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Abortion and the failure to communicate

Recently, I ran across an article from the April 1998 edition of "First Things" titled "Abortion: A Failure to Communicate" written by Paul Swope. The article summarized psychological research regarding the effectiveness of pro-life rhetoric.

The research focused on the response of a certain set of women (American women of childbearing age who do not view the abortion issue through the same moral framework as pro-life activists) to a specific type of pro-life rhetoric.

The research sought to answer how these women could personally oppose abortion, but favor its continued legality. The research also intended to help pro-lifers more effectively communicate with this category of women.

According to the study, women in crisis pregnancies do not resolve the abortion question in a cool, logical, "left-brain" manner. Instead, women often resolve the issue in a more emotional, "right-brain" manner.

Swope notes that for decades, pro-lifers approached women with the assumption that they knew "killing a baby is wrong" and simply thought they needed to demonstrate that the fetus is a baby. Swope says this approach had "frustratingly little impact."

Instead, the research revealed that many young women have developed a self-identity that excludes motherhood. As a result, an unplanned pregnancy represents a threat with three perceived "evil" solutions: motherhood, adoption and abortion. The mother is left to choose the least evil solution.

Unplanned motherhood is viewed as a "death of self" of her present and future self. The response by pro-lifers to focus on the innocent, unborn child falls on deaf ears, since the mother views her situation through self-preservation. Instead, it is important to help the mother move from an instinct of "self-preservation" to "species preservation." This requires helping the woman incorporate motherhood into her identity and overcome thoughts such as, "my life is over."

It’s interesting to note that adoption is perceived as the most "evil" of the three options. Adoption is experienced as a "double death." The first is the "death of self." The second is the "death of the child through abandonment." The mother feels that adoption leads to an uncertain future for her child. The mother also fears her child’s abrupt return later in life. The study proposes that when adoption is pitted against abortion, adoption will be the "hands-down loser."

Abortion, then, becomes the least perceived "evil" of the three options. Though these women believe abortion is wrong, they believe God will understand their predicament and offer forgiveness. As well, these women believe there is no real "choice" since their life is at stake. Abortion becomes a "difficult, costly, but necessary decision in order to get on with her life." Thus, women are protective of abortive women and their "right to choose" as the guardian of self-preservation.

Based on the research, Swope questions language and imagery that focuses on the child when speaking with women in these situations. Often times, they already know the fetus is a human and abortion kills the baby. But, under their circumstances, they are willing to sacrifice this truth in their struggle for survival.

This means the pro-life movement has to "address her side of the equation, and do so in a compassionate manner that affirms her own inner convictions" and helps her "reevaluate what she perceives as the three ‘evils’ before her."

This is not to say that stating objective facts is unsuccessful in other circumstances, but the research Swope summarized almost 20 years ago should provoke us to consider our messaging and whether it is counterproductive or ineffective.

As we continue to consider being the most effective evangelists of the Gospel of life, Swope’s article offers something to ponder in our encounters with women of childbearing years or those who are post-abortive.


Tom Venzor is the associate director of pro-life and family with the Nebraska Catholic Conference in Lincoln. Contact him at

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