How are we teaching millennials to be pro-life?

“So…are you guys pro-life?” our Uber driver asked us, as he drove me, my colleague Ashley McKinless and Paddy Gilger, S.J., to cover the 43rd March for Life in Washington, D.C.

We were on our way from the Jesuit Mass for Life to the Washington Monument, where the rally before the march was just beginning. The snow had yet to start falling, but the coming blizzard had turned away scores of would-be marchers. At least 75 percent of the attendees at the Jesuit Mass for life cancelled.


Paddy was the homilist that day; it is a daunting task, to speak about abortion, but especially to a group of committed young people, passionate about a social cause. But Paddy, frankly, hit it out of the park. The entire thing is well-worth listening to.

“When was the last time we had a real conversation with someone who disagrees with us? To have the courage to listen to what’s really going on in them?” Paddy asked the congregation. “Our efforts [should be] to create the same kind of space for people to change their hearts,” he continued. “It’s really hard to do. It’s much easier for us to be confident in our correctness.”

Here we were, just two hours later, faced with an opportunity to have that conversation in the most unlikely of circumstances. Talk about practicing what you preach.

We listened as our driver talked about how he had wavered from being pro-life to pro-choice, and how learning about partial-birth abortions and seeing his sister-in-law’s ultrasound has led him to once again rethink his stance on the issue. He also talked about the bad impressions he had gotten from pro-lifers in the past; plastering giant images of aborted fetuses stuck out in particular.

We hopped out at the Washington Monument and said our goodbyes. As we approached the rally, we heard the booming voice of another speaker from a different pulpit: Carly Fiorina, former executive of Hewlett Packard and Republican presidential candidate.

The contrast with her message and Paddy’s was striking. Ms. Fiorina lambasted the “litanies of the left” and “the media” for their “pro-abortion” obsessions. She told the crowd that we needed to “take our country back” by electing her, and if not her, certainly a Republican in the next presidential election.

And it isn’t just Ms. Fiorina. Too many of the main-stage speakers, and those who lead some of the largest pro-life organizations in the country, bring this fire-and-brimstone approach to the issue.

Later on, I saw a marcher practicing what had just been preached at the rally: A young women, her iPhone camera stuck in the face of a pro-choice counter protester, was screaming she “would pray for them.” I feared that prayer would likely consist of uploading the video and Internet-shaming them.

This was my fourth March for Life—but my first covering it as a journalist. Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded that six years ago I attended my first march as a junior in high school. It was a jarring reminder of how much I have changed in the way I talk about abortion.

It reminded me of when I shouted and should have listened; when I was less concerned about the person I was talking to and more concerned about being right; when my self-inflated sense of righteousness trumped compassion.

But this trip was also a chance for me to reflect on the future of the pro-life movement. As many people note each year, the March for Life is consistently a young gathering. Polls continue to show that younger generations are more pro-life than past ones. It is incredible that the majority of people who attend the march that condemns Roe v. Wade weren’t alive when it was decided.

These young people know, almost instinctively upon learning about abortion, how it is a failure of love and a sham of a structural solution for the cascade of problems facing women. But too often we teach them, disingenuously, that this is a partisan issue; that this is an isolated issue. We teach them to regurgitate talking points and counterarguments instead of genuinely dialoguing with their peers. We teach them to fight battles in an outdated and tired culture war.

I wish every young person, those who marched and those who were turned away, could have heard Paddy’s homily that day. I wish that they could have had the mentors that I had in college who taught me that dialogue is hard and it first requires us to recognize the dignity in the person across from us; that it can’t be a cheap pretense but rather a genuine willingness to share and be vulnerable.

There is a time for zealous prophesy, for bringing down the walls of Jericho. But it takes careful discernment to remember that, as Paddy later said, “No one ever changes from being yelled at. They change from being loved.” We would be wise to bring this message to the pro-life generation if we truly want to end abortion in our lifetime, and not just create an annual echo chamber on Constitution Avenue. 

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Crystal Watson
3 years 9 months ago
I do wish that the pro-life people I've conversed with would speak to some of the difficult issues .... abortion for rape and incest victims, some of them just children still themselves, like the 9 year old girl from Brazil a few years ago ... abortion of fetuses that will have terrible defects such as those caused by the Zika virus ... why pro-life people are against one of the main ways of reducing abortions - contraception, etc.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
3 years 9 months ago

I wish that the pro-choice people I've conversed with would speak to some of the difficult issues as well, like how we can ever move forward on this issue as long as Roe v. Wade constitutionalizes it and it can only be resolved at the level of the Supreme Court, rather than through actual legislative compromise. I wish somebody would give me a pro-choice example of an acceptable limitation on abortion, instead of always pointing out the hard cases that should (and do) make a pro-life position difficult to hold.

But I appreciated this article because it doesn't focus on how other people should think differently, but on how someone enters into authentic dialogue from their own position. 

And the only way I've ever found to get to the hard questions in dialogue is to start by showing that I understand the good motives of the other with whom I disagree. For pro-life people, I think that means acknowledging the real concern about women's bodily autonomy that is at the heart of the pro-choice position. For pro-choice people, I think it might look like acknowledging that pro-life starts with concern for protecting unborn and defenseless life, not at trying to control women. Maybe if we can actually appreciate each others' good motives we could cooperate more on things like trying to offer enough support that no pregnant woman feels like she's threatened by the economic consequences of having a child.

Crystal Watson
3 years 9 months ago
I do think many pro-life people have the good motive of wanting to defend the helpless. Many pro-choice people want to defend others too - women and girls. For me it's a hard issue because all the situations are so different ... on the part of the mother, from a rape victim who takes a morning-after pill to someone who sees abortion as a kind of birth control ... on the part of the fetus, from an embryo to an almost baby. All these scenarios are mixed together and it doesn't seem to me like one answer can fit them all.
William Rydberg
3 years 9 months ago
Ms Watson: I suppose the most obvious one to me at least, and in my opinion the best is: "...But as for me and my household we will serve the Lord. " Joshua 24. Just my opinion...
Crystal Watson
3 years 9 months ago
If there's some NT reference about abortion, I'm not aware of it. There's very little in the bible on this ...
William Rydberg
3 years 9 months ago
I suggest that you explore the feasibility of attending tomorrow's Mass. You may find the readings resonate. Or not. At least give them a read. I personally like to read the Huffington Post almost daily, but never considered it as a source for biblical exegesis worth quoting. But that's just my opinion... Or you could try the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see footnotes). I am assuming that you are a co-religionist, if not, please excuse :) PAX
Crystal Watson
3 years 9 months ago
Jim Lein
3 years 9 months ago
I think it was 2 years ago when Cardinal O'Malley said the only way to help these babies is to help these mothers. Some few of us can focus equally on the unborn and on the mothers and the born. Most of us can't quite do this; we have different gifts, different perspectives, different callings, are different members of the spiritual body. But we don't have to argue. There is plenty of work for all, if we are to attend to the poor women father mentioned, by at least not further pulling away the safety net they need in order to see it as possible to bring new life into the world. Christ's way is the merciful way, not the legalistic way which invariably includes judging, something we are warned against, as father also gently cautioned against.


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