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The Complete Guide to Discussing Abortion

As the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health draws closer—along with the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade—those of us in the pro-life movement must be informed and prepared to discuss our stance on this issue.

Shawn Carney, co-founder and president of 40 Days for Life, has co-authored a book to help pro-lifers more successfully articulate why we advocate for life from conception to natural death. Carney joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss this new book, entitled What to Say When; The Complete New Guide to Discussing Abortion.

Carney argues that one of the biggest advantages of the pro-life movement is that, despite abortion’s longtime existence in our nation, “we haven’t gotten over it. […] We can sleep at night with other evils in our world much more so than with abortion,” continues Carney, “but abortion disturbs us. It rattles us as a nation and it should because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done and we’ve done it internally.”

One important thing Carney discusses in his book is a few things pro-lifers say that we probably shouldn’t. The first of these is saying, “We believe life begins at conception.” Thanks to modern science, we know life begins at conception. “We can choose not to believe it,” says Carney, “but we would be wrong, according to medicine. We know that life begins at conception and there simply is no other time that it begins if it doesn’t start at conception.”

Another common argument we probably shouldn’t use is the so-called “Beethoven argument,” or arguing against abortion because that child might be the next Beethoven or Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan. “Your kid doesn’t have to be Tom Brady or Beethoven in order to be worthy to live among us,” argues Carney. “…Your kid deserves a chance at life because we all do. We don’t determine our own dignity.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Shawn Carney discuss his new book and the work of 40 Days for Life.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Complete Guide to Discussing Abortion

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Many people describe themselves as fiercely pro-life, but when it comes to defending the basic human right to life when talking with people who disagree, they might need some help.

Well, Shawn Carney has a new book to help you with just that. It’s called What to Say When: The Complete New Guide to Discussing Abortion. Shawn Carney is co-founder and president of 40 Days for Life, an international movement that over the past 15 years is credited with saving over 20,000 pre-born lives, led to numerous abortion clinic closings, and abortion workers leaving the industry.

Shawn Carney, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

SHAWN CARNEY: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: For those who might not know, tell us about 40 Days for Life. What’s your mission?

SHAWN CARNEY: It’s very simple: to end abortion at the local level. We started in 2004 by doing one peaceful, law-abiding vigil outside of a local Planned Parenthood abortion facility in College Station, Texas, and people heard about it. It dropped local abortion numbers by 28%. So, we spread it nationally and then internationally, and now we hold two simultaneous 40 Days for Life vigils/campaigns for prayer, fasting, and physically going out to local abortion facilities across the country. We hold one during Lent and we hold one during the fall, and it’s been beautiful to see women turn around, to see abortion workers have a conversion, and certainly to close abortion facilities. So, that’s our mission; it’s now been done in a thousand cities in 64 countries around the world.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What is so attractive about 40 Days for Life and the way that you guys do the events that you do?

SHAWN CARNEY: That’s a good question. I think because it’s approachable. We feel helpless with abortion, you know? We wait for Washington, DC to hopefully overturn Roe and then it goes back to the states. Abortion has a sense of urgency that needs to go just beyond that. That’s important, obviously, but babies are dying every day, and I think people feel like, “Well, what can I do about it?” And we can go out there, we can offer hope and love to the women going in, and we can offer hope and love to the women coming out after their abortion, because the abortion industry’s done with them. We have the great network of pregnancy resource centers across the country who we work very closely with to get them real medical assistance. We’ve had a million volunteers in 40 Days for Life, and nearly 30% of them all said this is their first pro-life activity. So, I think it’s not accepting that we’re helpless on this, but we can change hearts and minds and impact souls.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, over your 15 years in 40 Days for Life, have you seen any change in the most common objections to the pro-life movement?

SHAWN CARNEY: For sure. There are the traditional arguments, which are basically washed up. We’re overpopulated, which is not true, because half the sociologists in the world believe that we’re underpopulated. So, the overpopulation, all of those sort of traditional arguments—my body, my choice—but we’ve entered a new era, which was one of the reasons we wrote the book. There’s “forced birth,” which is a new thing; there’s “birthing people,” which is a new thing. We have homosexual couples and trans people basically biologically creating children out of a catalog and using a woman as a biological tool to produce a child. There’s just a lot of new things that people will ask about. So, we have to equip ourselves. All of these are easy to discuss, but we just have to have the tools and the resources and the love in our heart to do it effectively.

So, it has definitely changed. I mean now, half our politicians believe that infanticide is okay—that we don’t need to give medical care to a baby girl who survives an abortion, like surviving an abortion of some kind of crime. So, we’re well equipped; I will say that the more bizarre and the more extreme and the more absurd the pro-abortion crowd gets, the more pro-life our country gets.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk a little bit about the way that we say things. It’s as important, isn’t it, as how we say them.

SHAWN CARNEY: Absolutely. This is shown, I think, in the heart of the pro-life movement. Our movement’s not a bunch of self-righteous Christians who are in some ivory tower telling the world and forcing our religion on everybody. It’s quite the opposite; it’s made up of converts; it’s made up of sinners, as we all are. The people who lead the March for Life in Washington, DC—they don’t have a distant relationship with abortion. Those are the women who have had an abortion. 40 Days for Life has helped now 239 abortion facility workers who have had a change of heart and left their job, and they’ve done that because we were approachable. We shared the truth, but we shared it in love, and we let them come to us, which is very, very key.

Abortion always comes up in conversation. We don’t expect it—you’re on an airplane or it’s a relative at Thanksgiving and you were dreading seeing this person, and now they’ve brought up abortion and you just want to sit there and talk about football. It always comes up in an inconvenient time, and that’s why we have to go on offense, which is the opening chapter of the book. We have to go on offense because we don’t actually have to defend life. We use that phrase because it’s the easiest phrase to say, but life doesn’t need defending. You don’t need to defend why you want to educate your children or take care of your children or get your kid the best medical care when they’re sick or throw them a sweet 16 birthday party. Everybody accepts that we love life and we enhance it…except with this. This is the exception and that’s abortion. So, abortion needs constant justification, constant rationalization, and you get that from the workers, and that’s why eventually they break. They realize what they were part of, and they don’t dread somebody asking them in the grocery store where they work, once they leave.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Why do you suppose that abortion is constantly something that we want to talk about, that people bring up strangely at dinner parties, and that continues to be kind of the center of the culture wars?

SHAWN CARNEY: It’s one of our biggest advantages. It’s a great sign, we haven’t gotten over it. Joycelyn Elders, who was the surgeon general, said that America needs to get over their love affair with the fetus, which is a nice phrase and everybody clapped, but it’s actually impossible to do. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t do surgeries on unborn children; we can’t prevent pregnant women from getting on roller coasters; we can’t say pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol; we can’t do all those things, and then also say, “If you want an abortion, you can go in and get it at 25 weeks or 6 weeks or 30 weeks or whatever.” The baby doesn’t get dignity or value from us, nor does the baby gain dignity over time or gain value over time like a mutual fund. The baby simply is, just like an 88-year-old man or a kindergartner.

We can sleep at night with other evils in our world much more so than abortion, but abortion disturbs us. It rattles us as a nation and it should because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done and we’ve done it internally. So, it’s very healthy that we are still stuck up on abortion. It’s one of the reasons that I think abortion will end in America. No woman grows up wanting an abortion and no mother has a natural desire to have her own child killed, and so that completely goes against nature. So, that’s why we’re reminding everyone of the good that they already know in their heart. We need to remind them of that. That’s why you see the trend in our country of people who genuinely supported abortion—a lot of the Baby Boomers were at Woodstock, and then they voted for Reagan and now they lead pregnancy resource centers. You see that transition of people becoming pro-life. Certainly, those who have had an abortion are overwhelmingly pro-life. We see an exodus out of the abortion industry. We still see the stigma that abortion has within medicine; these abortion doctors don’t go to cocktail parties and talk about what they do. So, all of that is good and healthy because we have indeed followed the science and the focus has been on the unborn child, who half our country says we just can’t snuff out because we don’t want him or her.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you’ve said in the past that there are some important points that we should avoid making. What are those?

SHAWN CARNEY: The what not to say?


SHAWN CARNEY: Yeah, those are fun, and we put those in the book because we’ve committed these small sins, if you will, in conversation and you leave conversation, you think, “I should have said that,” or “I shouldn’t have said that.” One of the common ones is we believe that life begins at conception. It just kind of flows out of our minds. We don’t. Charlemagne believed that; George Washington believed that; all of our ancestors believed it; but we know it. We know it. We can choose not to believe it, but we would be wrong, according to medicine. So, we know that life begins at conception and there simply is no other time that it begins if it doesn’t start at conception. So, the word “believe” immediately pits us as “I am a religious person and you are a secular pagan, and so I’ve got to tell you my beliefs.” We don’t have to do that with abortion; we certainly don’t have to start with that.

The other one is the kind of “Beethoven argument.” “You never know, this baby could grow up to be Tom Brady.” Or, you know, “Beethoven was going to be aborted, and then they didn’t have the abortion and voila, Beethoven!” And those stories are fun, and they’re very moving, and they’re important in the right context, but your kid doesn’t have to be Tom Brady or Beethoven in order to be worthy to live among us. Your kid could be a drug dealer; your kid could be disabled; we don’t know, but we do know that your kid deserves a chance at life because we all do. We don’t determine our own dignity, and so that’s a very important point. You get these beautiful stories where the kid, he’s in the NFL draft in the first round, and it’s very moving—the Tim Tebows of the world—but you don’t have to be Tim Tebow, but you have dignity. Sometimes we get trapped into those examples.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned earlier about pro-life forces waiting around kind of for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. What would you say if Roe v. Wade—we’re getting this close; we’ve got some new people on the Supreme Court—what would you say if it doesn’t get overturned? How would you respond to that?

SHAWN CARNEY: That’s a great question. I think Roe v. Wade will be overturned. So I’ll start with that. If it’s not, I think the pro-life community—I know for myself—the political part of it will take about three notches down, because we would’ve done everything we were supposed to do. We would’ve elected a pro-life president, and he did everything we asked him to do. He appointed justices that seemed like they were definitely going to overturn Roe. He put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court; she’s like the judicial version of Mother Teresa. She has seven kids; it’s perfect, it’s all set there. And they uphold Roe. I just think it’s not a cynical approach, but it’s a practical one at that point, when you look at how much Christians and conservatives have been disappointed by the Supreme Court. So if they uphold it, there’s a huge emphasis on going back to what we believe this is about ultimately, which is hearts and minds in our country. Because the worst thing about abortion in America is not that it’s legal, it’s that it’s wanted by so many people; that’s the crisis of the heart. So, we have to remember that the legality of it is part of the problem, but the fact that we desire it and we want it? That’s the true, disordered sentiment that we have towards our fellow human beings.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Shawn Carney, where can our listeners go to see how they might get involved in 40 Days for Life and get a copy of your new book, What to Say When: The Complete New Guide to Discussing Abortion.

SHAWN CARNEY: Well, you can see all of our locations—our 40 Days for Life locations—go to our website. We also have 70 locations that go year round. So, you can get the book on our website. You can also get it on Amazon. You get a signed copy if you get it from our website, and I still think you get free shipping. So, go to We also have a podcast, the 40 Days for Life podcast, which is very popular, in our own opinion.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright. Shawn Carney, co-founder and president of 40 Days for Life, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.

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