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Talk fosters pro-life, pro-choice civility


It’s been one of the most contentious issues in American politics. Certainly one of the most divisive. Women involved in studying or mediating the abortion debate say the subject of abortion cuts so deep because it’s a personal issue, not an abstract one, and touches on deeply held beliefs.

Those involved in promoting dialogue, rather than debate about abortion, talk about the necessity for abortion-rights foes and advocates to jettison rhetoric in order to talk with, not past, each other. Mediators and scholars say the search for common ground means recovering civility in public life. It also involves coming to understand the profoundly different worldviews that divide pro-choice and pro-life advocates.

Laura Chasin is director of the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Mass. Founded in 1989, the Public Conversations Project adapts the tools of family systems therapy to divisive public issues. For five and a half years, Chasin facilitated a secret dialogue between six pro-life and pro-choice leaders in Boston. The dialogue began in 1994 after an abortion foe went on a shooting spree and killed two women at two abortion clinics and wounded several more.

Being involved in these and other dialogues about abortion, Chasin said she came to realize that the abortion conflict is a reflection of the very different worldviews that pro-life and pro-choice supporters have.

“One of the things I learned from many, many dialogues -- I’ve probably listened to over 200 people talk about these issues -- is that there is a whole spectrum of views within each side,” said Chasin. “My current understanding is that for many people the differences involve incompatible ideas about what truth is and how you discern it, different ideas of what responsibility is and how you enact it, and different ways of expressing caring and respect for other people.”

At the end of the five and a half years of secret conversations, the six leaders wrote an article in The Boston Globe about their experience of dialogue. None of the women had changed their mind about abortion; they had, however, achieved a genuine and heartfelt respect and affection for each other.

At one point, a pro-life leader in Virginia made it known that he was planning to come to Boston to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the murders in the abortion clinics, which he called a “righteous deed.” Pro-life leaders involved in the dialogue told him that because of his endorsement of violence, his presence would not be welcome. They also alerted the head of Planned Parenthood, one of the pro-choice women engaged in the dialogue, of his impending visit. In the end the Virginia pro-life advocate chose not to come.

Growing trust

“A growing trust opened a ‘hot line’ channel of reliable communication between us,” the women wrote in the article they coauthored. Yet they acknowledged that deep differences remained among them. Even in writing the article that appeared in the Globe, they came to an impasse when the pro-lifers wanted to mention the Declaration of Independence as proof that the right to life is inalienable and self-evident and the pro-choice advocates viewed that as expropriating a cherished national text that they saw as supporting freedom of choice.

“We saw that our differences on abortion reflect two worldviews that are irreconcilable,” the women wrote.

Chasin, whose Public Conversations Project has gone on to facilitate other debates on the environment, sexual orientation and religion, social class, and now Islam, said there is a widespread misunderstanding about what common ground means. “What we don’t understand as a culture or what we seem to have lost is that we are more than our opinions on a single public issue,” Chasin said. “It’s possible for me as a pro-choice leader or me as a pro-life leader to passionately disagree with you about abortion and also care for you and treat you in a respectful way. Common ground is not a new position. It’s a relationship.”

In the case of the women in Boston, Chasin said their shared commitment was to de-escalate what was then a tense climate in Boston and prevent another shooting. As they got to know each, they stopped painting the other side with demonic brushes in their public statements, Chasin said. Even some members of the media noticed the change in the language each side used to describe the other, though they didn’t know the reason for it.

The rise of single-issue politics has contributed to the decline of civility and the fragmentation of American politics, said Chasin, who termed abortion “a very wasteful conflict.”

“The conflict has pitted a number of very compassionate and principled people, mostly women, against themselves in a way that has been very costly. The rhetoric of this polarization also has contributed to the pollution of the public square,” Chasin said.

Others who have studied or written about abortion agree that the debate it stirs frequently reflects other issues. Christine Gudorf, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University and author of Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, argues that underlying the abortion debate is a debate about the role and nature of women. Pro-choice women are adamant that the new possibilities for women cannot be foreclosed; pro-life women tend to be married homemakers who believe that they are increasingly viewed as anachronisms and that defending the innocent is their role. “Both sides in effect see the role of women as at stake in this position,” said Gudorf, who described herself as sympathetic to both positions.

M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame University, offered a somewhat similar perspective. “Part of what’s at stake for a lot of pro-life groups is returning to a whole matrix of a way of understanding family life and structuring family values,” Kaveny said.

Profound differences

Chasin called the differences between supporters of abortion rights and opponents “profound” and said they go far beyond the role and nature of women. “That’s one of the stereotypes that pro-choice women have about pro-life women -- that they’re conventional and don’t have a mind of their own. Pro-life women have a reciprocal stereotype that pro-choice women are self-absorbed and don’t care about children,” Chasin said.

Mary Jacksteit worked for seven years for Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization that seeks constructive approaches to conflict. In 1992 Jacksteit began conducting a series of dialogues about abortion in Buffalo, N.Y., where the presence of Operation Life had polarized the city. Eventually, Search for Common Ground would hold workshops in 20 different cities.

Jacktseit said the longer she worked on the abortion dialogue the more she became convinced that people on both sides have important truths that the other side does not understand in the same way.

“The longer I did it, the more seriously I took both sides,” Jacksteit said. “Their passion about the preciousness of life on the pro-life side, and among the pro-choice people the preciousness of freedom and not being subjected to a humiliating kind of control. There’s a strong sense among a lot of pro-choice people about human dignity.”

Among some pro-life supporters, there can be a corresponding sense that abortion deprives a woman of dignity, Jacksteit said. “Certainly, the feminist pro-life people will say that they believe that abortion destroys women’s dignity, that abortion, as I’ve heard this viewpoint expressed, is a societal thing, something that men force on women to make it convenient for them and to conform to society,” Jacksteit said.Others would say you can’t look at women’s dignity apart from the unborn, and if you’re balancing that life against a fetus, that life can’t be cancelled out and that is the preeminent human value. They bring the unborn human life into the whole balance and talk about the dignity of that life.”

Jacksteit said the number of people who have stayed passionate and involved with the abortion issue has shrunk dramatically. “Vast parts of the public who were at one time easily mobilized into either movement have gotten tired of it and walked away from it,” she said.

Public ambivalent about abortion

Kristin Luker, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees. Luker said opinion polls also show that most Americans today are somewhere in the middle when it comes to abortion. “They want women to have the abortions they need but not necessarily the abortions they want. They’re not comfortable with abortion being completely illegal or completely legal anytime and anywhere, and they don’t trust the states to craft a policy that will be in the middle ground,” Luker said.

In her book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Luker investigated the views of pro-choice and pro-life activists. Luker asked activists when was the first time they heard of abortion and what they thought it meant. By mid-adolescence, she said individuals had an opinion on abortion, and it didn’t track across religion. There were women raised in Catholic families who had strong pro-choice views. There were people who were atheists or agnostics who found abortion morally wrong. What accounts for why people have the values they do is unknown, she said.

“What I discovered in my interviews is that people live their lives according to these values. If you took two 15-year-olds who would look pretty identical in terms of what social scientists look at -- socioeconomic factors, size of family, et cetera -- they would come to different decisions,” Luker said. By age 45, she added, those two individuals would look very different. A woman with pro-life values would value getting married, would marry earlier on average, would tend to have a large family, and would tend to re-engage in her religion or perhaps join a more conservative religion because she saw that religion as a congruent with her values. She would tend not to invest in higher education after college. In contrast, a pro-choice woman would defer marriage, would marry a highly educated man, and if she had an unintended pregnancy would be likely to abort it. By age 45, pro-choice women are often upper-middle-class women or above; pro-life women are apt to be lower middle class.

Luker described pro-life people as often having a rather concrete morality that they think is valid across time and space and is usually centered on a divine being. “The pro-life people are heir to a long tradition of thinking about a morality in a kind of rule-based way,” Luker said. “The pro-choice people are heirs to the Enlightenment and are situational ethicists. The pro-choice clergy believe that God has given humans the faculty of reason and it’s the obligation of individuals to use that reason to make moral decisions for themselves.”

Since publishing her book in 1984, Luker has gone on to other controversial topics: teenage contraception and sex education controversies. Today, Luker said it’s her impression that abortion is a single issue that partisans still care deeply about but is not very salient to the American public as a whole. Reflecting on her research, Luker said the passion abortion aroused among activists often obscured rather than highlighted some of the significance it involved.

“I thought all the important questions were getting lost in the abortion debate. It was like two kids on the street yelling baby killer,” Luker said. “I thought the pro-life people were raising very interesting questions about who is to be included in the human community, an issue much more pressing these days than 20 years ago, and they were worried about the limits of human reasoning. I also thought they were a little more sophisticated about evil, though it may be that the pro-choice people just didn’t share their thoughts about this. They had on the whole a more optimistic view about both technology and human reason; if we just sat down and thought about this, we could resolve our problems. They had very different views of suffering. The pro-life people saw suffering as a necessary part of human life and just took for granted that some suffering was built into life whereas the pro-choice people saw suffering as unnecessary.”

Equal to men

Luker said both groups were emphatic that women were equal to men, but the pro-life group believed women were different from men. Luker said pro-life supporters tend to suffer more from guilt; pro-choice activists from anxiety.

What was particularly interesting in her research, Luker said, was her discovery that the moral response to abortion occurs very early.

“What makes a nice Catholic girl say the Catholic church is not a friend of mine and another casually raised in another religion convert to Catholicism because she found Catholicism as not only morally rigorous but supportive of what she saw as a proper way of life? I’m struck by how early it is. Within the first time or two they heard of abortion, either a girl went ‘Yuck, it’s wrong,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, why don’t all women have access to that?’ ”

Chasin said her experience in Boston with pro-choice and pro-life leaders shows efforts to establish some kind of relationship between partisans on both sides of an issue can pay dividends. Advocacy groups generally organize by demonizing opponents and exaggerating differences. Perhaps because of this, at the news conference the six women held following the publication of their article in The Boston Globe, Chasin said members of the press and the public seemed stunned and amazed by the activists’ mutual respect. One cameraman thanked the women; many of those attending the conference also thanked the women, impressed by their show of respectful disagreement. “When people see that friendly relationships between these public adversaries is possible, they feel so hopeful,” Chasin said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003