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Subversive Civility

 [Park Ridge Center Bulletin, May-June, 1999]

Issues of medical controversy hit close to home; in fact, they drop a cherry bomb right through the mail slot. Our bodies are our homes: they are where we live. For this reason, discussions relating to medicine can take on a desperate tone. When one person feels another is asserting the right to meddle with his home, he justifiably feels anxious and even angry. The addition of a faith component makes every detail of the controversy feel even more absolute. Tempers flare, dramatic stands are taken, toes trample other toes.

In the most controversial medical issue of our day, abortion, I have been on both sides. Many years ago I was strongly in favor of it and fought against abortion laws. Later I came to see abortion as a form of violence and began to oppose it. Whatever the legal status of abortion, I feel strongly that the loss of so many unborn lives is a horror. Rather than duke it out in the political arena, I have worked to combat unwanted pregnancy and to support pregnant women with alternatives to abortion.

My feelings on this subject are strong. Why, then, would I want to sit down for a chat with people on the other side? Why should pro-life and pro-choice partisans have anything to do with each other, when the stakes are so high and our convictions so deep?

I can bear witness from my own life because for six years I have been involved in "Common Ground" dialogues on abortion. The peacemaking organization in Washington, DC, "Search for Common Ground," has had much experience facilitating international dialogues between people in conflict, for example Arabs and Israelis, or (during the Cold War) Americans and Russians. In 1993 they began their first domestic initiative, bringing together pro-choice and pro-life advocates for respectful dialogue.

In introducing me to the possibility of civil discussion on a contentious medical issue, Common Ground has brought healing and hope to me and many other men and women. It’s not for everyone; certain personality types would be frustrated by the emphasis on process over product and by the slow pace of some meetings. Yet in light of the typically deadlocked, rancorous quality of this debate, I believe the kind of dialogue Common Ground fosters is a sign of hope for combatants in many issues.

Does being civil mean compromising? No. On some issues, compromise is not possible; the alternatives are too stark. Civil discourse on abortion, however, does not mean meticulous negotiation whereby one side gives up partial-birth abortions while the other side gives up RU-486. The confusion is understandable, because in some contexts the phrase "common ground" does imply compromise, but not here.

In this case, the term means something more like a demilitarized zone, a safe space where conversation and exploration can take place. It can even mean something further: it can indicate unexpected areas of overlap, places where both sides discover they actually agree. Imagine two overlapping circles of conviction. Each circle is complete and has integrity. But there is a space of overlap where some beliefs coincide—for example, that no one should be forced to have an abortion against her will, or that unwanted pregnancies should be reduced. That space is common ground.

While the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice in Washington, DC, is an organization with a specific focus, the larger principles it implements can be applied in any number of controversies. Here are ten reasons why I participate in civil discourse on abortion.

1. Curiosity. Don’t you ever wonder, "What are those people on the other side thinking?" Sometimes questions like that are rhetorical and angry, but sometimes they are evidence of sincere bewilderment. In the Washington, DC group participants take turns asking questions like, "Will contraception and sex education reduce the numbers of abortions?" and "What are the acceptable limits of protest outside abortion clinics?" In fact, two members of the national Common Ground steering committee, an Operation Rescue leader and the administrator of an abortion clinic, have just finished writing a joint paper on that very question.

 2.  Curiosity, part two: response to frustration. I am frustrated by the deadlock on this issue, by the intractability of it, and simply want to take a crack at a new angle. Now, this could be like the toddler sitting at a computer keyboard and thinking, "I wonder what will happen if I push this button?" Sometimes just trying something new because you’re frustrated with the old can lead to disaster. But I cannot see any danger in dialogue. Neither side has anything to lose by merely talking.

 3. Eliminate misunderstandings, reach genuine disagreement. I’m not naive enough to believe that divisions like these are superficial, or that we could chat them away and be all hugs and kisses. But misunderstanding—genuine confusion about what your opponent believes and what motivates her—is a waste of time. I know I get weary of being told I’m pro-life because I’m anti-sex, or want women to be restricted to breeding and not allowed to have careers. This fantasy of what motivates me is just that, a fantasy. When pro-choicers understand what truly motivates me, I don’t think they like it much better, but at least they would be going on accurate information. Likewise, pro-choicers must get weary of being told they’re "pro-abortion" because they don’t care about children and families. I’d like to diffuse our absurd misunderstandings so we can get down to grappling with the honest disagreements that lie underneath.

4. Data block versus ideo block. Sometimes our conflict is honestly based on different beliefs or ideologies: we are looking at the same reality (for example, the abortion of an infant with Down syndrome) and simply disagreed about what constitutes right and wrong. In other cases, we disagree about what the facts are in the first place—our communication is experiencing a data block, not an ideology block. For example, one side tends to believe that better sex education and access to contraception will reduce the numbers of abortions. The other side tends to believe that, under a principle of unintended consequences, these policies actually increase the likelihood of unwanted pregnancy.

Which is true? Each side can marshall a barrage of facts to support its theory, but it’s like swimming in soup: too many details, not enough certainty. If one theory or the other could be proved true, the dissenting side might be persuaded. Both sides are looking for ways to reduce the numbers of abortions; we have a shared goal. We’re just disagreed about whether contraception will get us there, in part because we’re holding different sets of facts.

One project that the Common Ground Network has discussed is establishing a data bank of facts that both sides agree on. We could start with the basics: how many abortions per year, when the fetal heartbeat begins. Trickier questions we could refer to organizations on both sides of the issue, and wherever we discover agreement, add it to the list. Gradually a data bank could grow, which would serve as a resource to journalists, students, and other researchers, and contribute somewhat to clearing the air. A project like this proposed by either combatant side would be immediately suspect, but coming from a coalition of both sides may actually be successful.

5. Common Ground allows us to scout out areas far from the hot center, where agreement may already exist. We’ve found, for example, a common interest in making adoption a more accessible option, and raising the profile of that alternative. We’ve agreed on the urgency of reducing unwed teen pregnancy, and that it’s wrong to use violence outside clinics.

When we are able to identify areas of agreement, we may be able to identify projects that can make a practical difference. There(s no sense being starry-eyed about this; the role of abortion in our culture is a complex one, and pro-lifers can’t expect to simply pull the plug on it and have everything else continue as usual. If abortion is to be reduced or eliminated, many elements of our social treatment of women and sexuality are going to have to change.

 If this were easy to do, someone would have done it by now. It’s not easy. By putting our heads together in Common Ground, I keep hoping we’ll find fresh ways of understanding the problem.

One image that I’ve found helpful is that of a timeline. Imagine that a line exists from the time a young girl, or boy, is a barely pubescent virgin, and then extends forward: to the decision whether to have sex, the decision whether to use contraception, the decision whether to have an abortion, whether to place for adoption, to continue or quit schooling, to marry or separate. All along that timeline there are points of decision, and each one could be a point of intervention, where someone might be able to prevent an abortion. Even after the abortion has taken place, grief counseling can help a woman make decisions that will prevent a second abortion. There are many possibilities for intervention, and I find pro-lifers are more drawn to some and pro-choicers more drawn to others. In this time when we’re all searching for answers, the whole timeline deserves consideration, and no one(s motives should be questioned as they explore those areas that appear to them most hopeful.

6. Common Ground gives the public an example of civil discussion on a difficult topic. This is rarer than you might think. Just the existence of these dialogues shows that it is possible to de-escalate hostility and defensiveness, without compromising the truth. In Common Ground we can express the same heartfelt convictions we(ve always had, but do so in a safe atmosphere of mutual respect. If we did nothing else, I would say that we have done well.

7. Informal and friendly links forged across the great divide can grow, over time, from rope bridges to giant trestles linking continents. The power of networking is astonishing. All of us together have resources that none of us has alone.

For example, a few years ago the Reproductive Health Services clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, was faced with an extremely young client who was too far along to have an abortion. This girl needed to be on complete bed rest to safely finish her pregnancy and needed someone to stay with her all day while her mother worked. The clinic did not have the resources to collect a roster of  volunteers for this duty. The clinic administrator, a member of the local Common Ground group, then phoned a pro-lifer in the group, a woman who had been arrested leading protests outside that very clinic. This pro-lifer was able to enlist volunteers from the pro-life community, and the girl completed her pregnancy safely.

If the pro-choice and pro-life communities had been locked in the sort of armed warfare they are in most cities, the side that had the resources—in this case, the pro-life side—might never have known that the other side had a need. The more we get to know each other, the more suspicious fear can evaporate, and the more likely we are to find opportunities to make a difference.

8. I come now to some personal points. Being in Common Ground has eased my heart. When I read combative descriptions of the abortion conflict, I don’t get energized and angry, I get hurt. I feel overwhelmed and sad at the immensity of the problem and the cruelty of the players. I have found that having a pro-choicer listen intently to my beliefs, then repeat them back to me accurately, is healing. I’ve learned as well that I can safely listen carefully to them in return, without implying agreement. It’s safe to just listen. And listening is the first step to understanding.

9. Following on that point, I believe I now have a much better understanding of how things stand from the pro-choice point of view. My views haven’t changed; I still believe that their position is wrong. But I can see, for example, how much a phrase like "abortion kills babies" hurts them. To pro-lifers it’s just a forceful statement of fact, but I’ve learned that pro-choicers almost inevitably hear, "I think you personally like killing babies." They reflexively take it as a personal insult. I’ve learned to express my feelings on this without implying that those who disagree with me are callous or depraved. They’re not. They’re just wrong.

Likewise, the phrase "anti-choice" hits me like a slap in the face. I am in favor of a vast number of choices; I’m not in favor of repression. I simply don’t believe that taking someone else’s life is in the range of just choices. When I’m called "anti-choice" I feel like I’m being told that I don’t believe in any choices at all, that I oppose the very principle of freedom. I feel like I’m being stuck with a caricature: that if I had my way the government would dictate everything detail of life, down to what make of car people drive and what they eat for supper. My pro-choice friends, who use the term interchangeably with "anti-abortion" and "pro-life," probably don’t realize what a profound and communication-destroying insult this is. Seeing things from the other’s point of view is one of the advantages of dialogue.

10. Lastly, I do this because I am committed to valuing human life and rejecting violence as a means of solving social problems. This doesn’t mean only opposing abortion, war, and the death penalty. As I continue to root out of my life a spirit of violence at deeper and deeper levels, I come face to face with Jesus’ command to love my enemies. When I became a pro-life activist, for the first time in my life I had enemies. Realizing that I had them, I knew what I had to do with them; the Scriptural instruction is not vague. Another scripture says that you cannot love your brother whom you have not seen, so I think that the least I can do is go see ‘em, on a regular basis. I’m pleased to say that I don’t find them all that hard to love.

In case this is all sounding too dreamy, the glum news is that people being nice to each other is never news. Most of our information media thrives on argument and controversy, and that’s a context the average citizen has come to expect as necessary. A movement to bring civil discussion to issues of medical controversy is not likely to become the next hula-hoop fad.

But it is a subversive movement, and though quiet it may be effective. It can begin to subtly disrupt entrenched patterns of mistrust and loathing. If we rip off the scary Halloween masks we impose on our opponents, we discover that underneath there are sincere people who mean no harm. In fact, astonishingly, they may even have the same goal we do, but just believe that an alternative means of reaching it will be more effective. I find that most pro-choicers agree with pro-lifers that four thousand abortions a day is shockingly high. We agree in hoping to bring the numbers down. We can harness that agreement and use it for positive change, leaving those areas where we disagree for action within our own sides.

I say to my pro-choice friends, "By working together, maybe we can find ways to bring these numbers down. We may someday reach a point you feel satisfied that the numbers are low enough. At that point I’ll shake your hand and say, ‘Thanks for your help. Now I’m going to keep working.’ But until then, can’t we go along this road together, as long as we can, as far as we can go?"

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