Do People Change Their Minds about Abortion?

Do people change their minds about abortion? Some say no. They believe that people are committed to one side or the other and no one ever changes their mind. This is false. People do change their minds about abortion. Many who once identified as pro-choice now claim they are pro-life. Pro-life persuasion works. Using the right tactics is the key.

Last Monday, I spent the entire day teaching Oregon Right to Life students at an amazing annual pro-life camp called Camp Joshua. I presented the case against abortion, explained the science and philosophy supporting our pro-life position, and made them role-play the tactics of persuasion. The following day, I took the students to the streets of downtown Portland and had them perform an informal survey about abortion with random people in the streets. This gave the students an opportunity to strike up conversations about abortion with people who vigorously disagree with them and practice the pro-life persuasion skills they learned the day before. As a result of this training, these students walked away from this experience with a confidence to share their pro-life convictions. It’s a confidence you rarely see anywhere else in the Church. These high schoolers can now talk to anyone they come in contact with about abortion because they just did that with dozens of adult strangers in the diverse downtown area of Portland.

Not only were these students trained, but many of them saw something remarkable happen: People changed their minds about abortion. Wait, what? That’s right, some people changed their minds on the spot.

Heresy! That’s impossible! People can’t change their mind on the spot! If you change a person’s mind, you probably won an argument but lost a [insert a powerfully rhetorical phrase suggesting that “winning” an argument means you damage a relationship in some way]. That’s just not true.

People change their minds on abortion every year in downtown Portland as a result of bold and thoughtful high schoolers using the right tactics. Here are three (though not all) tactics that helped change minds this year.

Tactic #1: Talk about abortion. You’re probably thinking, That doesn’t sound very profound, Alan. What else would anyone talk about? What I mean is to focus your conversation on abortion, not closely-related topics like choice, privacy, rape, and economic hardship. If you follow these rabbit trails instead of talking about abortion itself, then you’re not likely to change anyone’s mind. You’ll simply talk for hours, days, or weeks about all these other issues, but never about abortion. Then you’ll come to me and say, “Sorry Alan, but changing minds on abortion doesn’t work. It sounds good in theory, but it’s just not possible.” I’ll remind you, though, that talking about other tangential issues isn’t the same as talking about abortion.

Indeed, I taught Camp Joshua students an important tactic to help them stay focused on abortion and the status of the unborn: Trot Out the Toddler (TOTT). This tactic involves a simple line of questions that helps the pro-lifer show an abortion-choice advocate why the rabbit trail they’re on is not as important as talking about abortion itself. During our debrief, several students shared that TOTT worked perfectly at bringing the conversation back to the issue of abortion. That way they could focus their short time with passersby on abortion and the status of the unborn, rather than the many side discussions that normally arise.

Tactic #2: Make a scientific case for your view. Many abortion-choice advocates believe that the only type of reasoning pro-lifers have to offer involves a religious-based argument. Although we can certainly make a case against abortion from Scripture, a savvy pro-lifer knows that many people don’t consider the Bible authoritative, and therefore, they must use sources that secular people trust. Since science is an authority in many people’s minds, I trained Camp Joshua students how to make a scientific case for the full humanity of the unborn from the moment of conception. Not only does this avoid the charge that our pro-life view is merely a religious view, but it’s a powerful persuader of the truth. The high school students were able to simply point people to the science of embryology to show that the unborn is a human being. Several students reported that their scientific defense was convincing to people in downtown Portland.

Tactic #3: Use images of the unborn. We live in a culture that thinks and learns visually. Powerful images have been used to persuade people on topics like cruelty to animals, the civil rights movement (for African Americans), the effects of smoking, and many other causes. The pro-life movement would be remiss not to leverage the persuasive power of truthful images that depict the unborn. That’s why a key component of the pro-life case involves showing images of the unborn at various stages of development. This is not a substitute for an argument (we make a compelling scientific and philosophical argument for our position), but rather it complements our case. Many people are stunned to see images of a nine-week-old human embryo that looks like a little human being (because it is a little human being, after all). Even abortion-minded women sometimes change their minds when they see images of embryonic development or ultrasounds of their own children.

Occasionally, images of abortion are necessary. These graphic pictures (or videos) show the violent nature of abortion and its effect on the unborn. Though they are hard to look at, they depict the procedure better than words ever could. If people want abortion to remain legal, then it’s only fair that we see abortion and what does to other human beings.

I teach pro-lifers to use graphic visual aids very carefully. They are taught not to spring them on people with little to no warning. Instead, they give people advanced warning of exactly what they’re going to see and an opportunity to decline seeing them. That way they don’t betray people’s trust when they’re talking to them.

My students practiced this approach last week. They had a few occasions where they offered to show graphic images to people during their conversations about abortion. Some people declined, but some agreed to see them. One man changed his mind about abortion right after seeing the pictures. “That’s messed up,” he said. That’s because the graphic images conveyed an important truth: Abortion kills a vulnerable and defenseless human being.

These are just a few of the tactics I taught last week. There are many more. The important thing to remember is that the art of pro-life persuasion works. People change their minds on abortion. Using the right tactics is the key.

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Alan Shlemon

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