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Proclaimers and Persuaders in the Abortion Wars

[World, January 15, 1994] 

One of the most hard-nosed and incisive debaters of the pro-life cause is Gregg Cunningham, whose exchange of letters with C. Everett Koop appeared in a recent issue.

Gregg’s Center for Bio-Ethical Reform handles a busy calendar of speaking engagements and produces "Hard Truth," a devastating video showing aborted babies. Every cause needs articulate, aggressive champions like Gregg.

But Gregg’s latest newsletter set me to thinking about what else a cause needs. His December issue criticizes pregnancy care centers that emphasize being "for women" over being "against abortion": he calls The Nuturing Network "functionally pro-choice" and charges past and present leadership of the Christian Action Council (now known as Care Net) with "confusion over the importance of expressing opposition to abortion." Care Net’s President, Guy Condon, is quoted and criticized at moderate length, though without being named.

After Gregg chastizes pregnancy care centers for not showing graphic abortion videos and being reluctant to risk the "anger and rejection" of the pregnant women they counsel, he concludes with a plea: "And anything any of us does to stop the killing needs to be planned and executed specifically to reinforce everything that everyone else is doing…Is that too much to expect…?"

Yes, I’d argue, that’s too much. Besides the obvious problem of whose vision should everyone reinforce—Gregg’s or The Nurturing Network’s?—there are benefits to pursuing a wide array of differing tactics. Frankly, we don’t know what works, and different approaches will work with different people.

For example, Gregg swears by carefully-prepared use of his harrowing video; he thinks it is so indispensable that those who don’t use it must just be afraid of confrontation. But other pro-lifers say such materials are just not their style, and point to polling results that indicate aborted-baby pictures can backfire disastrously. For the people like Gregg who would be convinced by such a video, it’s good that there are people out there showing it. For those who need a softer approach, it’s good that others are out there, pursuing alternative ways to communicate.

For the abortion debate is not like a battle where two sides line up to fight and the stronger one wins. The problem is that each side only makes headway by persuading people—not by defeating them. (And our side certainly can’t count on being the ones triumphantly handing out the defeats.) You can’t persuade someone by beating him up; I’d even venture that you seldom persuade someone by humiliating him with witty and impeccable logic. Persuasion has to do with understanding why someone rejects your message—it takes some careful listening—and then setting about to dismantle those often-illogical, emotion-based fears and misperceptions. It has to be done with gentleness and respect. We are trying to coax people over a bridge that, due to negative media portrayal of pro-lifers, looks treacherous indeed.

Instead of a battle, I envision the situation as a play, one that is set on the stage of the world. There are two teams of actors. We are playing against each other to sway the audience, but neither side has a script, and neither side has any idea what will happen next or how the evening will end. It’s an edgy and exhilirating improvisation, with our team spending lots of time on our knees seeking instructions from the Director.

It seems entirely probable to me that the Director has different roles for different actors. Not everyone can be the ingenue. There may be a rough division between the Proclaimers—a prophetic chorus that keeps up a constant refrain that "Abortion kills babies"—and Persuaders, who weave through the crowd coaxing, listening, explaining and comforting. Both team needs the other, just as hand and foot need each other in the one body.

One of my own quirks is an example: in addition to my other pro-life work, I have always felt a longing to dialogue with people on the other side (perhaps because I was once a pro-choice feminist). I want to understand their concerns, and to build on a consensus that abortion is a sad choice and its occurence can be reduced. The call to love our enemies moves me deeply, and each Sunday when we sing the Beatitudes I feel awed to live in a time of bitter conflict—a time that I could actually be a peacemaker.

The majority of my pro-life friends don’t get this at all; my husband thinks I’m nuts; but there it is, an undeniable inner yearning. Now, I don’t expect that the Director is calling all pro-lifers to this role. I’d be surprised if he called more than a handful. But I think it’s entirely possible he’d call one, and that’s where I seem to be.

There’s room for us all, the elegant spokeswoman on TV and the housewife folding baby clothes at the center, the tough young protester shouting on the sidewalk and the old retired pastor on his knees in the middle of the night. There’s room for Pro-Life Andy (that’s his legal name), who shows up at events around the country with red-spattered dolls and American flags pinned to his jacket (while the media-savvy professionals cringe). There’s room for him and there’s room for me.

God has made His troupe out of ordinary people, not iron soldiers, each with our strengths and flaws and hopes. We do not know how this long night on stage will end, as the spotlights glare and we search the audience’s shielded eyes. We have tasted many disappointments already. But whatever we do, let us love one another, even enjoy one another, along the way, and treasure whatever laughter we can. When the curtain is rung down we will feast together at the Banqueting Table; it’s not to soon to start practicing table manners.

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