Peace for the Abortion War, Part II

Researchers in the Middle East
recently asked citizens what it would take to bring about peace in their
war-torn region.  What they found might
surprise you.  In what many in the West
might consider a "common-sense" offer, Palestinians would be asked to give up
their right to return in exchange for a two-state solution and a $10 billion
per year for 100 years. Yet both Israelis and Palestinians from across the
political spectrum rejected these options. 
They would not sacrifice for peace.  

But, if researchers suggested that the deal would come with
an official apology from Israel,
the whole picture changed.  "Yes, an
apology is important, as a beginning," said Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy
chairman of Hamas.  When Benjamin
Netanyahu, a hard-line former Israeli prime minister was asked whether he would
consider a two-state solution if Hamas recognized the Jewish people’s right to
an independent state, he replied, "OK, but the Palestinians would have to show
they mean it." The researchers, Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, concluded in
their New York
Times editorial in January
that "making these kinds of wholly intangible
symbolic concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist,
simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus.  And yet, the science says they may be the
best way to start cutting [through] the great symbolic knot [of Palestine] that is the
‘mother of all problems." 

Imagine that: an apology. Not land, or money, or
sovereignty.  A symbolic act of
recognition, an act that says I see you and I understand, can have more impact
than "material and quality of life matters" on the possibilities for

There are several things to learn from this.  First, researchers did not survey the
hard-line leaders.  They went to the
citizenry and asked them what they needed as conditions for peace.  They raised the silent voices of those who
are most impacted by the conflict and presented their responses to the
leaders.  Second, the researchers found a
way to get at the heart of what is at stake, beyond the concrete and typical
concerns about electricity, water, and the economy that are often the focus of
negotiations.  Their research clarified
that for anyone involved in a conflict as long-lasting, deeply-felt and
consequential as the conflict in the Middle East,
the sacrifice of values and beliefs is considered unacceptable and could never
lead to peace.  

If you have been following my posts on how to bring peace
to the abortion war
here on RH Reality Check, or have read Amanda
Marcotte’s critique
of my theory
, you probably know where I am headed.  In my posts I have proposed that the voices
of women who have had abortions should lead the dialogue about abortion in the United States,
not the current leaders of either side, as part of a strategy that I call

What I hope to convey now is that addressing abortion as a
matter of the heart and soul, rather than an issue of legal rights, can open up
new possibilities for peace.  I will show
why compromise or politically-minded "common ground" solutions will not resolve
our war: the abortion war.  

Many readers have questioned my use of the term "abortion
war" despite the fact that this terminology is a common cultural
reference.  I understand their concerns.  In conflict, the ability to define the debate
is part of the battle.  Each side wants
to name the problem in a way that supports their goals, and hurts their
opponents. This is also true for the abortion war. If you ask people with a
range of political views what the "abortion war" is about, you are bound to get
very different answers.  Some will say
that the war is waged to save innocent unborn babies, and others argue that it
was drummed up to drive a wedge between people who may otherwise agree.  Still others say that the "abortion war" is
in fact a patriarchal assault on women, their bodies, rights and
sexuality.  Fighting over the inherent
meaning, the root cause, of any given conflict is intrinsic to every

Despite their disagreement, what people on different sides
of the issue have in common is a deep and fundamental belief that their fight
is not only important and justified, it is an opportunity and a privilege to
fight for what they believe.  In essence,
this war isn’t about any one particular issue or right, it is about the
importance of who we are, our own human dignity, and the strength of our
conviction to fight on our own behalf.   

I offer myself as an example. 

I love a good debate. I love to be challenged to think in
new, critical ways and equally enjoy pushing others to do the same.  I believe fundamentally in people’s inherent
goodness and in each person’s innate desire to strive to be better – and I
believe that we can harness that drive to improve all of our lives.  And I have had an abortion, something I never
thought I would do, which has forever changed the way I look at the world.  After my abortion, I came to understand the
value of the phrase "Don’t judge others until you have walked a mile in their
shoes" in a whole new way. I made a promise to myself to practice that value
every day of my life. My abortion was an awakening, a maturing, and a loss of
innocence, in the best and the most difficult sense of the term.  Through direct personal experience with the
issue, in combination with my own personal passions and drive, I have found
this difficult debate over abortion to be an incredibly compelling place to put
all my experiences, values and beliefs into practice. 

This war gives me something to do, something valuable and
something important.  I do not want to
give up that sense of purpose in my life. 
Neither do many of the women and men who have formed an identity as a
pro-choice or pro-life crusader and who have invested time, passion, and money
in their cause.  That is why it is not
effective when outsiders call for an end to war through compromise.  Even though both sides can probably understand
why "Americans are just tired of fighting over abortion" – as Jean Schroedel, a
political scientist at Claremont
Graduate University
told the Wall Street Journal
– crusaders won’t accept compromise as a political solution
because it demands that they sacrifice deep and profound parts of who they are
and they will not.  They cannot.  I won’t.  

In a war for human dignity, you cannot ask opponents to
split the difference.  

But, the fight over abortion has created a conflict of epic
proportions, attacks are personal and crusaders are hurt. Feelings of
disrespect, humiliation, and worse, misunderstanding, at the hands of opponents
make the need to be seen and heard, to be proven right, even stronger.  This is how conflict works, how it escalates
and polarizes.  With a deeper
understanding about the cycle of conflict, not only can we de-escalate and
transform the abortion war, we can take the steps that lead towards peace.   

I believe that it is possible that as a society we may
arrive at a time when we are able to discuss the role government should play in
matters of sexuality, pregnancy and parenting without choosing sides through
the lens of war, without worrying whether a decision will strengthen or weaken
the political power of the pro-choice or pro-life movements.  Peace does not mean that we all agree, but
that we focus our higher purpose on transforming the conflict instead of
feeding a war.    

It is an interesting and unlikely time to plan for peace in
the abortion war. After years of political losses, there is a clear pro-choice
majority in all three branches of government and it is safe to assume that
peace is not in the political interest of winners.  And yet, after a long and vicious battle,
wins are no longer as sweet for either side. 
Warriors, while as committed and passionate as always, are tired. The
dramatic wins they hoped for have not occurred. 
One side has not captured the heart and soul of all Americans.  In fact, Americans have demonstrated
remarkable consistency on the issue – poll after poll demonstrates that most
people don’t like the idea of abortion very much, think it’s a pretty
significant emotional experience for women, and believe that it ends a human
life-of-some-kind, but are against making it always or mostly illegal, and hate
the idea of government regulating their private, personal lives.  

Rather than continuing to invest in what is bound to be a
long, vicious slog on an issue that feels increasingly irrelevant to Americans
confronting grave threats to our planet and economy, we can invest in
transforming the conflict and start addressing matters of the heart.  We can begin with an apology ("I’m sorry I
called you a baby-killer/vicious misogynist), a recognition ("The value you
place on life/rights is admirable"), or a symbolic concession ("I believe
abortion can be emotional for women/I believe in protecting the health of
pregnant women").  We begin by saying: "I
see you and I understand."  

Leaders on both sides can and should be the first and set an
example for the rest.  And, instead of
trying to recruit more Americans to the fight, when we already know they are
tired of it, leaders should invite Americans to join them: to grow our
collective understanding about the experiences of women who have had abortions
and to co-create a vision of care and support for women and their
families.  Americans are great
problem-solvers – all we need is a little inspiration and someone ready and
willing to lead the way.  

Together, we can and we should venture towards peace.  

Related Posts

This piece was also posted at Aspen Baker’s blog.

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  • invalid-0

    Dear Aspen Baker,

    You have rightly pegged the wider implications of the argument Jeremy Ginges and I presented in our NYT Op-Ed on “How Words Could End a War.” We have also been working on the abortion issue (among others) and hope to have experimental and survey results soon that bear out soon the line of argument that you so eloquently laid out.

    Cheers, Scott Atran

  • aspen-baker

    Hi Scott – I was very inspired by your editorial and am so glad to hear that I have represented it well.  I am also glad to hear that you have been working on the abortion issue. I look forward to hearing more. 

  • invalid-0

    Thank you, Aspen, for writing another insightful and thought-provoking piece. I’m hopeful that more women and men will join the Pro-Voice dialogue! More and more avenues for meaningful exchange are becoming available – Exhale’s YouTube Channel,, is just one more example of this important shift in the debate.

  • mellankelly1

    Another fabulous post, Aspen!

  • invalid-0

    then what? Have we not been here before?

  • invalid-0

    I hate to burst everyones bubble, but the reason Roevs.Wade was put into law was to save the lives of women who went to back allies or swallowed weird concotions etc. to abort their pregnancy’s. It is meant to save lives. If the law is overturned women will once again revert to the old ways which many times proved fatal. Do we really want to end more lives this way?
    Unless science comes up with a way to totally stop ovulation I do not see an answer that will please everyone. Even that would probably offend most Religious groups.
    Talk is cheap.

  • invalid-0

    Maybe we can stop calling each other names, but the only ways to gain this kind of peace is to make sure our barriers are respected – legally & socially.

    Authoritarians may find courtesy & apoligies a sign of weakness rather than an attempt to communicate.

    I learned long ago that you cannot have a rational conversation with religious or political fanatics. People who hold absolutist views are almost always authoritarians -They do not see the value of dialogue and do not believe dialogue to be necessary in their aim to make things “right.”

    They do not believe in individual freedom of conscience; they believe in force. Their God-given absolute rightness is all the justification they require to use force.

    They do not belive in freedom of conscience because they lack the ability to feel genuine empathy for the “other.” They have no conception that enforcing the expression of belief is a violation akin to physical rape! Hence, they are often heard loudly demanding enforced public prayer everywhere. They actually believe enforce participation leads to faith, despite St. Paul’s writings. But public prayer is the least of the practices they would enforce upon all. This is the same perspective they bring to sexual practices.

    This inability & unwillingness to comprehend others’ experiences is the basis of the misogynistic “theologies” of isolated & privileged males in religious organizations & hierarchies.

    Most of them are incapable of interactive communication or a free exchange of ideas – with “others” – because it threatens their authoritarian perspective. They alone are the carriers of tradition and hence they are always right because they are the voice of God.

  • invalid-0

    Sorry, but we pro-choice people have been there, done that and find no common ground with those who oppose increased sex education, access to birth control and the whole concept of family planning as much as they do abortion- until it’s them or their loved one.
    As one who lived through losing a dear friend to self- induced abortion before Roe v Wade, I have no apology to those who seek to outlaw/ abolish safe abortion care nor do I understand them (or have any wish to)- as I can’t imagine how they believe the ways they do (except when it comes to them)- or how they can be so comfortable with the prospect of viable, fully developed and functioning women dying again because a simple and safe procedure is not available to them. We already see some losses to womens lives and health in areas where access to safe abortion care (thanks to the anti- choice movement), is absent or severely limited.
    While I defend the right for others to have different beliefs, that does not give them the right to impose their beliefs on others- especially when it comes to safe health are. We in the pro-choice movement have not picketed or demonstrated at anti-choice churches or facilities, nor have we assassinated physicians and others who provide safe abortion care. We owe no apologies and no understanding to those who continue to support (implicitly or otherwise), this terrorism. And if we do apologize and say we understand, then what? Since we’re dealing with absolutist, hypocritical people in this war- who are comfortable to say those women who lost their lives and/ or health (and still do), before Roe v Wade- DESERVED it!
    Where is the common, or middle ground? Sit down to talk with this kind of thinking? Breathe the same air? No way!

  • amanda-marcotte

    Considering the number of health workers killed, injured or otherwise terrorized in this "war", I don’t think the metaphor is off at all.

  • harry834

    there is something magnificent about how life develops, even before conception. Joan Roughgarden does a great narrative in her book: Evolution’s Rainbow, chapter: Embryonic Narratives.

    If the womb were a sac floating in space that had a willing parent ready to adopt, I think there’d be no need for a pro-choice movement. It’s the biological inconvient fact that wombs are part of a woman’s body, and that this places the burden of pregnancy and parenthood, that we have to get concerned about the woman’s right to self-determiniation.

    I’d be happy to meet the pro-lifers that wanted to opt-out of the legal game, and just voice their views whereever. We’d still be left with the fight of "how far from a clinic" they should hand out their literature, but that question goes on.

    Also, I think it’s good to capitalize on the pro-lifers who are pro-contraception and pro-sex ed. I feel Marysia from "non-violent choice" is one of them. I’ll admit, I have problems with the use of the term "non-violent choice" (abortion is not violent), but the question goes on.

    I guess the flip side, is that some of them will want something back. Support for abstinence, in some way. And we also have to prioritize giving the best policies for teens and women over policies that make the other side feel better.


  • truth

    The way to end a war, Aspen, is to stop killing. The blood is on your hands – you pulled the trigger and in cold blood killed an innocent. Now, you advocate others through your lack of accountability to do the same. The war is yours to end; the war is inside you; repent and find peace; amend your ways; look in the mirror and see your baby in your own image and apologize to them. We will be their voices until they can speak for themselves.

  • colleen


    I cannot help but notice that not one of you religious right Catholics  who are so fond of trying to bully and browbeat the women here are commenting in this discussion. 

    Why is that? 

  • invalid-0

    Truth, I suppose that you agree with the Vatican, that the 9 year old who was given an abortion after being raped for years (since she was 6) by her stepfather, should have been forced to have his twins. SHE was innocent life, until that bastard put his hands on her as a baby and ruined her life forever. Go away, get out of here Truth, because you just hate women like the Vatican, and want them to “pay” for having ‘sex” even if they are innocent children who had a monster’s will thrust on them. As long as a fetus gestates in a woman’s body, it is at THEIR mercy, not youirs, not the Vaticans, not anyone else’s but THEIRS. Go away and mind your business. We will NEVERR go back to back alleys or life before Roe V Wade, we will use birth control and live our lives, and fight your kind any way that we can. Go troll somewhere else, your kind makes me SICK.

    • invalid-0

      I don’t see how it is possible to have a dialogue with hateful zealots.
      As one who has monitored religious AM radio since 1994, I also advise extreme caution for pro-choice folks who engage in dialogue with even the most polite and civil antiabortionists: over and over, from all over the US, I have heard the most amazing twisting of the words of pro-choice people who have tried to engage in civil discussion of reproductive rights.
      I would also like to hear the voices of women who were denied access to legal abortion before Roe. Unfortunately, that will necessarily be limited of course to those who survived. (The voice of one of my schoolmates was silenced forever by the complications of an illegal abortion.)

  • aspen-baker

    Hello everyone –


    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the second post in my series on creating abortion peace.  In reading the comments, the thing that has struck me the most is that no one commented on what it would be like to be on the RECEIVING end of symbolic concession.  While someone noted that talk doesn’t feel meaningful, most of the posts were about just how significant it is and the many, many reasons there are to not talk to opponnets, because talking does have big implications. This is understandable and some of the reasons why beginning with words is an important part of the conflict transformation process.


    I remain very curious about whether anyone imagined how it would feel to be seen and heard for who you are by the other side.  If so, I hope you will comment and let us know.      


    I also want to note that RH Reality Check is a community space that was created to foster dialogue within the pro-choice community.  It is also a community where people from across the political spectrum come to visit, comment and discuss a range of issues about sexual and reproductive health.  Whether or not anyone is sharing actual physical air or  will ever come to a physical in-person meeting, this online community is already a meeting place and place of discussion for opponnets.  What an opportunity! I would love to see this community take the lead on fostering respectful dialogue on abortion. 


    Finally,  I would like to draw people’s attention to an article by Matt Bai in today’s NYTimes Magazine, called "Yes, More Mr. Nice Guy",%20more%20mr.%20nice%20guy&st=cse


    "Such an acknowledgment of common purpose has all but vanished, as the
    realignment in American politics — a hardening of regional loyalties
    that began with battles over civil rights and Vietnam — deepened the
    cultural divisions in Washington. Each party has demonized the other
    and embraced the notion that dissent can have no moral or intellectual
    value…This is why Obama is right to value bipartisanship, even if he doesn’t
    manage to win a single Republican vote — and even if he doesn’t need
    any to enact his legislative program. During the closing weeks of the
    fall campaign, Obama told me that bridging the cultural chasm in
    America would require of him, as president, a governing style that
    acknowledged differences rather than exploited them."


    After many years of demonizing opponnets, healing cultural chasms should be a priority for our nation, and we have a great opportunity, here, in this community, to bridge the divide over abortion with our words.  


  • harry834

    to fighting for access to contraception, abortion, sex ed…when our opponent are trying to stop these things?

    This is a non-rhetorical question. If we can fight for access and equality with respect to these things, while employing this peaceful mindset, I’ll feel more confident about it.

  • invalid-0

    As I read a response from “Womantrust” to your sincere plea for understanding in a seemingly unwinnable abortion war, I was compelled to write.

    You may remember me telling you that I try to approach people as Jesus did: He asked no one to change before he healed or fed or saved someone. They were changed by His unconditional love and acceptance.

    I am a post-abortive woman who exercised my right (albeit with a fair amount of ignorance) to choose abortion three times. I have overcome multiple rapes and physical/psychological/emotional abuse. Because of my past, I have come to believe that without moral absolutes, there is anarchy. I also stand in judgment of no one. I have a large rock sitting on my desk that reminds me of Jesus’ call to those without sin to cast the first stone.

    So to be called “absolutist hypocrite” from someone who chooses to ignore your plea of understanding and who doesn’t even know or want to understand me is evidence that of what Womantrust accuses the “pro-life” radicals is true of “pro-choice” radicals as well.

    I enjoy the freedom in this country to speak candidly, to choose what I believe to be moral (or not), to bear arms, to live and work wherever I want. That being said, I realize there are those who would agree with me to a point—that point being the freedom to choose to decide what is moral (or not) to them.

    If there is no moral absolute, then everything is relative— to each his own—or as we said in my idealistic days of the late 60s in San Fran Bay Area when I thought we should all just love one another and get along, “I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful.”

    At the risk of more criticism from Womantrust, I must say that believed that before Jesus revealed Himself to me in a real and personal way. It all sounded so wonderful, but when people’s egos are involved, it gets messy. With such a philosophy, who is to say what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, moral or immoral?

    Without getting into arguments about the many different Bible translations, there is a clearly defined mandate from Jesus, no matter what translation you read. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. I consider the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, a Living Creator who created us in His own image and loves us so much, He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus, so that we might be free of strongholds in this life (like bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness) and enjoy his promise of eternal life as well.

    If a nation that does not base its guidelines to govern upon God’s Word, then even the question of sin is debatable. A New Age acquaintance of mine told me that there is no pain in the world and that evil is an illusion. When I brought up the holocaust, he said, “How do you know it was evil for them? Maybe they were ready to move on to their next level of consciousness in the universe.” For him, without God’s Word, that is a valid ideology just as is Islam’s ideology that infidels should be beheaded.

    The Bible is clear about the spiritual condition of a nation. Psalm 117 says, “Praise the Lord, all you nations. . .” Again, in Isaiah 26:2 . . . “Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the one that remains faithful,” Proverbs 14:34 “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people,” and Psalm 33:12 “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.”

    You see, God’s Word encourages governing morality to a nation but only based on His Word. Apart from Him, anything is acceptable because there are no moral absolutes. With Him, all things are possible — even peaceful, equal coexistence, an existence that is not forced by government but embraced by all people because they have made the LORD their God.

    Is there a nation left on this earth that makes the Lord its God? What nation on earth praises God as a nation? I can’t think of any, can you? What do you think will be the outcome for a nation who once was founded on the principles of God’s Word and then forsook them? But instead of hollering, “You sinner, you’re going to hell,” let’s approach it as Jesus did—with unconditional love and acceptance that will open doors and build bridges to true understanding of what freedom in Christ really is.