[Touchstone, January 2004; a consortium discussion of the pro-life movement’s "New Rhetorical Strategy"]
The "New Rhetorical Strategy" that Francis Beckwith critiques is getting up in years. My first book, "Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion" was written in 1993. The Caring Foundation’s first ads appeared in the mid-nineties, as did Paul Swopes’ essay in First Things describing the results of their research. David Reardon’s book "Aborted Women: Silent No More," appeared in 1987.
Beckwith might have mentioned as well Dr. Jack Willke’s early-nineties project to develop a concise response to the other side’s "Who decides?" rhetoric (you may have seen "Love them both" placards), and the trend of pregnancy care centers to shift focus, changing from storefronts that discourage abortion to full-fledged medical clinics or professional counseling centers. The so-called "new" rhetorical strategies (for there are more than one) have been around for over a decade. No one yet, to my knowledge, has evaluated their success, though that would be a useful service; we’re still in the middle of this fight.
How it happened was this. Pro-life leaders noticed that the primary message of the previous couple of decades, our insistence on the unborn child’s full humanity and right to life, was no longer gaining ground. We had honed this message and it was ubiquitous and consistent, and we personally found it unassailable. Yet we were increasingly encountering people capable of dismissing it. Perhaps all the people susceptible to it had already been reached and converted. For the remainder, whom we termed the "mushy middle," it was falling on deaf ears. We didn’t know why.
This was a chilling realization. As Beckwith notes, there is a clarion logic to the simple statements that the unborn is fully human, and that the law should protect its life. Yet we kept encountering people who were capable of dismissing that logic, no matter how simply or forcefully it was presented. (In a conversation with an old college friend I concluded some pro-life sentiments with "After all, it’s simple logic." She responded sadly, "I never thought you, of all people, would resort to *logic.*") This disregard for logic meant, disturbingly, that some people-perhaps a lot of people-had lost the capacity for moral reasoning. They could agree that the unborn is a living human baby, and yet shrug off the conclusion that it should not be killed. That they were not troubled by this inconsistency troubled us a great deal.
One option might have been to back off from pressing the pro-life cause, and undertake a broader national effort in remedial moral education. But most of us decided instead to attempt to get around this surprising roadblock by other means. We diversified, each person and group trying out strategies as they occurred to them. Some, of course, would continue to present the "It’s a baby, and it deserves protection" message. This is the backbone of the pro-life movement and our final motivation, and we aren’t about to abandon it. But others looked at subsets of the pro-choice population and began crafting ways to reach them. We didn’t all set out in the same direction. The pro-life movement is diverse, and it’s a good thing, because our target audiences are too.
An urgent category to be reached, of course, was women who were inclined to choose abortion. Pregnancy care services expanded dramatically during this decade in an attempt to reach the "abortion-vulnerable" woman in creative new ways.
Others looked at statistics indicating that nearly half of all women seeking abortion had had a previous abortion. They went to work devising post-abortion grief programs, so that the cycle would not have to be repeated.
Yet others agreed with pro-choicers that prevention is better than cure. While our opponents sought to prevent pregnancy with contraception, pro-lifers developed abstinence education and support programs. These three direct-to-client approaches-pregnancy care, post-abortion counseling, and abstinence education-are no doubt the most effective things pro-lifers have done to prevent abortion in the last decade, though they don’t represent a rhetorical message.
Others, myself included, began trying to identify the mysterious mental roadblocks that were preventing hearers from receiving our simple logic. I came to see that the average "muddled" person, the person on the receiving end of rhetoric from both sides, thought of this as a fight between the mother and the child. He pictured it as a see-saw in which the mother wins to the extent the child loses, and vice versa. It’s not surprising that he should think this; it’s the way both sides had been presenting the issue for decades. It was one of the rare things pro-choice and pro-life agreed on. Baby’s rights! Women’s rights! Round one, and come out swinging!
Now, coincidentally, our pro-choice friends were facing a similar problem. Their original message had been "Abortion liberates women"-abortion makes her autonomous and strong. This assertion didn’t stand up to reality, as women came out of abortion clinics grieving, and went in coerced. (Two women in "Real Choices" told me of lying on the clinic table praying that the baby’s father would burst in the door saying "Stop, I changed my mind.") It’s rare now to hear a pro-choicer speak of abortion as liberating. Instead, in a brilliant stroke, they hung a lantern on their biggest problem-that abortion was a painful rather than exhilarating experience-and urged America to "Let the woman decide." The poor dear is suffering enough, can’t you just leave her alone?
This is exactly what Mr. Muddle was longing for. He pictured the futility of getting involved in that complicated situation; if it was agonizing for the woman to decide, how could he possibly know what was the right thing to do? It was great if she wanted to make this big sacrifice for her child, but it wasn’t his place to tell her she had to. The best he could do was close the door quietly and let her figure it out for herself. Of course, pro-choice rhetoric was ranting that he had no right to an opinion anyway. "Just walk away" was a very appealing invitation, conforming exactly to his inclinations.
I came to the conclusion that we had to find a way to call him back to thinking about the situation again, though it was very much not his desire to do so. I suspected that there were three points of vulnerability. First, he had the illusion that abortion was somehow a humane procedure, like putting a dog to sleep, an illusion that sweet photos of unborn babies did nothing to dispel. So I emphasized the violence of abortion. No one wants to think of himself as promoting violence. Everyone wants to think of himself as supporting wise, compassionate solutions to social problems, even if they are difficult and costly. So I described the grisly procedures (always in sorrow, not anger, to draw listeners in), and left them to face themselves in the mirror.
Now, Mr. Muddle at this point might be thinking, "Aw, too bad for the little tyke, but it must be what his desperate mommy needs to do." So then I had to demolish the assumption that abortion means babies lose while women win. I demonstrated that abortion hurts women in numerous ways, both physical and emotional. Abortion helps nobody; it wounds women and children alike. With this second step I took away the comforting illusion that abortion has an up side.
At this point Mr. Muddle is trying to picture, with some anxiety, what would happen if we didn’t have abortion readily available any more. Truth is, he thinks it might be useful one day, for himself or a friend or relative. Abortion has become a firmly-fixed part of the cultural machine. It keeps women sexually available and on the job, without the complications and expense of children. How could we get along without it?
If he wanted to stop thinking about abortion before, he *really* wants to stop now. The idea of dismantling the abortion component of our society looks utterly overwhelming. That is when I introduce the third point, that it is possible to live without it, and show how this can be done and is already being done. In my experience, this practical, rather than moral, objection to the pro-life position is the hardest to overcome. The most common statement I’d hear after a speech was, "I’m pro-choice, but I agree with everything you said. Still, we can’t live without it."
That’s my "new rhetorical strategy," and it was based on my own attempts to analyze the presenting problem and figure a way around it. Others devised parallel approaches, and addressed different segments of society (I was mostly speaking on college campuses and in secular media, which is why I never brought in God-talk; for these audiences, it was immediate grounds for mental dismissal). I am pleased with the results I saw, but have no resentment toward others who used different techniques and saw success in their arenas. In a time of crisis, everyone should do everything they can, and by trial and error we will discover what works.
The thing I can’t figure out about Beckwith’s essay is what he is proposing to do. He writes: "First, it [the pro-life community] must persuade its fellow citizens that fetuses are full members of the human community. Second, it must show that if fetuses are human persons, one cannot be ‘prochoice’ on abortion and at the same time maintain that fetuses are fully human, just as one cannot be prochoice on slavery and at the same time say that slaves are human persons. In other words, the prolife movement must convince the vast majority of the public that abortion is a serious moral wrong and not a mere moral wrong."
To which one can respond only, "Hey, knock yourself out." Beckwith uses the pronoun "it" here, by which he apparently means the pro-life movement in entirety. He seems to be saying that every pro-lifer must unite behind this program, which is a stretch because we’re a bumptiously varied bunch and have rarely united on anything else. But what the passage means at a minimum is "I" must do this-that Francis Beckwith personally "must" find a way to achieve these three goals in the public square.
So, what’s his plan? It’s unfair to leave us in the dark. The rest of us have been meeting regularly over the many years, airing out our ideas, networking, arguing, and praying for each other. We have inspired and challenged each other; we have angered and frustrated each other; we have worked and struggled side-by-side in the kind of ever-shifting environment that only foxhole buddies know. If somebody has a new idea, he’s welcome to present it to the community and take his lumps, or his roses. It’s unfair of Beckwith to tease us by pointing out the direction he intends to go, without telling us how he plans to get there. Some of us might want to join him.
I am reminded of the passage in "The Good Earth" in which a white missionary gives to the peasant farmer Wang Lung a religious tract. It shows a crucified man, but Wang Lung is unable to read, so he doesn’t know what it means.
The old rhetorical strategy, I imagine, would be to keep shaking the tract in Wang Lung’s face until he gives up and admits he really can read after all. Alternatively, it could mean that we admit the possibility that he really can’t read ("they do not really appreciate the logical problem") and establish a new goal: teaching literacy (moral reasoning). At the end of his school years Wang Lung would once again be handed the brochure.
But someone else might say, "Literacy is good, but evangelism is what we came for. You can try to adapt the person to the brochures, but I’m going adapt my strategy to the person. I’m going to try to figure out another way to reach him."
It would be bitter for a person who values reading to come to this decision. It is bitter-more, it is alarming— to realize that our fellow-citizens and neighbors have fallen so far from the clarity that moral reasoning requires. It is a worthy goal to teach them once again to attend to logic, and this seems to be what Beckwith intends to do. I have no idea how he plans to do this; I try to imagine a billboard campaign or college campus teach-ins, and it sounds like a steep uphill struggle. But the pro-life movement embraces people who have dreamed up all sorts of things, and I’m sure he’ll be welcomed to the fight. He will be disappointed, however, if he expect everyone else to stop what they’re doing and join him. We have a multitude of callings and a multitude of gifts, but we will certainly wish him well, and rejoice in his success.
In the novel, Wang Lung is confused and frightened by the picture. He discusses it with his sons and father. They think that perhaps the crucified man is a relative of the scary-looking foreigner handing out tracts, and that he is trying to get people to join him in getting vengeance. After awhile, they lose interest in the tract. No one else presents the Gospel to them in any other way that they could, perhaps, understand. Wang Lung’s wife folds up the tract and uses it to mend the sole of a shoe.