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How to Discuss Abortion Without Invoking Religion

In a society as adrift as ours, it’s clear that pro-lifers can engage the abortion argument most successfully by steering clear of religion.

At the beginning, I want to stress how important it is to control the terms of any debate. Too many pro-life people (including Catholic priests and bishops) refer to people who are pro-abortion as being “pro-choice.” I think this is a mistake. Letting the other side control the terms of the debate gives them a big advantage. They are not “pro-choice.” They do not believe in giving an unborn child a choice about living or dying. They generally don’t even believe in giving women all the necessary medical information so they can make an informed choice.

By the same token, we are not “anti-choice” (nor anti-women). We are pro-life. I don’t know anyone who thinks that women should not have a choice about whether or not to get pregnant. However, once a woman becomes pregnant, another life has come into being, and we want to protect the unborn child’s right to life.

There are times when we also should challenge the other side’s use of the term fetus. Abortion proponents use the term because it dehumanizes the unborn child. We can point out that fetus is merely a Latin term that means “unborn child.” Do this with a smile, especially if they have made an ad hominem attack by mentioning that you are Catholic. After all, Catholics should know a little Latin. But whether you call the unborn child a “fetus” or a “baby” does not change the reality that a human life is at stake.

However, keep in mind that every discussion is different. Debating someone from Planned Parenthood is very different from having a conversation with a friend. The point of this article is show how you can engage in a dialogue with someone, not score points against him. At times, you might have to let the other person’s use of the term pro-choice or fetus slide if you think that correcting him will short-circuit the discussion.

Avoid the word murder. Murder is a legal term that means the “unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.” Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, it cannot be considered murder in the legal sense. I suggest using phrases such as “killing an unborn child” or “destroying life.” These terms will be more difficult to argue.

Establish common ground

Start a discussion by establishing some kind of common ground on which you can build a dialogue. You could start by asking someone who is pro-abortion when he or she thinks that life begins. Tell him to put aside questions of religion and morality—this takes away the argument that you are trying to impose your Catholic faith—and ask him when human life begins from a scientific viewpoint.

You will get an answer ranging from at conception/fertilization to at the moment of birth to somewhere in between. Some pro-abortionists have redefined conception to mean when a fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterine wall. Therefore, in their opinion, the morning-after pill, which prevents a fertilized egg from being implanted, does not cause an abortion. However, it does destroy a life in being.

If he says that he cannot answer the question, you can respond with a sense of incredulity. Ask him: if a mother feels the baby move or kick, isn’t that a sign of life? Or ask why a baby born after seven months is a child but an unborn child that is still in the womb after almost nine months isn’t.

Once you get an answer as to when life begins from a scientific viewpoint, you can point out that many states use a cessation of brain activity as a means of determining death. You can then ask if the reverse is true: can brain activity be considered a sign of life? What about being able to detect a heartbeat? Is that a sign of life? You can then point out that that we can detect an unborn child’s brain waves about forty days after conception and can detect a heartbeat at six weeks after conception. If we can detect brain waves and a heartbeat, aren’t those both signs of life?

You can also ask him about the ability to feel pain—does being able to feel pain indicate that someone is alive? If so, you can point out that an unborn child can feel pain at twenty weeks. Is it humane to allow an unborn child to be ripped to pieces during an abortion since it can feel what is happening?

A ‘potential’ human life

Your opponent might then respond that it’s only a “potential” human life. By all means, ask him to define what that terms means. It’s important to remember that teenagers and college students often repeat what they’ve heard without really understanding the meaning of the terms they are using (sadly, that’s also true of many adults). That’s why it’s important to pin them down on the meaning of what they are saying. It will force them to think about what’s actually being discussed rather than just parroting what they’ve heard others say.

Your opponent might try to argue that the unborn child doesn’t look human at an early stage of development. I respond by saying that child looks exactly what a human is supposed to look like at that stage of development. You can look at any prenatal book, such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, to see exactly what the unborn child looks like at every stage of development in the womb.

If the abortion proponent says that a fetus is only a “potential human life” because it cannot live outside the womb, ask if a premature baby in an incubator is only a “potential human life”—or is it a human baby who deserves all the constitutional protections of life? After all, what is an incubator but a crude, artificial womb?

If an unborn child is only a “potential human life” because it cannot take care of itself, then what is a six-month-old baby? It cannot take care of itself, either. Is it a human being or only a “potential human life?”

What about someone is who is disabled or has had a stroke? Does he cease to be human because he can no longer take care of himself? If we agree that such a person is still human, then the fact that an unborn child cannot take care of itself is not a valid reason for denying its humanity.

‘Follow the science’

People are often told that we must “follow the science” when it comes to pandemics or climate change. It’s fair to ask your opponent why he is not willing to follow science when science shows that life begins at fertilization.

Or ask him this: has he ever known a woman who has suffered a miscarriage? Did he offer condolences on the loss of her baby? If so, then why is a woman who has had a miscarriage considered to have lost a child, but another woman who chooses to have an abortion at the same stage in her pregnancy is considered only to have lost a “blob of tissue”?

You can point out to your opponent that several states have laws making it a crime to kill an unborn child (unless the mother chooses to have an abortion). For example, if someone kills a woman who is six months pregnant (when the child would be viable outside the womb) and the unborn child also dies, the criminal can be charged with a double homicide. But if the same woman chooses to have a late-term abortion, the law says that is her right. Ask your opponent: does that make logical sense?

Does legal equal right?

At some point, the person on the other side may point out that abortion has been the law of the land since Roe v. Wade. You can grant that point—after all, it’s true [1]. But then ask if people who were fighting against slavery in the nineteenth century should have accepted the Dred Scott decision as the law of the land. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that black slaves were property. Should abolitionists have ceased their efforts and accepted Dred Scott as settling the issue of slavery?

What about the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson? In 1896, the court ruled that blacks could be treated as second-class citizens under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Should Martin Luther King Jr. have accepted that decision as the law of the land and never have started his efforts to bring civil rights to blacks?

A brief look at history will show many court decisions that were wrong. If we accepted them as the law of the land, we could never right those wrongs.

Her body, her choice

At some point, the other side will probably bring up the old rallying cry that it’s a woman’s body and therefore her choice. You can agree that a woman has the right to decide whether or not she wants to get pregnant. But once she is pregnant, there is another life at stake.

As far as it being her body, you can point out that if you take a sample of the woman’s DNA and compare it to the baby’s DNA, it won’t match (the unborn child received only half of its DNA from the mother and the other half from its father). The unborn child is surrounded by the woman’s body, nourished by her body, and protected by her body—but, from a scientific viewpoint, it is not part of her body.

As for being “pro-choice,” ask your opponent why so many on his side are against a woman being given information so that she can make an informed choice. Why do Planned Parenthood and others fight laws that would require doctors to show a woman a 3-D ultrasound of her baby, or to warn her that having an abortion can cause fertility problems and that she may have trouble conceiving a child in the future?

Why don’t they warn her that having an abortion can increase her risk of getting breast cancer later in life? Is it because abortion is a multi-million-dollar industry, and Planned Parenthood knows that if a woman sees a 3-D ultrasound of her baby, she is less likely to go ahead with the abortion? If “pro-choicers” really cared about a woman’s health, wouldn’t they want her to have all this information?

Do not let your opponent sidetrack the issue by claiming that the ultrasound involves an invasive procedure and requires putting a wand (transducer) inside the woman’s vagina. Although that is one way to do an ultrasound, a topical ultrasound can accomplish the same result without any discomfort for the women.

The ‘hard cases’ argument

I can guarantee that at some point the subjects of rape and incest will come up. The other side raises these issues to prove that we need to keep abortion legal in some circumstances (which means that they want to keep it legal in all cases). Admittedly, these are hard cases, but there is an old legal maxim that hard cases make bad law.

We can and should admit that these are heart-rending cases. But we have to ask: if we don’t execute rapists and child molesters, should we then execute the innocent, unborn child who is the product of their crime? It’s a question of balance. We have to balance nine months of what might be a terrible reminder to the woman of what she’s suffered against a death sentence for the child.

I would also disagree with the other side’s assumption that an abortion is in the woman’s best interest in the case of rape or incest. Many women suffer years of depression following an abortion because deep down inside they know that they killed their baby. Post-abortion syndrome is a form of PTSD and is a real medical issue. But of course, Planned Parenthood and others don’t want to warn women about this. Wouldn’t it be better to give these women the support they need (emotional, financial, etc.) during their pregnancy and then help them decide what is best for them in terms of keeping their baby or giving it up for adoption?

Rape and incest cases make up about one percent of all abortions. Ask your opponent: if you agree to keep abortion legal in these two cases, will he agree to outlaw all other abortions? If he says no, ask him if he really cares about the issues of rape and incest, or is he only using them as a smoke screen?

If by some chance he agrees with your suggestion, ask him why he’s agreeing. Is it because he recognizes the humanity of the unborn child? If so, why does a child conceived by rape or incest deserve less protection?

Life and health of the mother

Another argument you are likely to encounter is that abortion may be necessary to protect the “life and health of the mother.” Do not fall into this trap! “Life and health of the mother” is code for abortion on demand.

Suppose a woman gets pregnant and tells her doctor that she is depressed about being pregnant. The doctor might then say that depression will affect her physical health and therefore an abortion is necessary to preserve the woman’s health.

What about an exception based on just preserving the life of the mother? This is hard to argue against, but such a law would have to have safeguards. Such a law might state that two independent doctors would have to agree that a woman’s life was in danger and that it was impossible to save the unborn child’s life. In that case, to do nothing might result in the death of the mother.

For example, if a woman has an ectopic pregnancy (where the embryo starts to grow inside a fallopian tube), with our current medical technology, it is impossible to save the baby’s life. If a doctor removes the fallopian tube, the child will die; but the intent of the procedure is to save the life of the mother, not to kill the baby.

Ask your opponent if he has ever seen the results of an abortion. If he has not, challenge him to go online and look for himself. Point out that an abortionist will piece together a dismembered baby as a way of determining that he removed all the body parts from the womb. After he sees the results of an abortion, ask him if he is looking at a baby or merely a blob of tissue.

Your opponent may ask you if you want to put women in jail for having an abortion. I would answer no, because women have been lied to for years that their unborn child is not a human being. But doctors know better, and I would put doctors who perform abortions in jail.

Deaths from illegal abortions

Another argument that abortion proponents often use is that thousands of women died every year from illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade. This is a lie perpetuated by Planned Parenthood and others. The CDC began collecting data on abortion mortality in 1972, the year before Roe was decided. According to the CDC, in 1972, the number of deaths in the United States from legal abortions was twenty-four and from illegal abortions thirty-nine.

Tell your opponent that he doesn’t have to take your word for it. Encourage him to research it online. As sad as it is that even a few women lost their lives in abortions, it’s equally sad that every successful abortion kills a child.

Your opponent may point out that outlawing abortion won’t stop all abortions. You can agree with him but counter that outlawing murder hasn’t stopped all murders. Does that mean we should decriminalize murder? We may not be able to stop all murders (or abortions), but we can try to reduce the overall number of deaths. And, of course, every abortion results in the death of a baby.

Ask your opponent if he wants to live in a society where someone such as Kermit Gosnell can kill babies who are born alive after a botched abortion. Does he want to live in a society where Planned Parenthood kills babies and sells their body parts for money? He may respond that he wants to live in a society where the government can’t tell women what they can do with their bodies. Go ahead and agree with him—but point out that the government can and does protect the lives of children, and that’s all you want in this case.

Imposing one’s religion

If someone says he is personally against abortion but doesn’t want to impose his religious beliefs on others, ask if he is opposed to murder, rape, and human sex trafficking? If yes, is he willing to impose his beliefs on others by making these acts against the law? Or is he willing to take a “let everyone do their own thing” attitude in these areas?

Many, if not all, so-called “Catholic” politicians say they are personally opposed to abortion, but then they vote for funding abortions and against even the mildest restrictions on abortion. Would you believe a politician who was personally opposed to higher taxes but voted for every tax bill that came before Congress?

At some point your opponent may try to trip you up by asking if you support the death penalty. Some pro-lifers are opposed to the death penalty, while others support it. There are good arguments on both sides, but the two issues are apples and oranges. A convicted murderer is entitled to due process. His guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He is then entitled to numerous appeals, often lasting for many years. In contrast, the unborn child has no due process rights and no right to appeal. And, most importantly, the unborn child is an innocent.

Whenever you find yourself about to discuss the issue of abortion, say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide your words and your actions. You don’t want to beat down your opponent (tempting as that may be in some cases). You want to bring him around to your point of view that all lives, even the unborn, are worthy of respect and protection.

Sidebar: You’re only Planting Seeds

Don’t expect to change your opponent’s mind in one sitting. He has been subjected to years of pro-abortion propaganda and brainwashing. What you want to do is plant seeds in his mind to make him think. Hopefully, he will come back to discuss the matter further.

I also wouldn’t try to make all the points in this article in one argument. After you make just a couple of them, your opponent may hit information overload. You may be dealing with someone who has never heard, and therefore never had to think about, some of these issues.

You’ll be able to tell when someone has stopped listening or stopped processing information. At that point, suggest you table the discussion until a later date.

Whatever you do, keep calm and don’t get angry. The calmer and more rational you are, the more it will drive most of your opponents crazy. It’s rare that I’ve had a debate about abortion where my opponent did not get emotional and resort to histrionics.

Having said this, it can be very difficult not to get angry when discussing the wholesale slaughter of millions of unborn children. But showing your anger will only turn off the person you are talking to. Try not to react to your opponent’s efforts to justify abortion. Your responses should be proactive, not reactive.

[1] Editor’s note: On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court issued Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade. As a result, abortion is no longer legal in all fifty U.S. states. The contents of this section remain useful as responses to any appeal to the legal status of abortion, present or otherwise.

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