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

Note from Randy: In this article, Mike Spencer, author of Humanly Speaking: The Evil of Abortion, the Silence of the Church, and the Grace of God, gives us six pieces of advice for when we’re talking about abortion with others. His advice is especially applicable to our cultural conversations in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

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.

Strategy #4: Stay focused on the unborn and stay out of the weeds.

Perhaps you have noticed that abortion supporters want to talk about anything and everything except the unborn child. They talk about a woman’s “right to choose,” a broken foster-care system, hard-case scenarios like rape and incest, and a litany of other secondary issues. While these topics deserve our attention, none of them has anything to do with the moral question of abortion.

Even though many pro-choice people would have us believe abortion is a complicated matter, Scott Klusendorf lays out the pro-life argument with clarity: 

Premise 1: It is morally wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.

Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.

So keep the unborn front-and-center in your conversations or you will end up in the tangled weeds of red herrings, empty slogans, and misleading clichés.

Strategy #5: When appropriate, be the one to end the conversation.

We have all encountered well-intentioned pro-lifers whose zeal blinded them to normal social graces, causing others to avoid them like the plague. Being the one to end the conversation in situations where you are likely to have future opportunities to revisit the topic can be particularly helpful. When people know they can leave a conversation, they feel free to stay with it or to return to it at another time.

Strategy #6: Keep in mind that the world is watching you.

Although we shouldn’t be consumed with an unhealthy need to be liked or accepted, we should nevertheless care deeply about how we are perceived. We represent another King and another Kingdom: “We are Christ’s ambassadors as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). When it comes to conversations about abortion, what we say and how we say it can have life and death consequences for our tiniest neighbors. This should cause us to be on our best behavior, “so that in every way” we “will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10).

Unfortunately, many of our adversaries have painted us as belligerent, religious know-nothings bent on oppressing women. And much of our public discourse over morality and politics has decayed into a snarky game of “gotcha” where civility and diplomacy are sacrificed on the altar of winning at all costs. But the command to “Make the most of every opportunity” is not about scoring points or crushing people; it is about finding ways to argue our case persuasively, with kindness.

Remember, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). We should ask ourselves, “What is in my heart? Do I value crushing my enemies more than winning them over?” A little kindness goes a long way in developing the type of trust that invites greater and more meaningful dialogue.

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash

Michael Spencer is the president of Project LifeVoice, a gospel-driven ministry that equips and inspires pro-life ambassadors to speak compellingly and to act sacrificially on behalf of the unborn. Michael served as a pastor for 23 years. He is also the author of Humanly Speaking: The Evil of Abortion, the Silence of the Church, and the Grace of God.