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A Civil Conversation about Abortion is Possible: Here's How

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

It is difficult to change someone's mind about a moral concern.

It is even harder to convince someone that a moral conviction they hold is wrong.

We all have issues we care about and beliefs we hold - these constitute our concerns. But our convictions are those foundational principles of ours which define our identities.

"I believe ___" is a concern, but "I am ___" is an identity-defining conviction. Challenge someone's preferences, opinions, and intuitions and you have a good shot at a civil conversation. Challenge someone's identity and moral narrative, and you awaken a sleeping giant.

This is why I always ask myself the following question before I enter any difficult conversation: "Does this topic constitute a moral concern or a moral conviction for myself and for the person with whom I am engaging?"

There is a difference between the person who says "I generally oppose abortion" and "I am pro-life." For the first person, opposition to abortion represents a belief she holds. It is a position. But in the second scenario, she suggests that being pro-life is a part of the moral narrative that defines who she is. It is her identity.

When you criticize the pro-life movement you are not just engaging in a cerebral conversation. You are actually challenging someone's moral universe and sense of self. You are undermining their narrative of who they are and their standing in the moral community in which they exist.

This is why conversations about abortion self-destruct so quickly. Even general criticism of abortion quickly becomes a direct attack on those people who define themselves as pro-life, and vice versa. It is not an attack on their beliefs; it is an attack on who they are and the narrative world they have constructed for themselves. In fact, it elicits a similar biological and evolutionary response as does fear of a physical attack in the wild. The natural response to such an attack perpetuates a vicious cycle, engendering defensiveness, self-absorption, dehumanization, and reactive parries.

Let me use myself as an example. My Zionism has defined my personal life and career for more than a decade. Zionism is a crucial piece of my identity. So, when someone tells me that Zionism is supremacism or that it is racist, I feel personally attacked. After all, if I have spent my life promoting Zionism and the Jewish State, and someone accuses that state of committing genocide, they are not-so-implicitly accusing me of aiding and abetting genocide. Obviously, that is a terrible way to begin a conversation or change my mind. It assaults my sense of self and undermines my narrative of committing myself to preserving and enhancing the Jewish people. I turns me from a hero to an anti-hero.

How do you think I will respond to such a criticism? Not well.

If we wish to drain the abortion conversation of its bitterness, we need to take a step back from challenging others' moral convictions and first ensure we understand them. We must first convey curiosity, respect, and compassion.

When I talk to someone who identifies as pro-life, I rarely enter the dialogue because I am convinced I can impel that person to abandon her conviction. Instead, I work to understand the intricacies of the moral universe she has constructed. I affirm her values and aspirations where I can, and then I invite her into my world, too. I try to get her to see why a compassionate, thoughtful, and loving human being may see it differently.

It is incredibly difficult to empathize across the vast chasm of opposing moral convictions, but it is also the only way forward.

I have experienced this with a number of friends who define abortion as murder and see it as our generation's civil rights movement. I have had friends compare abortion to American slavery and the Holocaust, and even then, we have been able to begin to enter the other's moral universe and identify ways to work together and policies we would mutually support.

While we typically disagree on when life begins, we have come to appreciate the sincerity of the other person's moral principles. We can play the If-Then game: "If I believed life began at X, then I might also support Y."

Even more, we recognize that we both agree on the importance of valuing life and this recognition has brought us to consensus on a number of important and movable policies which would both support women and reduce the number of abortions and later-term abortions (state- and privately-funded medical care, counseling, adoption support, more funding for robust sex education, access to contraceptives, etc).

It is a difficult conversation, but if you recognize when someone holds a moral conviction and you adjust your approach intentionally, it is possible to constructively engage across the deepest divides on even the most demanding issues. I have done it and so can you.


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