Is abortion justified in case of rape? For the pro-lifer, few challenges provoke fear like this one. But I have good news. You can respond persuasively if you’ll remember four simple steps.

Step #1: Understand the Playing Field

Sometimes the question comes from an honest inquirer genuinely trying to think through the emotional and philosophical difficulty of this challenge. But more often the question is intended to put pro-lifers on the horns of a dilemma, to make us look insensitive by pitting us against rape victims. If we grant the rape exception, we undercut the foundational principle of our position – namely, that all human beings matter. On the other hand, if we deny the rape exception, we appear calloused toward women. Time and again, this approach has neutralized pro-lifers. In recent years, the inability of pro-life political candidates to answer the rape question persuasively has derailed their political aspirations. Politicians are not the only ones in the hot seat. You, too, may face a similar challenge across the water cooler. Given the cultural landscape, it’s vital that we provide a clear and compelling response.

Step #2: Respond with Sensitivity and Compassion

The challenge is not primarily intellectual; it’s personal. Real people are wounded deeply by rape. We should be mindful that the person asking this question may have been raped or may have a loved one that was raped. Responding to their question requires more than a sound apologetic; it requires love. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias offers a valuable maxim: “Never answer a question; always answer a questioner.” In other words, behind every question is a real person who may speak from experience. One way we express compassion is by acknowledging the psychological and emotional difficulty behind this challenge. The assumption behind this question is that the child will serve as a persistent and hurtful reminder to the woman who has been raped. This cannot be denied and we should be quick to acknowledge this painful truth. The tragic violence of rape is an unspeakable agony no one should have to suffer. Those victimized in this way deserve our compassion and tangible help, and the rapist should be punished to the full extent of the law.

Here’s an example of how I’ve responded: “Well, Mary, you ask a difficult question. Rape is a grave injustice against an innocent person. Sadly, many women and young girls have been victimized this way. As a husband and father, I cannot imagine my wife or one of my daughters being raped and becoming pregnant. And I think you’re right that the child could serve as a painful reminder of sexual assault.” Expressing genuine sympathy helps me identify with the questioner and builds a bond that makes her willing to hear the rest of my answer.

Almost everyone feels compassion for a woman or a young girl who is victimized by rape, and even more so if through this brutal act she conceives a child. We’ve all heard the sickening details and the heart-wrenching testimonies of those who have been violated in this way. Few news reports elicit more anger or a more intense desire on our part for vengeance. Women who’ve never been raped can still identify with those who have been. Even men who do not typically live in fear of being raped can nonetheless imagine the horror of their wife or daughter being victimized in this way. Compassion for women in these circumstances comes naturally for all of us.

Step #3: Clarify the Moral Issue

After expressing compassion, we should focus the discussion on the nature of the unborn by asking the moral question, “How should a civilized society treat an innocent human being who reminds us of a painful event?” When a woman is raped and conceives a child, the question is not, “how was one conceived?” but, “was one conceived?” The circumstance under which any human comes into being does not alter his or her nature or intrinsic value. For instance, whether one is conceived by loving parents, selfish parents, unwed parents, or through the violent act of rape has absolutely no bearing on one’s worth.

Pro-lifers are not insensitive to the mother for recognizing the humanity of her child, though the media often portrays us that way. It is the rapist, not the pro-lifer, who forces his will on an innocent woman. By allowing the mother to kill her unborn child, our society is guilty of perpetuating the idea that hardship justifies violence. Pro-lifers aren’t trying to punish mothers; they simply want the violence stopped.

Put simply, the tragic violence of rape does not justify the tragic violence of abortion. Abortion is wrong for the same reason rape is wrong; both are unjust acts of brutality against innocent human beings. Both rape and abortion take something that is not theirs to take: the woman’s body and the child’s life. When a woman is raped and conceives a child there are three humans involved – the rapist, the mother and the child. It’s tragic that of the three, the only one our society ignores is the innocent child.

The next time someone brings up rape and abortion, respond with a question. “Tell me, when a woman is raped and gets pregnant, how many humans are involved—two or three?” Upon reflection, many will say three. (If they say two, they’re assuming the unborn aren’t human, and that’s the real issue they need to resolve.) Then ask how we should treat each one. “Should we execute the rapist?” Many will say no because they oppose the death penalty. “Should we execute the woman?” Everyone rightly says no. “How about her innocent child? Should we execute him for the sin of his father?” Expect a long pause. Then, gently press the point: “So, of the three people you say are involved in the rape, the one we should execute is the innocent child?”

It is the second rape victim, the unborn child, who is out of sight and out of mind. This little one benefits from no compassion whatsoever. In fact, in many cases these innocent ones are subjected to a fate far worse than that to which society would ever subject the guilty rapist. We should not be shy about making this point.

Step #4: Be Confident in the Pro-life Position

There’s no need to turn to jelly when asked about the “rape exception.” When one accepts the consensus of human embryology—namely, that a distinct, living and whole human being comes into existence at conception, it becomes clear that pro-lifers are not the insensitive ones. Rather, it is those proposing the death penalty for innocent human beings who should check their sensitivity. The pro-life solution is rooted in love. It recognizes the profound challenges facing the mother and acts to help shoulder them. It’s also rooted in truth, graciously insisting that one human should not die so another can feel better.

That’s compassion everyone can live with.