When I saw the room filling up before start time with "keep abortion legal" signs and people wearing coat hangers around their necks and emergency contraception stickers on their arms, my heart began to race. I didn't quite know what I was in for.
I had been asked by the College Republicans to come to Chapman University to make a secular case against abortion. I was to begin at about 830 PM this past Wednesday, March 15. Well before start time, the room was packed and extra chairs had to be located. The air was alive with the energy of tension.
So I did the only thing that seemed reasonable -- I walked up and started shaking hands and introducing myself, asking about majors and names. One woman seemed especially ready to take my head off, so I said, "I'm Steve, what's your name? Good to meet you. I'll be speaking tonight..." and looking at her big round KEEP ABORTION LEGAL sign, I said, "I guess you'll be speaking as well!" She said, "As much as possible!" Then she looked me square in the eyes and confidently said, "My aunt died from an illegal abortion back in the fifties." Taking a cue from common sense, I just listened and showed concern and affirmed how tragic that was, asking her how she was doing...a few minutes later, with every seat (and extras!) taken, David Fisher, the head of the College Republicans, opened the meeting.
I began by pointing out that the pro-choice and pro-life sides have a lot of common ground. I motivated our discussion by describing the stakes. Then I presented a simple case against abortion, complete with video of a nine week fetus before abortion, abortion in progress, and pictures of what the unborn looks like afterwards.
After 45 minutes of lecturing, I encouraged people to jump into the discussion. And jump in they did. For the next four hours (we started with 130 people, gave people a stretch break at 10 PM, then we concluded after 1 AM with 50 people still in attendance), student after student raised objections to my presentation. A few people couldn't see why the abortion-choice side wouldn't give fetuses a chance at life when they "aren’t even present to defend themselves," but most students took some degree of offense at what I said.
I responded with questions and my usual dialoguing approach, attempting to encourage the audience to "think through this together." I engaged each student's concerns, asked questions in return, and made frequent references to pictures of embryos through all stages of development. After a few exchanges back and forth with a student, I would try sometimes even to give them "the last word."
At one point a very passionate girl (who had been waiting anxiously for this moment for three hours) got up and railed against me for misleading the audience with "false information" and for "corrupting science with religion" only to be reprimanded by another abortion-choice student who criticized her because she was the one bringing religion into the discussion. He noticed that I had made a secular case based on publicly-accessible reasons and called her on it. Even still, I listened and asked her to give evidence for her claim that "science had proved the unborn was not a person." After she came up empty-handed, another student and I clarified that science only gives us the facts we need (e.g. what kind of organism is this?) to THEN discuss our value claims, which are philosophical in nature.
The students were so engaged that I dared not take a bathroom break when it was offered to me at about 1130 PM. I was in the middle of a lively dialogue with seventy energetic young minds at that point - who wants to use the restroom at a time like that? This is what my work is all about - creating dialogue among pro-life and pro-choice and modeling for both sides how to keep our discussion productive. As I said at the beginning of the meeting, "getting pro-life and pro-choice people to talk is my idea of a good time."
And if the decision to restrict abortion is ever returned back to the states, changing hearts and minds a few at a time, through a community dialogue that begins with common ground, is going to be key.