Pax Populi

Having spent much of my recent professional life working to build bridges across theological and ideological divides to make progress on issues like climate change, torture, and immigration, I worried about what would become of those bridges when the topic turned to abortion. We had been able to find shared cause around caring for creation, loving our enemies and welcoming the stranger, but could we find common ground on abortion?

We felt it was important to try. Our work across the ideological spectrum is motivated by the belief that faith compels all of us to engage in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, and that there is far more that unites us than divides us — even on the most contentious issues.

It’s not always been easy, and the path ahead is still long, but whether in conversations with progressive Mainline Protestants, moderate Catholics or more conservative Evangelicals, analysis of recent poll data, or feedback from an online survey or a radio ad campaign — we have found the answer to whether common ground on abortion is possible to be ‘yes.’

The first scientific inkling of this trend came in an August 2006 poll conducted by the highly-regarded Pew Research Center, which found that two out of three Americans (66%) support finding "a middle ground" when it comes to abortion. Only three-in-ten (29%) by contrast, believed "there’s no room for compromise when it comes to abortion laws." A 2007 poll commission by the DC think tank Third Way captured the moral complexity of abortion. Contrary to traditional campaign war room assumptions that voters can be neatly divided into "pro-choice" and "pro-life" camps, this poll found that 72 percent of Americans said they believe that the decision to have an abortion should be left up to a woman, her family and her doctor, while 69 percent said that abortion is "the taking of human life."

In October 2008, the Faith and American Politics Survey, commissioned by Faith in Public Life and conducted by Public Religion Research, found that a majority of Americans believe political leaders can work to find common ground on abortion while staying true to their core beliefs. Even among the religious constituencies most opposed to abortion, such as white Evangelicals and Black Protestants, pluralities believe common ground is possible.

These poll results have been substantiated by my own conversations with diverse religious leaders. When I raise the subject, I’m always careful to outline what we mean by common ground solutions to reduce the need for abortion: preventing unintended pregnancies, including through contraception and age-appropriate, medically-accurate comprehensive sex education, supporting women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term, through health care coverage for pregnant women and children and other support mechanisms, and expanding adoption. As I broach the subject, I always find myself holding my breath while I wait for a reaction. But whether over lunch with a pro-choice social justice-oriented Mainline leader or a pro-life evangelical leader – I detect the same hunger for common ground.

Pro-choice faith leaders have said to me that they are excited about this approach — that it captures how they feel and how they think most people in their congregations feel. They think women should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies, but absolutely wish there were fewer abortions.

Meanwhile, younger pro-life leaders tell me they are all for working with the President to find common ground ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, support women, and reduce abortions. They feel that older leaders are out of touch — they are more interested in the fight than in results.

Encouraged by these kinds of conversations and poll results, Faith in Public Life decided to try out a common ground message on abortion on Christian radio. Calling on Democrats and Republicans to come together around "real solutions" such as expanding adoption, increasing pre- and post-natal healthcare, and preventing unintended pregnancies, the ads ran in 11 states the week before the 2008 election. In response, we received emails from people across the country, and to our surprise, every single one was positive. One example:

My ‘coffee group’ of friends have long been discussing the need for both pro life and choice to come together if they REALLY want to affect change. …[I] am thrilled to see collective consciousness at work!

Some of the stations even aired the ads at discounted rates. One station manager wrote us, "This is the best message I have ever heard from either side of this issue."

Next, we took the message to Faithful America, an online community of nearly 100,000 people of faith founded following the Abu Ghraib scandal to oppose torture and take action on other pressing moral issues. Ninety-one percent of Faithful America members self identify as progressive. When asked about legislation "to reduce the number of abortions in America by both preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women and new parents," eighty-three percent of respondents said they were excited for Faithful America to make supporting this approach a priority. Thirteen percent said they were neutral, and just 4 percent said they were disappointed.

Particularly because Obama spoke so passionately about finding common ground on abortion on the campaign trail, we were interested in polling people’s opinions on common ground in a post-election poll. The results of this survey were just as powerful–a vast majority (83%) of voters agree that "elected leaders on both sides of the abortion debate should work together to find ways to reduce the number of abortions by enacting policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption, and increase economic support for women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term." Eighty-six percent of white evangelicals and 81% of Catholics agree with this statement.  This approach bridges the traditional "pro-life"/"pro-choice" divide — 81% of "pro-choice" and 86% of "pro-life" voters support it.  Poetically, our shared desire to seek common ground could be our first common ground success.

While each of these polls tapped into slightly different moments and political climates, and gauged slightly different understandings of common ground, the results are clear — Americans of both parties and all religious affiliations want to find common ground, regardless of their views on the legality or morality of abortion.

If polling and my own experiences are any indication, this description applies to an awful lot of us out there. If we take care in the details and communicate honestly and specifically, we might not only be able to find common ground solutions that reduce the need for abortion in America, but also build trust and learn to work together better as we confront the myriad challenges of our day.

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  • invalid-0

    Thank you Katie–your voice is a refreshing and much needed one! It is important to make this case for common ground with some real data that shows so many of us want to reduce the need for abortion without making abortion illegal.
    I hope we can have a new conversation: the old labels of “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are as simplistic as the old school name-calling.

  • scott-swenson

    Katie … thanks for sharing the clear evidence demonstrated in multiple polls that it is time for this conversation to shift and that we must find new ways of talking about these issues … agreeing to disagree where necessary … and focusing on providing opportunity for the healthiest decisions by everyone. Yours is voice I hope we see here often, thanks for all our great work at FIPL.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Co-Publisher

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for these insights

    It always seems to me that the hardcore pro-life groups who are intimately involved in the political side of the movement are unable to cede any common ground whatsoever, perhaps because it makes progressive and liberal candidates who express an interest in working to reduce the demand for abortion more palatable to the less-than-hardcore pro-life voter.

    Even Churches tend to adopt the loaded language and attack-oriented methods of the wedge politics that are driving public discussions on the issue.

    I think we need to look at the rhetoric and separate out what’s politics and what’s the real substance of policies that can lead to real results in supporting women, protecting children, strengthening families and reducing the number of abortions in our country.