January 22 marks a grim anniversary: 25 years since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. A generation has passed since the first wave of unborn children fell, and the accumulation of each year's toll totals nearly 37 million. During those years one child was aborted for approximately every three born. Their names would fill the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial wall over 700 times.

Abortion has been a disaster, first for the children who died and second for those who survived to grieve a lost child, grandchild, or sibling. It has damaged us all. How can we even measure the spiritual cost levied on a country that pronounces the killing of its own children a celebrated right? It is tempting to avoid thinking about it, and when we do think of it, it is tempting to stew in helpless fury.

Avoidance and fury—neither response has pushed us forward. As a movement, the pro-life cause has stopped. We are stuck, mired, at an impasse. We have had small gains and small losses, but the bottom line is the same: 1.5 million abortions a year. I suggest we use this morbid anniversary as an opportunity to reassess our strategy.

The pro-life movement has succeeded in keeping people uncomfortable with abortion but not in translating discomfort into a firm will to oppose it. That is why I have adopted the unconventional approach of listening more carefully to the objections to our cause.

I have a personal interest in conversation between the opposing sides: I myself have championed both positions. Back in my college days I was your basic bad-tempered, male-bashing, hairy-legged women's libber, actively pro-abortion. Abortion, I believed, was essential to liberation. Women would not be able to enjoy the same success as their male counterparts unless they, too, could be unhampered by pregnancy and childrearing.

Then, in 1976, a few years after Roe, I read an essay in Esquire magazine titled "What I Saw at the Abortion Clinic." In it surgeon and essayist Richard Selzer described watching a 19-week abortion by an injection procedure no longer in use. He described the abortionist sliding the needle of the syringe into the woman's belly, and then, he writes, "I see something other than what I expected here … it is the hub of the needle that is in the woman's belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish."

The image horrified him, as it did me. I had never considered that the being in the uterus was more than a blob of tissue, that it could be a human life that wanted to go on living. Selzer concludes his essay: "Whatever else is said in abortion's defense, the vision of that other defense will not vanish from my eyes. And it has happened that you cannot reason with me now. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?"

Article continues below

The truth of what he saw affected me deeply. I could no longer say that abortion was right—and yet, somehow, I couldn't jump on the anti-abortion bandwagon. I knew that unplanned pregnancy could wreak havoc in a woman's life. The dilemma seemed irresolvable.

I eventually worked my way out of this dilemma, but that is why we must listen carefully to pro-choicers in order to understand their reasoning and, we hope, break through the deadlock.

For several years I have participated in pro-life/pro-choice dialogues, and I now serve on the national steering committee of an umbrella organization that unites grassroots dialogues, the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. A dialogue usually will begin when members of a community grow weary of miscommunication and hostility and want to get people together on neutral ground just to talk. More ambitious goals may emerge after trust has been built up, but in many cities, "just talking" is all that is accomplished. Thus, Common Ground (CG) is not for every temperament; many will find the lack of concrete action frustrating.

Those who enjoy it, however, will reap several benefits. In a typical small group, moderated by a trained facilitator, a pro-lifer can describe what she believes and why, and what life experiences have formed that belief. Pro-choicers may ask clarifying questions, and then they are asked to restate what the pro-lifer believes to assure that the sentiment has been properly understood. They are not permitted to criticize or try to convince her that she's wrong.

In return, the pro-lifer assumes the same role as listener to pro-choicers and gains new insight into the thinking behind this position. For example, I have learned that while most people are pro-life because of the central conviction that abortion kills babies, pro-choicers can harbor a broad range of reasons for their belief. For some it is the fear that "unwanted" children will be abused; for others it is the specter of deaths from illegal abortion; still others may be concerned about overpopulation. I learned that a pro-life approach that insists "It's a baby!" may be answering a question none are asking and missing the questions they are.

Article continues below

In either case, knowing that they have been truly heard is a healing experience.

CG gives an opportunity to hear and be heard, educates pro-lifers on the real concerns that need to be addressed, and demystifies the "bad guys," turning them into real individuals. If these "bad guys" are our enemies, CG gives an opportunity to love our enemies in a safe and respectful setting.

Formal dialogues like these are not intended to be opportunities for persuasion. Nor is CG aimed at negotiating a compromise, though there is always a hope that unexpected areas of agreement may emerge—like the unexpected consensus that resulted in a position paper issued jointly soon after CG's founding, supporting increased awareness of adoption.

Both sides of this debate are plagued with distorted impressions of what the other side believes. This venue helps overturn those assumptions. One pro-choice friend recently said, "I always thought pro-lifers only wanted to shore up the patriarchy and oppress women, but sometimes I think you really do care about babies." I was shocked; I thought pro-choicers believed we only cared about babies (arguing that we didn't support pregnant women). Likewise, I've found the caricature of pro-choicers as child-sacrifice devotees to be wildly off-base. Many are deeply troubled about the death of the unborn but fear some worse catastrophe if abortion is outlawed. The CG dialogues help clear away misunderstandings. They don't promise we will agree, but they help us arrive at genuine, even respectful, disagreement.

After we listen, then we persuade. Persuasion needs to become the main strategy for pursuing the pro-life cause. While CG serves to advance the discussion between warring camps, it does little to persuade advocates on either side to "cross over." That is better suited for when you have coffee with a friend over your kitchen table.

The first step in adopting the persuasion model may sound surprising: Put the question of making abortion illegal on the back burner. I believe abortion should be illegal because it is violence against the smallest members of our human family. But one of the reasons we're stuck in a deadlock is because political posturing has overwhelmed the moral discussion. The abortion issue has become something like a football game where yards gained by one side are by necessity yards lost by the other, and neither side is ever going to be willing to give up the fight. This polarization makes it less likely that we can arrive at a resolution; and without resolution, consensus, and peace on this issue, there will be no lasting protection for the unborn. Even a great victory, like an amendment to the Constitution explicitly protecting unborn life, would immediately be attacked by our opponents. They would not rest until they tore it down, just as we haven't rested in combating Roe v. Wade for 25 years. A deeper agreement must be reached before legal justice can be permanently won.

Article continues below

These are my recommendations for advancing a pro-life position that persuades.

First, the pro-life side has had but one simple message: "It's a baby!" In season and out of season, through weeks and years and decades, we have persisted in saying that the life in the womb was a human child, showing sonograms, repeating that the heartbeat begins at 21 days, declaring that every third child dies from abortion.

I've found the caricature of pro-
choicers as child-sacrifice devotees
to be wildly off-base. Dialogues
help clear away misunderstandings.

This is an effective message. It is the message that converted me. It is the most significant argument we have to convince and galvanize, and for that reason I uphold it as the primary factor in a persuasion stance. But it carries a cautionary proviso: The "It's a baby!" message, used alone, can backfire.

In the first place, the unhappily pregnant woman who hears us describing her beautiful precious baby might stir up vestiges of childhood sibling rivalry: "They like the baby better than me." She gets a pretty clear picture: she and her baby are at odds, and we're on her baby's side. Who's on her side? Abortion advocates. When she turns to the embrace of those sympathetic arms she takes her baby with her.

Also, the "It's a baby!" message alone strikes the muddled middle as failing to take seriously the woman's plight. Our apparent willingness to dismiss those difficulties as "inconvenience" strikes many as either callous or wildly naive.

Additionally, our opponents interpret this appeal as personal attacks on them. When we say, "Abortion is an immoral choice because it kills a baby," they hear, "People who favor abortion are immoral people." I had long wondered why, at debates, I would attack abortion, and my opponent would not defend abortion but attack me.

I came to realize that the "It's a baby!" message, important as it is, does not offer all the solutions we'd hoped it would, and in some instances, creates more misunderstanding. It is a baby, and that ought to be the first point in presenting the pro-life position persuasively. But the conversation needs to move beyond that point.

Article continues below

When reiterating that "It's a baby!" the listener is likely to balance the scale: Yes, but women still want abortions. So the second point to make in the persuasion model is to challenge that line of argumentation, asserting, instead, that abortion hurts women.

It is important to press the point—in what sense does a woman want this? No one saves up, hoping one day to have an abortion. It costs hundreds of dollars, money anyone would surely prefer to spend elsewhere. The procedure itself is physically unpleasant, humiliating, and often painful. Do we really believe that women want this?

Beyond that, the procedure does not heal a physical problem but subverts a healthy, normal process. We get confused by the fact that doctors perform it; usually doctors are called in when a natural process goes wrong. But just as our bodies are made to breathe and digest food, women's bodies are designed to sustain a pregnancy and deliver a baby. It is a delicately balanced ecology, and when something disrupts it as violently as abortion does, it is not surprising that damage can result.

Some studies have shown the rates of postabortion miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and sterility rising sharply. More recently, connections have been suggested between abortion and breast cancer.

Women don't want abortions. They are expensive, awkward, humiliating, painful, and potentially dangerous. And we have not yet considered the most compelling effect: abortion breaks a woman's heart. At some level, she knows it is her own child who is dying, a son or daughter who looks as much like her as any she will carry full term.

I once received a letter from a man whose wife had an abortion; afterward, he said, she drifted into depression and found it difficult to cope with daily life. "They told her that it would give her control of her body," he wrote. "But what kind of tradeoff is that, to gain control of your body and lose control of your mind?" The cruel irony is that abortion has been presented as something that would set a woman free.

This brings to mind the gypsy in Verdi's opera Il Trovatore. Outraged by the count's cruel injustice, she stole his infant son and, in a crazed act of vengeance, flung him into the fire. Or so she thought. For, in turning around, she discovered the count's son lay safe on the ground behind her; it was her own son she had thrown into the flames. Abortion can present itself as glittering liberty, a defiant way to cast off the shackles of injustice. That illusion lasts only until you realize who it was that you threw into the flames.

Article continues below

So the second point to make when trying to persuade is that abortion hurts women; it does not deliver on its promise to liberate them.

Once we get people to recognize that abortion both kills babies and hurts women, we can then pose the practical question: How could we live without it?

Abortion is part of a complex machine of interlocking social realities, linked to expectations about women's sexual availability, men's freedom from responsibility, and women's duty to be economically self-supporting. The pressure of these social forces cannot be minimized: they create a demand for 4,000 abortions every day, making it the most frequently performed medical procedure.

Pro-lifers need to think beyond the single goal of making abortion illegal. People "in the middle" on this issue imagine that, if all the clinics were padlocked tomorrow, we'd just see 4,000 women pounding on the doors and crying. What needs to change in order for this ravenous demand to be quelled?

Speaking very broadly, there are two problems to solve to advance the case that we can live without abortion. The first is preventing unplanned pregnancies in the first place, and the second is giving women support when they do become pregnant so they will opt not to abort.

Our friends on the other side are also very interested in preventing pregnancy, and so they put much faith in contraception. Contraceptives became broadly available in the early sixties, and forms of "sex education" appeared even before that. Contraception is not a new idea. The use of condoms, in particular, has been touted as nearly a patriotic act. People are neither ignorant about contraception nor unaware of where to get it. Yet the rate of abortion remains near 1.5 million a year. Whatever else all this educating and contraceptive-pushing is doing, it's not bringing down the abortion rate.

When sex occurs between two people who have no lasting commitment to each other, a resulting pregnancy is likely to be "unwanted." Recovering an ethic of commitment-based sexuality will mean rediscovering the value of chastity before marriage. The True Love Waits movement is a good example of how this new sexual ethic can be held up and encouraged.

Article continues below

But for the woman who is already pregnant, vows to work for sex education, contraception, and chastity before marriage offer cold comfort. When I was writing Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion (Conciliar Press, 1997), I spent a year studying the problems of pregnancy, seeking to discover the reasons most women choose abortion. I expected to find practical problems heading the list: financial needs, child-care woes, pressure to drop out of school. Yet after reviewing several studies and conducting my own, no clear pattern emerged.

But when I spoke with groups of postabortion women, a nearly unanimous consensus appeared. Women had abortions, in nearly every case, because of relationships. Most often it was to please the father of the child, who was pressuring for abortion. (In a couple of cases, the woman spoke of lying on the abortion table praying her husband would burst in and say, "Stop, I changed my mind!") The second most common reason was pressure from a parent, most often the girl's mother.

In the vast majority of cases, I found a woman is most likely to choose abortion in order to please or protect people that she cares about. Often she discovers too late that there is another person to whom she has an obligation: her own unborn child. The grief that follows abortion springs from the conviction that, in a crisis, this relationship was fatally betrayed.

Supporting women with unplanned pregnancies means continuing what pregnancy-care centers have been doing all along: providing housing, medical care, clothing, counseling, and so forth. But we should also be paying attention to becoming a steadfast friend (this is more important than any material help we can give) and to doing whatever we can to repair relationships in the family circle.

Rather than dismiss the baby's father as a cad, we should explore whether marriage is a possibility. He is, after all, the one appointed by God to provide for and protect mother and child. "Shotgun" marriages have a higher rate of success than expected: in one study, 50 percent of black teen marriages to legitimize a pregnancy were still intact 10 years later. (With a national divorce rate of 50 percent, their batting is average.) White teen couples did better: 75 percent were still together 10 years later. If a marriage fails, there is the financial benefit of child support from the father. Sixty-four percent of divorced and separated mothers receive child-support payments; for women who never married, that rate is only 20 percent.

Article continues below

At a recent conference of crisis-pregnancy centers I was told that there is no brochure a counselor can give a prospective dad that challenges him to accept the responsibility of fatherhood. This time next year I'd like for there to be a dozen.

Pregnancy-care centers can also help improve relationships with parents. The Pregnancy Aid Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will go with a girl to break the news to her parents, meeting them on neutral ground, like a restaurant. If adoption is one of the options included when parents are involved with the girl in discussing abortion alternatives, the girl is six times more likely to make that choice.

In thinking about the best resolution to unplanned pregnancy, care-center staffers must avoid the temptation to encourage the girl toward single-parenting. This may appeal to her emotionally, but the overwhelming evidence is that it is devastating to children, contributing strongly to poor school performance, delinquency, and another generation of unwed mothering. The mother also finds herself in financial troubles that she may never fully rise above; she is less likely to finish school or to marry. The mother should be encouraged to consider either marriage to the baby's father or adoption.

These three points—abortion kills babies, it hurts women, we can live without it—summarize an approach to the abortion debate that can be effective and persuasive. It is important to note that none of these arguments mentions God. None uses religious or biblical citations to carry its point.

I find that it is nearly always ineffective to use religious arguments with people who are not religious. When you say, "God says abortion is wrong," they don't slap their foreheads and exclaim, "By golly, you're right! I never thought of that!" Instead, they think, "Oh—you're one of those. " Whatever you say next will be dismissed.

When these three points are covered, listeners will often say, "I agree with you; I just don't think it should be illegal."

Since there is no present opportunity to make abortion illegal anyway, when the topic does come up, let's avoid the temptation to let the conversation get hijacked into a polarizing discussion that offers no practical application. A more realistic goal for pro-life advocates is to bring about, through both active listening and gentle persuasion, a gradual dawning of the conviction that we can live without abortion. Eventually that may result in a cultural consensus to make it illegal once more.

Article continues below

So our ultimate goal, in all of this reevaluation, remains the same: to end legal and social acquiescence to this atrocity. In America there is an irreducible core of laws that we could not live without, without which we would have barbarism. These are the laws against violence—child abuse, rape and murder, spouse-battering. These laws are sometimes the only thing that stand between the small and weak and the strong and powerful. And abortion laws are that kind of law. Unborn children are the smallest members in our human family, and they deserve that protection.

We have 25 years of evidence of what happens when legal protection is repealed: these children are being killed at the rate of 4,000 a day. Humanitarianism, goodwill, and compassion are not bubbling up from some mysterious source to protect them; only the force of law can do that. It will do it imperfectly, to be sure; but these children deserve whatever protection we can win them.

Opponents of abortion laws tend to envision a perfect society where women are empowered and free, arguing that a few legally permitted abortions (37 million?) is the price we must pay to get there. But can a just society really be founded on the death of children? How many deaths can we tolerate in pursuit of this utopian vision?

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a commentator on National Public Radio and the author of Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion (Conciliar Press).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.