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The Art of Arguing Well: Six Strategies for Winning the Abortion Debate Without Losing Your Opponent

abortion debate

I met Reagan on a flight home from a speaking engagement. After a few friendly questions, I discovered that he had married two years earlier, worked for the United States Air Force, and was returning from a business trip.

Our conversation lapsed, but about twenty minutes before our plane landed, I noticed Reagan had closed his book, so I asked another question. Eventually, he asked about my work. I explained that I advocate for the unborn threatened by abortion, as well as for their mothers facing unplanned pregnancies. Without skipping a beat, he responded, “I lean toward the pro-choice position. Tell me why I should be pro-life.” I answered, “Well, actually, you shouldn’t be pro-life if the science of human embryology is wrong.” Reagan’s curiosity was piqued, and we launched into a meaningful dialogue by focusing our discussion on the question at the heart of the abortion debate, “What are the unborn?” Before long, we had an audience as the passengers in the two rows in front of us didn’t even pretend not to be listening.

As the plane landed, Reagan surprised me with another direct question: “Thirty years of marriage? What’s your secret?” I answered, “Reagan, there’s no secret. My wife and I are convinced Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be. We’ve built our lives on this truth, and it has made all the difference in our marriage.” I have no idea what lasting impact, if any, my words had on him or our extended audience. But God knows, and I trust Him to use my words for His purposes.

I confess this was a conversation I could not have had 20 years ago. At that time, I lacked both the knowledge and the skill to navigate through thorny subjects like abortion without my passions getting the better of me. In my earlier years I meant well, but it is possible to have the right answers and the right motivation but the wrong approach. The apostle Paul must have had this in mind when he wrote, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 3:5-6).

Here are six simple strategies that will help you win the abortion debate without losing, or alienating, your audience.

Strategy #1: Take an Honest Interest in Others.

With the noteworthy exception of public pro-life events and displays designed to create public dialogue, generally the most effective way to start one-on-one conversations about abortion is to talk about other things and simply look for natural openings. With Reagan, I did not set out to have a conversation about abortion. However, by expressing an honest interest in his life, a door of opportunity opened.

I’ve found that people are very interested in discussing abortion but are more inclined to do so when they know our care for them is genuine and not a sneaky sales tactic. If we are not careful, our burden for the unborn (or any theological, political, social, or moral topic) can blind us relationally, causing us to view family, friends, and strangers as targets rather than as people. (As my conversation with Reagan demonstrated, defending the unborn and sharing the gospel are not competing interests. Doing the first often presents the opportunity to do the second.)

Strategy #2: Attack Arguments, Not People.

Preaching the gospel repeatedly brought Jesus’ disciples face-to-face with hostile opponents. They undoubtedly felt the urge to lash out, to respond sarcastically, and to portray their antagonists unfairly. But they didn’t. Paul wrote, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). What a powerful example. Clever tactics and good apologetic arguments are vitally important, but arguing well on behalf of the unborn has to begin with love. We must resist the temptation to attack or demonize those with whom we disagree.

However, loving and respecting people does not mean loving and respecting their opinions. Some ideas are so bad and so dangerous that we are duty-bound to expose them: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). When an idea or argument justifies killing innocent human beings, defeating it becomes our calling.

This isn’t an easy balance. If we are motivated by anything less than Christ’s love, the worst in them will bring out the worst in us.

Strategy #3: Define “Winning” the Abortion Debate From a Biblical Perspective.

Winning does not necessarily mean having your pro-choice friend on his knees renouncing his pro-abortion position. There is freedom in recognizing that our part is simply to “make the most of every opportunity,” to be sure our conversations are “always full of grace and seasoned with salt,” and then to trust God for the results. Understanding this helps take the pressure off. Treat your opponents in such a way that if they visit your church and sit in the pew next to you, you will have nothing for which to apologize.