An Interview with Josh Brahm
After twelve years of working full-time in the pro-life movement, Josh Brahm, along with his brother, decided to change course. Still strong believers in the cause, they had both come to believe that the movement itself could use some tweaking. They decided to focus on training pro-life advocates not only in making good arguments, but also in skills such as knowing when to talk and when not to, how to ask the right questions, and how to be truly engaged with those who are pro-choice. Thus the Equal Rights Institute was born. Brahm now spends much of his time speaking and conducting seminars at colleges, churches, and conferences around the country.
How long have you been involved in the pro-life movement?
I've been involved since I was 18 years old, when I started a teen pro-life group, so for about fourteen years. But it really began when I was 11 years old. My dad took me to an abortion clinic with a group of men from church to pray. But no one had told me what abortion was, and I was totally confused. I didn't understand what the men were praying about. A group across the street had brought signs with pictures of what abortion did to babies and I asked about the signs. So my parents told me what abortion was that day. The idea that anyone would want to kill their children in the womb was a complete shock to me. And I felt strongly that I wanted to try and stop it.
What are some of the mistakes pro-lifers make in arguing against abortion?
There's a phrase we coined on our blog called Fetus Tunnel Vision. Sometimes pro-lifers have a hard time acknowledging publicly other human rights injustices without at least comparing them to abortion. For example, every year on the anniversary of 9/11 there are Facebook posts talking about the fact that 2,900 people died but then adding, "Do you know how many people died on 9/12? Three thousand babies." Or when a big shooting happens. That day, there will be pro-life leaders comparing it to abortion, asking how many babies died today. And that's problematic.
I know those people really do care about the people who got killed in the shooting. But it doesn't look to other people like they care. It looks to other people like they have one pet issue—abortion—and that their mission, their agenda, is to take advantage of whatever the big news story is that day and get people talking about abortion. And then it looks like their moral compass is broken. And that's a problem because people aren't going to take our moral view seriously if they think our moral compass is broken.
So we want to help pro-life people communicate well not only about abortion, but also about how horrible sex slavery is, or rape. Often it comes across that we only care about the baby and that we don't care about the survivor of rape. I gave a speech once at a pro-life conference talking about how we ought to respond to rape. A woman came up to me afterward and told me I was the first pro-life speaker she'd ever heard who convinced her I actually care about rape. And that's one of the most tragic things that has ever been told to me at a conference. I want pro-life men, in particular, to know how to talk about this with real empathy, with a real acknowledgement of how horrible rape is. Because sadly, pro-choice people—even though maybe they ought to—don't know that we care about anything other than abortion. So coming across like we have Fetus Tunnel Vision is a common mistake.
I think sometimes that being more focused on winning the argument than on the person is also a common problem. There are people who aren't going to change their minds in a day. In fact, I think that's where most people are. I have stories, like most pro-life people do, of people changing their minds in a day. And those are great stories, and there are things we can learn from them.
But most people change their minds really slowly, especially about serious issues. That's why we talk about relational apologetics so much—this art of cultivating real friendships with pro-choice people. Because I think that's the context where people change their minds best. It's the environment we need to create, one where it's most likely for people to have a substantive change of mind. Because when I'm giving my friends a pro-life argument, it's different than when someone they don't know is giving them a pro-life argument. Since we're friends, they already trust me. But you've got to be okay with the fact that you're going to have lots of conversations where the other person doesn't end it with, "I'm pro-life now." I've had friendships go anywhere from one and a half years to five years before a pro-choice person became pro-life. It means investing a lot of time in those people. Many people need to think about this for months or years.
You talk about some essential skills people should have when making pro-life arguments to pro-choice people. What are some of them?
First is asking lots of clarification questions. Instead of assuming or, worse, telling them what they think, it's better to ask lots of questions. For example, someone might use the phrase "my body, my choice," but that can mean different things to different people.
We should listen to understand and try to get into their shoes. A lot of people don't listen well because they have an inner monologue going on in their heads where maybe they're trying to figure out the next thing to say. Just be present in the moment with the person.
We also talk about finding genuine common ground when possible. I talk to a lot of pro-choice people, for example, who think abortion is bad and that it should happen less often. Some think some abortions are so wrong they should even be against the law, like third-trimester abortions or sex-selection abortions. So there's a lot in there I can agree with. And it changes the tone of the conversation. Sometimes we just don't think to say it when we agree with something they've said.
We also talk about re-phrasing what they say. Miscommunication happens so often, especially in conversations like this—even if you're listening well. So what we'll do a lot, especially early in the conversation, after they've described their view, is say, "I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Let me repeat back to you what I'm hearing you say, and you tell me if I'm getting it wrong." It's worth a few minutes of my time to understand what this person is actually trying to say, instead of responding to an image in my head of what pro-choice people think.
We also talk about using filler sentences, the things you say in between your statements that help provide clarity. One of my favorite formulas for this is, "Here's what I'm not saying, and here's what I'm saying." For example, "I'm not saying that a moral relativist cannot be a good person. I am saying I don't think moral relativism can explain why we ought to be good." Or, "I'm saying that the unborn, morally speaking, are the same thing as a toddler. I don't think there's a moral difference. What I'm not saying is that I think women who have abortions have the same kind of malice as you would need to actually kill a toddler. But I am saying I think both victims are the same kind of thing."
Yet another thing we talk about is not making arguments with question marks at the end of them. A common method that apologists teach people to use is to challenge people's beliefs in question form: "It seems that if X is true, then wouldn't Y be true also?"—that kind of thing. We've come to believe that there's a big risk in doing that—namely, that the other person can tell you're trying to lead him somewhere. It's important to find an environment where people feel they can trust us.
What is your sense of how things are going in the pro-life movement? Do you think it's growing, and are you hopeful in terms of young people becoming engaged in it?
Yes, I'm super hopeful. A lot of people ask if I think abortion is going to end, and whether it will end in my lifetime. And I've gone back and forth on that. There's good news and bad news. But some of the best news is seeing so many young people getting involved. When I spoke at the Students for Life conference in Washington, D.C., there were about 2,400 students there. They're passionate and they're bright. And they want to end this thing. They're learning from what previous generations of pro-life people have done, and from their mistakes.
By the end of this year, Students for Life is going to have about a thousand clubs of pro-life people on college campuses and in high schools. And that's our target demographic. That's who we care about training the most, partly because they're the most open to what we have to say. Another reason is that college students make up the number-one age demographic for women having abortions.
I'm very optimistic in a way that I haven't been for much of my career. We haven't won this thing yet, and it's a really difficult problem. It's like ending slavery. In Amazing Grace we read about what William Wilberforce did. It was a marathon, not a sprint. Imagine what can happen if we spend a decade or two training the next generation of pro-life advocates to engage better than we ever have as a movement. When I look at this next generation of pro-life advocates, I think they're going to be better than anything we've seen before. •
For more information on the Equal Rights Institute, visit their website, www.equalrightsinstitute.com.Marcia Segelstein
is the author of the newly-released book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids, published by Our Sunday Visitor. She has been covering family issues for twenty-five years, as a producer for CBS News, a contributor to National Catholic Register, and a Senior Editor for Salvo magazine. She has written for FoxNews.com, First Things, WORLD magazine, and Touchstone.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #37, Summer 2016 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo37/speaking-words-for-life