09/27/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

Moral Persuasion on Abortion

If you wish to persuade someone to adopt your viewpoint on any issue, it is usually counter-productive to begin by insulting that person. The reason is simple: Your target is likely to want to defend himself or herself from the insult, and consequently will not be in a position to hear your argument.

Those who oppose abortion on moral grounds often accuse those who have abortions of murder. The more wild fringes of that movement have included killing physicians who perform abortions and fire-bombing abortion clinics. On the legislative side, there have been many new laws proposed and some passed to make abortion difficult to obtain, expensive, and degrading. Let's imagine a different set of tactics for abortion opponents.

Suppose instead that those who oppose abortion took the position:

"I recognize you as a fellow human being who has the right and responsibility of making your own moral choices. I will not join in attempts to use the criminal or civil law to punish you if you decide to have an abortion. If you so decide, my hope is that your abortion will be safe for you, both physically and psychologically. I will not join in attempts to make life difficult for you and others who may choose to have abortions or to facilitate them. Now let's discuss how you will make your moral decision."

This position honors the moral independence of the person whom you are trying to persuade, and puts them in a better position to hear the case, "Let's be clear. The decision to have an abortion is a decision to prevent the birth of another human being. Are you OK with that?"

Now let's look at the moral decision to label those who choose to have abortions as murderers, and to use the law against them. It makes abortion opponents proud that they have "done something" to protect the unborn. But have they? Millions of abortions were performed, often in dangerous and unclean circumstances, before abortions became legal, and presumably would be again if they become illegal again. Alcohol prohibition was a crashing failure; so was abortion prohibition.

I respect the moral choice of those who use insults and legislation to try to make abortion expensive, degrading, difficult or impossible. Do you accept my argument that such tactics only alienate those who disagree? If so, then let's be clear. The choice to insult and legislate against abortion is a choice to feel self-righteous rather than to be effective in protecting the unborn. Are you OK with that?

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