Common Ground: Are We Expecting Too Much?


There are days
when I think if I hear one more antiabortion evangelical or Catholic
"progressive" tout his or her efforts to end the culture wars by
creating a "common ground" position on abortion I will turn into the
nonexistent irrational radical feminist extremist bitch they already
think I am. And I actually believe in the search for common ground. But
I believe in the search and in the process, which is an end in and of
itself.

When people who disagree passionately on something
important to them take the time to sit down and engage each other, good
things happen. At a minimum, they find out the "other" is a human
being, not the devil incarnate.

But rarely do such efforts culminate in
common ground on public policy and then only after years of very hard
work. Multiple efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together
haven’t brought peace to the Middle East and the process of bringing an
end to the "troubles" in Northern Ireland took forever. And when near
moral absolutes clash, as they do on abortion, claiming you can end the
cultural divide with a public policy prescription may actually be an
obstacle to achieving more modest, but valuable, objectives. Even the
convening power of the White House, which is holding a series of
meetings with advocates and opponents of a woman’s right to choose, may come up short on
results.

One of the problems with the current efforts, including
those of the White House and aforementioned evangelicals and Catholics,
is that too small a group decided on the components of common ground
and is now trying to get others to "buy in" to a prepackaged
conclusion. Those outside the White House who started the common ground
ball rolling had some heavy-duty personal and political objectives
fueling their efforts. Longtime old-style progressive religionists like
Jim Wallis and social justice, peacenik Catholics joined forces with
socially conscious megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Hunter.
Some had always been aligned with the Democratic Party, others may have
sensed they could have unique influence in a party sensitive about its
polling weakness with weekly churchgoers. But they were also motivated
by their values. To their credit, evangelicals in particular have moved
closer to accepting that poverty, world hunger and the environment are
moral issues, and on those positions they are more in line with the
Democrats than the Republicans.

Abortion was the stumbling block. But the Democrats,
stinging from the 2004 election debacle, were eager to accommodate.
Left out of the deal, however, were women, whom the party has always
taken for granted and whom the antiabortion evangelicals and Catholics
consistently ignore.

Recognizing that they probably won’t succeed in making
abortion illegal, the Democrats’ faith-based allies decided that they
could still use their moral disapproval to shape policy. They asserted
that the number of abortions that takes place in America constitutes a
moral tragedy and called for initiatives that would reduce the number
of abortions. According to their mind-set, this was common ground, an
abortion-neutral prescription for ending the culture war.

But the common ground they had found was among themselves
and themselves only; they just expected everyone else to agree. The
arrogance in this has led not to a diminution of the culture war, but
to a sharpening of the cultural divide. Had they bothered to consult
people who know something about common ground, they might have actually
found a way not to go to war even if they could not find a way to agree.

The Family Institute of Cambridge, Mass., got involved in
common ground efforts in 1989. Laura Chasin, a family therapist at the
institute, was watching a television debate on abortion and was struck
by the similarity of the interactions between the debaters with those
she observed in family therapy. She wondered if some of the techniques
used to help families understand each other and interact in a healthy
way could be applied to abortion.

Laura and her colleagues began a long-term project of
citizen dialogues that brought together pro-choice and pro-life
activists. I participated in a one-on-one dialogue that lasted a whole
day with a pro-life scholar I respected and wanted to understand
better. The Public Conversations Project, as it came to be called, took
a giant step forward when, following the murder of two clinic workers
in Boston in 1994, it led a five-year dialogue between local pro-choice
and pro-life leaders. The dialogue was private and only publicized at
the end of the five-year period. No one changed their mind about
abortion; Chasin and colleagues were smart enough to know that was an
unrealistic goal. Inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate
decreased, and there were no more incidents of violence, as the local
leaders came to understand each other better. They spoke publicly in
less demonizing ways, shedding light rather than heat. Chasin and her
team had drawn another lesson from that television program about
abortion; they were concerned about the observers of the debate as well
as the participants. They figured if you could teach people who
disagree viscerally to talk to each other civilly, viewers might
actually get some good information from both sides and be able to make
better decisions about their own beliefs. And maybe you could prevent a
few murders.

Along the way the Public Conversation Project developed
some guidelines for others who might want to improve the way we talk —
and think — about abortion.

The president himself seems to welcome an open dialogue
on abortion. As he said at Notre Dame: "I do not suggest that the
debate surrounding abortion can or should go away … But surely we can
[make our case to the public] without reducing those with differing
views to caricatures."

President Obama’s Notre Dame speech demonstrates an
understanding of common ground far closer to the modest, achievable and
humble objectives of the Public Conversation Project than that of those
evangelicals and Catholics who have handed down the answer to the
abortion wars as if they were delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses.
The PCP asks: "How do we support the wishes of participants to break
free of the old patterns and experiment with new ways of thinking and
relating." Again, in his Notre Dame speech, the president concurred
when he suggested that we "cling to outworn prejudices and fear those
who are unfamiliar." The PCP has designed conversations that answer the
president’s question about "how we work through these conflicts."

Perhaps most important, the PCP works quietly and does
not toot its own horn, issue press releases or make extravagant claims.
It assumes that participants have more complex views than their slogans
or policy positions can reflect, and facilitates in safe and private
spaces, the freedom to explore and admit your own doubts about your
position.

Abortion opponents are quick to say that Roe cut off the
conversation about abortion that the country needed to have to come to
consensus. It would be tragic if in attempting to craft a legislative
solution to our disagreements about abortion, we also cut off much
needed thoughtful conversations. The president acknowledged in his
other common ground speech in Cairo that change does not happen
overnight. He said we must "say openly the things that are in our heart
and that too often are only said behind closed doors."

Now, those in the administration who are leading the
discussions on common ground need to take the president’s words, and
PCP’s lessons, to heart. Right now, meetings are going on behind closed
doors in the White House among people who disagree about abortion and
family planning and sexual morality. Reports from participants make
clear that they are not structured in ways that enable people to say
what is on their minds and safely pursue disagreements or really engage
the "other." This is an enormous lost opportunity. Someone in the White
House needs to pick up the phone and talk to people who know how to
help people have tough conversations without killing each other. Call
617-923-1216 (the Public Conversations Project) and ask to speak with a
family therapist.

This post first appeared on Salon.

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  • scott-swenson

    Frances, as always your perspective is invaluable. As you know, today RH Reality Check launches its On Common Ground special section. You can find it from the navigation bar atop our front page, at the link above, and read introductory pieces from me and the section moderator, Cristina Page.  As you note above many people talk the talk of common ground but have other motives. RH Reality Check is starting from a slightly different place; a well established base of very progressive thought leaders, like you, who have been writing with us for three years.  To that mix we are inviting some of the common ground leaders that you may be referring to above, simply to engage dialog online. We don’t pretend to have the answers but we aren’t afraid of asking questions, like, can we use new media tools to engage this conversation differently and allow something new to emerge?  That’s all the President is asking, for us all to be open to possibility. President Obama is clearly pro-choice, as are we here at RH Reality Check. Our On Common Ground effort seeks to model the "agree to disagree" notion, and see what happens. We hope you’ll join us and thanks, as always, for your thought leadership.  


    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Co-Publisher

  • invalid-0

    Dear Scott, Thanks for your kind words. I will be reading the common ground section with interest and some doubts. Being “open” does not mean suspending doubts. One of the big challenges in common ground seeking is whether participants are interested in confronting and resolving doubts. Good common ground conversations usually involve asking and answering lots of questions not making presentations. In that sense the “new media” my not be as ideally suited as RH would like. The first set of comments feel very much into that category of speeches. Here is what the National Campaign thinks, Feminists for Life,etc.

    We will see whether the posts from readers include asking good serious questions of curiosity about the positions put forward and whether the principal participants actually are committed to engagement and responding to those who post letters or does the discussion stay at the hierarchical level or fall back into the common sound bite answers each side traditionally gives to questions from the other.

    That is one reason total exposure media may not be that valuable – movement leaders are often not able to depart from “positions” publicly and we don’t trust each other. One entry talked about “let’s get down to business and solve the problem”. This is exactly what common ground is not about, IMO. First, to some extent we are all the problem so unless we are prepared to deal with “we” the solutions become mechanical and not very useful.

    a few thoughts came to me as I read the first posts. Why is it that these discussions almost always are initiated by the pro-choice end with us making space for the views of those who disagree with us? How about Feminists for Lie or Catholics United inviting a comparable set of prochoice voices onto their web site? or simulcast?
    The set of voices on the common ground site include only two prochoice advocates, Sarah Stoez (forgive misspellings) and Rachel Laser. Cristina is the moderator. The picture given is that religion is anti-choice as all the voices in that group are anti-abortion; the Campaign is neutral on abortion and Spence Chapin falls in the expert category probably invited for adoption. Waldman is a journalist considered on RH pages in the past as to put it politely “insensitive” I don’t think it is adequate to argue that since RH is pro-choice,it is fine for a hierarchically structure common ground dialogue to be imbalanced and count on readers to provide the pro-choice views. Frankly too many readers who post especailly the anons do not have a stake in disciplining themselves to be productive. Assuming others see this imbalance I hope you correct it so that all views feel honored and respected at the same level.

    My most important points were the first ones – Will the major participants answer directly genuinely asked questions? A good one would be what do they value in the position of people who are either prochoice or prolife whichever is opposite their orientation.

  • invalid-0

    It may have been Freudian but I truly did not mean Feminists for LIE – I meant Feminists for Life

  • invalid-0

    While I agree with Frances Kissling’s overall message—open dialogue must be established between members of the pro-choice and anti-choice movements—as a member of Republican Majority for Choice, I disagree with her perspective on common ground. I think both groups can agree that lowering the number of abortions obtained each year has to be our common ground. Apparently, for Ms. Kissling, however, that is not enough. Every pro-choice individual hopes for the dissolution of the terms pro-choice and anti-choice, which only serve to divide individuals; and, even more unrealistically speaking, the disbandment of the anti-choice movement. Yet, one has to maintain a practical approach and realize that the power of two working towards the same goal of protecting and empowering women is much more effective than the efforts of one.

    • invalid-0

      I think both groups can agree that lowering the number of abortions obtained each year has to be our common ground.

      You mean, lowering the number of unintended pregnancies that then lead to abortions. You can’t talk about reducing the supply without reducing the demand, because otherwise, that means that people who need abortions won’t be able to get them. Which is unacceptable.

      It’s a small distinction, easy to gloss over, but it makes all the difference.

    • invalid-0

      I think in this kind of exchange it is very important to be available to clarify one’s view whenever it is characterized by a reader. I do not always express myself clearly, a reader has no access to everything I have ever said or written and so cannot contextualize what I have said and each reader comes with preconceived notions of the other. I guess I’d like to leave the question of what our common goal is open for a little while. Can’t we see if we can do better than the current three phrases in play: abortion reduction; reducing the need for abortion or reducing the number of abortions. Some can settle for any of those phrases, others for one or the other. Others, whom we need to respect as they have long histories of commitment to choice and/or life, cannot accept one or the other.
      Exasperation makes those who are at ease say fuck em. They are old, intransigent, in the way, absolutists, let’s just leave them behind. I say no – work harder for a frame that those whom we should respect can buy into.

      I do not suggest that I have the answer and I understand that some like the ambiguity of reduction – cause you can be for reduction because you think abortion is murder and evil or you can be for it because you respect women’s moral agency and you know that some abortions happen even though women would have preferred not to get pregnant or would prefer to continue their pregnancy.

      I do not consider those differences minor irrelevancies. I believe people who say they want common ground need to really explore those differences.

      I am also not sure I agree with you that we are stronger working together. This is one of those apple pie conventional wisdom things that also needs to be unpacked. I think we might be just as strong and not encounter confusion about values if we worked toward similar things separately. If some opponents of legal abortion are now prepared like David Gushee -whom I think has the most integrity and least ego of those involved on the prolife side – to work to prevent the need for abortion then they have my respect and I urge them to go see the anti-choice, anti family and anti welfare state Republicans in Congress and get them to sponsor or support the Ryan-DeLauro bill which provides both more contraception and more money for carrying pregnancies to term. I will, as I have since Ryan DeLauro was introduced continue to write favorably about it and lobby members of Congress who respect me to support it. And I really don’t think the bill will get further if I stand on platform with those opposed to abortion and say we both support it. In fact, each side being able to stand on its own,express its value reasons for supporting the bill unencumbered by differences may actually be more effective for both the short term legislative outcome as well as long range discussion about our cultural and values differences.

      Sometimes working together pisses members off. I remember when I supported Chris Smith’s anti sex trafficking bill rather than Paul Wellstone’s. Chris Smith told people he did not want my support.

    • http://art-architech.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

      I consider, it is necessary to struggle at three levels: governmental, local, private.
      The governmental:
      1. To head for birth rate increase.
      2. To pay the big grants for pregnant and given birth. To pay the big sum monthly for this purpose that the woman did not think of work, and sat at home and gave birth to children. And if it does career that the nurse could employ
      3. To forbid abortions.
      4. To raise to doctors the salary that there was no stimulus to make profit of abortions.
      5. To provide with habitation of women which wish to give birth, but they have no place to live.
      6. To close private clinics.
      7. For minor pregnant women to develop the program of protection of their pregnancy (from malicious parents for example, dreaming to get rid of the grandson)
      8. To enter protection of the rights of an embryo.
      9. To reduce medical indications to abortion to a minimum: an impractical fruit which will precisely be lost after a birth. Menacing conditions of mother it is, literally, on the verge of a life and death
      10. Severely, but it is better than abortion and family disorder.

  • invalid-0

    Taking away a woman’s right to choose is simply unacceptable and was never the intent of my argument. This example of misused language was a mistake on my part and I apologize. Comprehensive sex-education and prevention, such as family planning, must be utilized to lower the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies, thus lowering the rate of abortions.

  • invalid-0

    Comprehensive sex-education and prevention, such as family planning, must be utilized to lower the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies, thus lowering the rate of abortions.

    Yes! Yes!! YES!! Everyone here will heartily concur :-)

    That said, I think part of the common-ground effort will have to include the “unpacking” of why many anti-choicers oppose these sorts of effective measures. I think it comes down to the fact that there are many people who hold control of sexuality (particularly women’s sexuality) to be more important than reducing/eliminating abortion, even though their rhetoric focuses on the latter. I would say they believe that sex should occur only in marriage, only for procreation, [only between a man and a woman,] and that they will oppose anything that facilitates, endorses, or even provides accurate/nonjudgmental information about anything else—even at the cost of human lives.

  • alyssa

    "I think both groups can agree that lowering the number of abortions
    obtained each year has to be our common ground. Apparently, for Ms.
    Kissling, however, that is not enough"

    I would say "enough" or "not enough" is not the right question–it’s the content and nature of the vision it moves us toward, and whether it moves us forward at all, or just holds us in place. And: "has to be"? I’m not sure we can afford to make that assumption.

     

    I guess I’d like to leave the question of what our common goal is open
    for a little while. Can’t we see if we can do better than the current
    three phrases in play: abortion reduction; reducing the need for
    abortion or reducing the number of abortions."

    Thank you, Frances, for encouraging us to aspire to more, while still working to be respectful and authentic in our dialogues with each other in the meantime. 

  • invalid-0

    I don’t know. Really finding common ground will probably be challanging for everyone. I remember several years ago following a series in the Boston Globe. Several pro-choice and pro-life activists had talked for months and the story was about their search for common ground. They just seemed to keep getting caught up in crazy things. The motivation behind it was the deaths of two receptionists by a shooter at a clinic in Brookline. A lot of these people attended the funerals and later decided to begin this dialogue. They started off on a bad foot because one of the principal pro choice actiists was miffed that none of the self identified pro lifers had offered condolences to HER at the funeral. She had been a co worker. Then it took them all weeks just to come up with a name and mission statement because neither side could stand to give at all. They put a bunch of words together but mostly it went in a circle. I hope your effort is more sucessful.

  • invalid-0

    I think fundamentally the two sides will not find much common ground and instead should work within their group to figure out a way to lower the volume instead. So make your case, but leave out all the hyperbole.

    I am pro-life. I do not frequent pro-life sites, but will gladly participate in abortion conversations not expecting any pro-choice to convert to my way of thinking. I am passionate about my beliefs, but realistic about the pro-choice position.

    My neighbor, a very pro-life feminist that is a midwife. We recently talked on this subject and neither of us went away mad at all. I knew she respected my position and I respected hers. Neither of us was trying to convert the other at all and I think that is key to any sort of quality discussions.

    I think the reasons the language gets so strong and ugly is because each side has flaws in their platform and the delivery is often crude.

    As a pro-life person, I would NEVER, EVER stand in the way of anybody choosing to have an abortion. I would feel hopelessly sad and wish I would save all the unwanted babies, but I am rationale enough to know I don’t have such clout.

    I think the pro-choice supporters should be HONEST about the procedure, the fact that women aren’t just eliminating unwanted cells, and do in fact often use abortions as a means of birth control. Let’s not always gloss the picture to be some very poor, unfortunate woman that is agonizing over her plight and choosing to abort her baby because there is NO other choice. There are other choices. I have known the girls that chose abortions. I have known the girls that chose to give up their babies to adoption. I have known the girls that chose to keep their babies. I have known the girls that allowed a family member to take their child. Equally let’s not glorify abortionists as if they have been sent by god to help struggling women. These doctors made a very good living performing abortions. It was their job and they set the fees and thus determined their own wealth.

    Pro-life supporters can feel the pain of each abortion but they must not step over the line and rail against those that choose abortion and those that support pro-choice. Pro-life can’t and shouldn’t try to dictate moral behavior for others. It is often said that many pro-life supporters are often those that support the death penalty. I use to be one of them. Now I see that as much as many probably deserve to die for their crimes, the process of execution involves many others not associated with the crime and morally ruins their character by participating. So taking aim at the guilty took down many innocent as well.

    People privately can struggle with this issue as they should due to its seriousness. Sometimes when abortion becomes personal it changes the POV. It allows the pro-choice person, or the pro-life person to stop being the enemy. Nobody should be ashamed of their position, but they should thoroughly understand what that position in actual terms really means. So if I say I am pro the death penalty, would I feel the same if my father was sitting on death row? If I am pro-choice would I feel the same if my sister got pregnant and was planning to abort my niece or nephew?

  • invalid-0

    As a pro-life person, I would NEVER, EVER stand in the way of anybody choosing to have an abortion. I would feel hopelessly sad and wish I would save all the unwanted babies, but I am rationale enough to know I don’t have such clout.

    Then that makes you the sort of pro-life person we can respect. It takes more strength to master oneself than it does to [attempt to] master others.

    I think the pro-choice supporters should be HONEST about the procedure, the fact that women aren’t just eliminating unwanted cells, and do in fact often use abortions as a means of birth control.

    Excuse me? Do you have any sort of evidence to back this up? Do you realize how ridiculous it is to claim that women use abortion as birth control? Maybe a woman will try this—and after the hassle of driving to a clinic (which can often be far away), shelling out few hundred dollars, and having a vacuum instrument inserted into an intimate body part in a very non-erotic way, she’ll realize why it was an awful idea and opt for conventional birth control next time. How ignorant can one be of the actual abortion procedure to believe that women would want to have it done premeditatedly? That’s like saying that people will abuse tooth-extraction surgery just so they can get a nitrous-oxide hit!

    As for “unwanted cells” or not, how a woman decides to think about her abortion is her business. Whether it’s a blob of cells, or a child she wishes she could have had, it’s her call.

    There are other choices.

    Yes, there are. And we support women being aware of the full range of choices available to them. Including abortion—and adoption, and carrying to term, and so on.

    Equally let’s not glorify abortionists as if they have been sent by god to help struggling women.

    Do you have any idea what Dr. Tiller had to endure? He ran a gauntlet every day for decades because helping women was important to him. And that makes him worthy of immense respect. Maybe you don’t respect him—because you don’t respect women as much as he did.

    These doctors made a very good living performing abortions. It was their job and they set the fees and thus determined their own wealth.

    Oh, yeah. Dr. Tiller was in it for the money. What are you going to tell me next, that he was a masochist, and actually enjoyed all the abuse he received? Including being shot in both arms?

    Pro-life supporters … must not step over the line and rail against those that choose abortion and those that support pro-choice. Pro-life can’t and shouldn’t try to dictate moral behavior for others.

    At least we can agree on that.