Does the Pro-Life Movement Need a New Strategy?

Donald Miller

I am pro-life. I believe abortion is a painful and dark reality in the world.

But I’m often reluctant to associate with the pro-life movement. And I don’t think I’m alone.

I remember, years ago, when I was in high school, sitting at a picnic table at a park near my home reading Martin Luther King’s Letters From a Birmingham Jail and being moved by the love Dr. King had for his oppressors. He was willing to cause tension, for sure, but he was also willing to die as a martyr. He was willing to die for those who he saw as lost in darkness.

The ability to love our enemies, and I mean deeply love our enemies, is of the most supernatural distinctives for those who follow Jesus. Sadly, as I’ve interacted with more than a few pro-life leaders, I’ve sensed no love for politicians who oppose their views. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether they hated Democrats more than they loved the unborn. And I’ve wondered, also, why they haven’t realized their inability to truly love, dialogue with and influence the opposition is the main reason they’ve made so little progress on this critical issue. What part of the directive to “love our enemies” is confusing?

I bring this up because of the trial currently taking place in Philadelphia, a case that could have dramatic impact on the conversation about abortion in our country.

An abortion provider named Kermit Gosnell is on trial for, without question, murder. Not only has he provided abortions, but he’s provided late abortions and illegal abortions. The facts of the case are tragic and disturbing. The media has been slow to cover the case for reasons we can only speculate about. Lately, though, my friend Kirsten Powers who worked in the Clinton administration and contributes to Fox News, USA Today, Newsweek and The Daily Beast has been championing greater coverage of the Gosnell trial, and her friends in the media are listening and responding.

It should be noted that it took a left-leaning, former operative in the Democratic Party to convince the media to begin covering the trial, the exact kind of person so many pro-life leaders have left on the other side of a burned bridge.

The Gosnell case has the same degree of importance as the tragedy in Newtown did to serve as a catalyst for a broad conversation about when life begins and what we are going to do as a country on the issue of abortion.

Still, as I read the coverage, I worry many on the pro-life side are going to mess this up. To continue the metaphor, most pro-life representatives have gone the way of Malcolm X, not Dr. King. I’ve had more than a few conversations with pro-life leaders whose tone is so condescending and arrogant that even I, who mostly agreed with them, had trouble offering public support because doing so might be confused with supporting their attitude toward those who disagree, an attitude that has proven time and time again as ineffective in instigating change. The pro-life movement has no Dr. King, and so it suffers to gain a viable voice.

I believe this is a mistake and I think the only way to take advantage of the opportunity this tragic case brings is to come back to a turn the other cheek, Christ-centered methodology of communication.

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Perhaps this time we can:

    1. Lead with Compassion: In personal convesations, it all starts with listening. The more we listen, the more we understand that those who are pro-choice are defending humanity, too. They just don’t believe that a fetus is a living being. That may seem absurd to some of my readers, but yelling at them will change nothing.

    2. Lose the Self-Righteous Tone: There are people who have taken up the pro-life issue to get a personal feeling of self-righteousness. Tragically, this is an issue in which they can feel like a humanitarian without having to lift a finger. But the self-righteous tone must go. It only offends people and creates a stronger opposition.

    3. We Cannot Demonize the Opposition: While certainly Kermit Gosnell can be categorized as a horrible human being for his crimes, to categorize every pro-choice politician or activist as such is unhelpful. Demonizing people who are pro-choice (slightly more than 50% of the population) will win nobody over and unless we win people over, we will not make progress on the issue. Listening to some pro-lifers talk, you’d think they believe 50% of Americans are hell-bent on killing children. This kind of tone makes more objective people want to disassociate from the movement and it’s the main reason the movement is having trouble gaining any kind of traction.

    4. Acknowledge the Issue is Complicated: For the average pro-choice person, abortion is about women’s equality and women’s rights. While you and I may understand the issue from the perspective of the unborn, pro-choice people see the issue from the perspective of a woman’s right to choose. This isn’t an issue in which most people think about rationally. It becomes like a coin in that it’s nearly impossible to see both sides at the same time. Being able to compassionately articulate both sides, I believe, allows us to think more clearly on the issue and, in my opinion, also allows us to understand that supporting the life of the unborn child along with the mother is the only path toward a solution.

    5. Begin Supporting a Culture of Life: If abortion were to be made illegal (which it likely never will be) pro-life supporters must be prepared to care for an enormous number of unwanted children. If your church isn’t regularly talking about adoption, it’s not a wholistic pro-life church. Not only this, but abortion rates decrease when the marginalized and poor are given access to healthcare. Many women simply can’t afford to bring a child into the world. If we want to change the tone of the pro-life movement, we must start speaking compassionately and often of the plight of women who find themselves in very difficult situations.

    6. Admit for Some This is Really About Sex: For some in the religious community, this is really an argument about sex. They want people to wait for marriage until they have sex and they don’t want abortion to be able to be used as a form of contraception. These people need to leave the conversation, because they’re being passive aggressive in their rhetoric. People are going to have sex before marriage. We have no right to control them. If we want to influence them, we can present to culture the beauty of marriage. That’s a more effective way to influence culture anyway.

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This is a tender issue and, as I’ve said, few people are able to think rationally about it. But we must. We must be able to communicate and understand every side of the issue and we must be able to do so with compassion.

The Gosnell case is tragic but it’s also an opportunity to engage in a public dialogue. It’s time for Christ-like leadership. Jesus died praying for the forgiveness of His enemies. I don’t think it’s too much of Him to ask that we simply have a conversation with ours.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.