “Decency” merely requires that he pay for her to get rid of “her” problem.

We must communicate that it is prolife advocates who are actually the ones providing choices to women undergoing crisis pregnancies. Abortion advocates are not offering choices; they are offering abortion—period. All too often there is pressure from a pregnant woman’s family, friends, employer, or an abortion counselor to use her “right” to abortion to solve her problem. She gets the message that she owes it to herself, to everyone else involved, and even to the unwanted child that can be “prevented.” In fact, such pressures have caused three out of ten pregnant women to “choose” abortion.

“Choice” advocates have yet to provide the support necessary for women to make any other choice than abortion. They have even resisted the passage of informed consent laws that would ensure women have all the relevant information they need to make an informed choice to abort. This would include information about the stage of development of an unborn child, risks associated with abortion, the potential of fetal pain, and the readily available alternatives to abortion.

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The prolife movement needs to talk compassionately about the legitimate needs of women who are faced with crisis pregnancy, especially since prolifers are the ones actually involved in responding to such needs. There are more crisis pregnancy centers in the United States than there are abortion clinics. It is the prolife advocates who are providing homes and support for unwed mothers, adoption services, and even counseling for women suffering from postabortion syndrome. As evidenced by leaders of Women Exploited by Abortion, the victims of the abortion system may prove the most effective in voicing the “caring vision.”

Prolife influencers must learn to utilize the power of the media better to promote their vision. Historically, abortion advocates have done a better job in the care and feeding of journalists. At the same time, prolife advocates have distrusted them, and have assumed the media will align with the opposition. Yet most editors and reporters, regardless of their personal views, wish to adhere to professional standards, including objectivity. Therefore, most will respond favorably to prolife advocates who respectfully point out inaccuracies or biases in their coverage and provide alternative sources and stories.

Telling Stories

Convincing rhetoric also calls for personifying unborn children through stories about real people. For example, Julie Makimaa was conceived when her mother was raped about 25 years ago. Julie’s mother put her up for adoption, and Julie grew up in what she describes as a loving home. At age seven she learned she was adopted. But it was not until she was an adult that she found her biological mother and heard about the circumstances of her conception.

Julie has spoken out against rape as a justification for abortion. Because of her own story, she speaks with an authority that the public and even legislators find hard to ignore. Julie testified before the Louisiana legislature last year and convinced a strong majority to support abortion legislation that would have disallowed abortion for most reasons, including rape, had it been signed into law by Governor Roemer. Legislators realized that insisting on a rape exception meant denying the value of Julie’s existence.

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Prolife advocate Congressman Henry Hyde proved rhetorically astute when he eloquently supported family-leave legislation before Congress last year. He said, “If a working woman becomes pregnant, she needs to have job security, an incentive to have that child, not to exterminate that child so she won’t lose a job. A social policy that encourages motherhood is good.”

The TV program “Life Goes On,” which includes Corky Thatcher as a 22-year-old with Down syndrome, is adding much to our prolife narrative. Audiences are responding warmly with their hearts and minds to his character. Many people watching Corky are believing, perhaps for the first time, that retardation has little to do with defining the worth of an individual life.

Winning the battle for public opinion and policy will depend on winning the battle for linguistics. We cannot make up for our past failure to shape public discourse and conviction by going directly to the legislatures. Lincoln once said, “In a government like ours, public sentiment is everything, determining what laws and decisions can and cannot be enforced.”

Our goal should be to shape public discourse and build a ground swell of public conviction. With public conviction goes judicial conviction. And it is only then that we will be able to achieve our legislative goals for providing a comprehensive legal shelter for the unborn.

I have a dream that Americans will one day understand that caring for a mother with an unwanted pregnancy—unconditionally protecting and caring for her unborn child before and after birth—is the ultimate in compassion, is inclusive, is intelligent—is even liberal—and is the American way. That is what our national freedom is all about.

But the onus falls on us to create that kind of vision in our use of language and stories.

Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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