by Emily Wilkinson, SFL West Coast Regional Coordinator
One of my favorite parts of being a Regional Coordinator is getting to have conversations about abortion with strangers on a regular basis. (If you’ve never had that experience, you should try it sometime!) Most recently, I brought SFLA’s Planned Parenthood Project to a liberal California campus where we dialogued with passing students about PP’s abortion agenda.
One of the students who stopped to talk was a pro-choice girl with a lot of legitimate concerns. I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with her since the media so often portrays both sides just yelling over each other. We talked for a long time covering multiple topics – adoption, women’s rights, unplanned pregnancies, the need for accessible healthcare, and whether the unborn is a human/person. Then she turned the focus back to our display. She said, “I really appreciate how you guys are presenting your message, and I can tell you really care about this issue, but what about women who see your display who have already had abortions? Why are you trying to make them feel bad? It’s things like this that create abortion stigma.”
I gently explained that we were not there to judge women who have had abortions, but to direct them to healing and support. I told her that I disagreed with the idea that women only feel bad about their abortions due to “abortion stigma,” because abortion is truly physically and psychologically harmful. And we want to reach out not only to post-abortive women, but to women who are considering having an abortion because we don’t want them to go through that trauma.
I told her, “One of the things that the pro-life group here on this campus wants to do is support pregnant women and provide resources for them, because so many women are pressured to get an abortion and feel like they don’t have a choice. They’re told by society that they can’t do it – they can’t have a child and go to school at the same time. They think they have to choose between their education and their baby, and we want to tell them, ‘No! You don’t have to choose. You can do both.’ ”
The girl gave me a doubtful look, as if I held a delusional belief. “You expect women to be superheroes!” she said accusingly. “It’s impossible to go to school and do a good job of raising a child at the same time.”
“You’re right,” I said, “I think women ARE superheroes! Women are amazing!!” I told her that I have several friends who have gone through school and done a good job raising a child at the same time.
“Women are capable of so much – way more than society gives them credit for, and more than they give themselves credit for. I think most of the time, women don’t even realize what they are capable of.” I think it took her by surprise that I was framing the issue in such a pro-woman way. (Check out the Pregnant on Campus Initiative to see what was going through my mind at this moment.)
She was struck by what I said and her expression softened. She seemed physically torn between staying and walking away, and mentally struggling with how to put her thoughts into words and respond to everything that I had been saying.
“I don’t know… I disagree with you, but… you’re so beautiful!… It’s like you believe life is just so beautiful!” she said with unexpected emotion.
Yes, I absolutely believe that, I told her. And then she started to cry a little, covering her face with her hands and apologizing, clearly embarrassed. “It’s fine!” I said, surprised, but before I could think to ask if she was okay, she regained her composure and said she needed to get to class. I quickly thanked her for talking with me and asked her name as she turned to go.
“Emelia,” she replied, which made me smile. I told her my name and that I like to go by
Emelia. “Feel free to come back before we leave at two o’clock,” I said, and she thanked me and walked away.
I really hoped that she would come back, but I didn’t see her again.
This was not how I had expected our conversation to end. I was left feeling uncomfortable and with unanswered questions. Had she changed her perspective on anything, or did she still just think I was nice but delusional? What secret pain had bubbled up to the surface and caused her to break down, however briefly? I had been privy to her tears, but not the reason behind them, and it was heartbreaking to think that she might be post-abortive. The conversation had ended so abruptly that it lacked some sort of closure.
But that happens a lot with outreach on campus. Students are usually in a rush, and the conversations that do happen are interrupted by class, work, or homework. That is why it is vital for us to remember that it’s not just about what we say, but how we say it. Even if we only have a few seconds or minutes to communicate with a passing student, we must try our best to leave that person with a positive impression of what we stand for as pro-life advocates.
We can do this by smiling, being genuine, and listening intently to what the other person has to say. We can treat the person with dignity and respect no matter how erroneous we think his or her views are, and we can try our best to understand those views. I was patient, respectful, and compassionate in our conversation. She seemed skeptical of how nice I was, and she became less defensive as time went on. By the end, she clearly respected me (even if she still thought I was misguided).
The truth is, it doesn’t matter that I will never have answers to my questions about Emelia. It also doesn’t matter that she almost certainly didn’t change her mind about abortion– that rarely happens in one conversation. What matters is that I was able to communicate the care we have for women in difficult circumstances, and share how abortion is not a good solution to any problem. Re-thinking abortion is a long process for many people, and every positive interaction they have with the pro-life movement is a stepping stone along the way. Our interaction may have been the first stepping stone in her journey. And that, my friends, is a successful conversation.