How to think about abortion

The audacity of hoping for change

Published November 17, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

The midterm elections resulted in significant gains in the antiabortion political delegation: In the House, there are 44 more antiabortion votes and six in the Senate. Blue Dog anti-choice Democrats were also replaced by right-wing Republicans who are not only antiabortion but anti-family planning and far more likely to seek hard-line restrictions on access to abortion, rather than join any effort to make abortion less necessary by supporting better access to family planning.

For choice advocates it raises the question of whether President Obama’s efforts to bridge the divide on the issue remain worth pursuing. His call two years ago at Notre Dame for "open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words" on abortion wasn’t much help in negotiating healthcare reform. The major legislative vehicle for expressing common ground on abortion, the pro-life Tim Ryan and pro-choice Rosa DeLauro bill Preventing Unintended Pregnancy, Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act has never garnered a single Republican co-sponsor -- and with Republicans in control of the House, it's effectively dead. Obama's "common ground" allies were defeated by pro-life Democratic members of Congress and the Catholic bishops. Restrictive state bills continued to be introduced, especially in the wake of healthcare reform. At the White House policy office, interest in finding common ground has come to a halt. A promised common ground strategy paper was never issued.

These failures to make progress in the electoral and policy arena on abortion should come as no surprise. Politics is about the here and now. But if anything is ever to change the back-and-forth dynamic of so-called electoral solutions to the problem of abortion, Obama’s effort to get people to talk to each other has to be tried, outside of the Beltway.

That's why I agreed to be one of four organizers of a public dialogue on abortion held at Princeton University in October, “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair-Minded Words." Thirty-eight of the top scholars and some advocates were invited to talk to each other, not past each other, with an audience of 400 looking on and occasionally chiming in with tough questions. One would think the academy would be an easy place to have such a conversation, but Charles Camosy, the Fordham University professor who initiated the conference, was unable to get Fordham to agree to host the conference and turned to Princeton's Peter Singer for help.

Clearly not everyone has an open mind on abortion. Yet most views have legitimate counterviews. Each side has an Achilles' heel. For those opposed to legal abortion it's usually the fact that they are willing to force women who don’t want to be pregnant to stay pregnant and deliver a child they don't want. For those of us in favor, there's the reality that abortion does take life -- human life, and sometimes well into the fifth month of pregnancy.

A lot of energy goes into keeping our hearts and minds closed to the hard truths about the unintended and unavoidable negative consequences of either position. And bad things can happen when people who disagree about abortion get together. About 30 years ago Ellie Smeal invited Feminists for Life to dialogue with NOW. After what was by all accounts a civil meeting, at the post-meeting press conference, one of the pro-life attendees placed on the table a jar containing a dead fetus. Smeal said, “Never again.”

While few think there is much common ground on abortion to be found between, say, the Catholic bishops and NOW, the damaging effect of abortion conflict on the political process has pushed moderates on all sides toward more civil debate, which was a goal of the conference. And some cross conflict but civil conversations at the conference made my head spin. One of the most electric happened at the speakers' dinner where place cards ensured that those who never rub elbows would break bread together. Just before dessert, there was an opportunity for a group discussion. The first to speak was Rachel MacNair, a "consistent ethic of life" advocate, who opposes war, capital punishment and abortion. MacNair described her prior work with combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of acts of violence and recent work with abortion doctors whom she believes suffer the same syndrome.

Almost immediately, Rebecca Gomperts, a former Greenpeace staff doctor, stood up and calmly noted that she found the remarks offensive; she was an abortion doctor and did not consider what she did an act of violence.

Forks dropped. Had MacNair committed a social faux pas? Should Gomperts have let it pass?

Before I could process it all, one of Gomperts’ dinner companions rose, somewhat agitated, but also sweet seeming, and expressed his amazement and mild discomfort at finding himself consuming asparagus crepes with someone who performs abortions. He regularly prays and pickets (politely, he assured us) with his children at an abortion clinic near his home. He concluded by noting that neither he nor the doctor had fangs.

Surely something subtle changed for each of us. Perhaps, as Peter Singer, another of the organizers, had hoped, it was one on those moments when those on different sides of the issue learned that not everyone who disagrees with them is either "stupid or evil." Or simply that we are all human and things are complicated. In a blog post on the conference, MacNair expressed surprise that the two abortion providers she saw at the conference were young women, not old male doctors. "What brought them to a conference of this kind is still a question I'm mulling through," she said. 

Others are thinking about a remarkable argument by the Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian David Garrow, who passionately defended the Roe v. Wade core holding on liberty as correctly decided. Garrow, a hard-liner on a woman's right to choose with no limits, suggested that it's time to think about post-12-week abortions differently than those under 12 weeks. Poignantly, Garrow acknowledged that a second-trimester abortion policy that reinstituted the pre-Roe state ethics committees that occasionally granted an abortion if women could prove they were crazy, or carried severely deformed fetuses, or had other severe health problems, would mean humiliation for some women and no abortion for others. 

On the other side of the debate, Cathleen Kaveny, a pro-life lawyer and ethicist at Notre Dame, declared, "I do not think the American law should prohibit abortions in the case of rape, or where necessary to protect the life or health of the mother. I think that unborn life is equal in dignity to the rest of us. But I don't think the law can rightly require a woman to bear the significant burdens associated with continuing a pregnancy in such instances."

Such deviations from parallel orthodoxies are the stuff that gives one hope that the absolutism of politics can be transcended. 

Not all dialogue was forward moving. Whether intentionally or innocently, even the best-willed can set each other off, and make it difficult to hear with an open heart what is being said, or identify what is positive in the other’s ideas. In a debate on the moral status of the fetus, the natural law philosopher John Finnis, who has mentored many of the bright lights of the Federalist Society, castigated all for using the "F word" -- and he meant the fetus. "As used in the conference program ... it is offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, manipulative. Used in this context, exclusively and in preference to the alternatives, it is an F-word, to go with the J-word, and other such words we know of, which have or had an acceptable meaning in a proper context but became in wider use the symbol of subjection to the prejudices and preferences of the more powerful."

The J-word, it seems, is "Jew" and it was the first reference to the not useful and incorrect comparisons of pro-choice supporters to Nazis.

Garrow, in turn, used the "C" word, closing off dialogue with the "Catholics" who oppose abortion by claiming that their goal was not the protection of life, but outlawing contraception and moralizing about sex and gays. And while that is certainly true in Catholic officialdom, the sighs from the audience made clear that for many Catholics and evangelicals, banning birth control is the furthest thing from their minds.

Helen Alvare, who is best known for her tenure as the spokesperson on abortion for the Catholic bishops, set pro-choice feminists' teeth on edge when she answered a question about women who decide to have an abortion. "Sometimes," she said, "what women think they need now, is not in their best interest in the long term." It was a line quoted over and over again in bewilderment and annoyance in conversations among pro-choice participants. 

The singular focus of each side, one on women and the other on fetuses, was a complicating factor in achieving understanding at the Princeton meeting. It is perhaps an eternal divide, but it is becoming a richer and less polarized division as more partisans recognize that there are blind spots on both sides of the divide. 

In the opening panel of the conference I noted that my greatest concern about the public debate on abortion has been that its stark yes or no legal focus has coarsened people on both sides. I left the conference still believing that is true. Opponents of legal abortion have written much about their fear that society has been insensitive to the value of fetal life -- in research, pregnancy and into the neonatal arena. We need to hear that. 

Much less has been written about a coarseness toward women that has developed among those opposed to abortion as they pursue efforts to make it illegal. There was as little recognition of coarseness toward women and their lives by pro-lifers as was there was of concern for the fetus by pro-choicers. This is not to say that pro-lifers don't care about women; they just seem to care in very different ways than those of us who are pro-choice do. Most pro-life speakers at the conference wanted to protect women from themselves; most pro-choice speakers wanted to see women acknowledged as "moral agents" with the same moral status as other persons. There is, they believe, no "need" for abortion. Abortion is not healthcare. Adoption is absolutely and always a "positive." Alvare dismissed a question about deaths from botched abortion in the developing world with a flick of her wrist and the claim that she was unfamiliar with the data.

Frustration on this matter followed several early panels that focused on the "moral status of the fetus" or asked speakers to accept that the fetus had the same moral status accorded to persons and to justify abortion on other grounds. Pro-choice attendees and speakers repeatedly asked why women seemed invisible on the program. Was their moral status to be considered? Lynn Paltrow, an advocate for pregnant women who among other things are shackled during delivery if they are unfortunate enough to have babies while imprisoned, asked about the moral status of women twice in a panel on fetal pain. Several speakers asked it in other sessions. In all but one case the question was ignored. Charles Camosy was the lone male of the 13 pro-life men on the program to answer the question and he noted that he had not considered the question of whether women's moral status was an unresolved issue until recently and was still reflecting on the matter. 

But a conference like Open Hearts also suggests pro-choice folks need to attend to our own house. We could start by not apologizing for or excusing women and girls who are sexually active and do not use contraception. Making babies is serious business, and sex is a pleasurable and meaningful activity with social consequences. We need to create a social and cultural movement around abortion that both acknowledges women’s rights and the seriousness of reproduction for all of society, not just women.

Not even the reproductive justice movement, the newest and best of abortion rights frames, adequately addresses the fact that abortion is a serious decision precisely because it involves how we, as humans, will foster respect for life, even if ending it is justified and not the same as taking the life of a person. Can we acknowledge that abortion is not just a medical procedure like having one's tonsils out but entails many losses, including the inability to bring life one has created to fruition? 

Is it possible that such acknowledgments might result not in greater restriction of abortion, but in a public that trusts us, and trusts women, even more?

I have a feeling that that suspicion was part of Obama's call for open minds and his hopefulness about finding some common ground among advocates on both sides of the divide. Obama's way of talking about abortion, separate from his policy actions, was and is brilliant. During his campaign and early in his presidency, he talked about abortion in a way most leaders who favor a woman's right to choose have avoided. 

In the Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College he set the bar for a new pro-choice approach when he acknowledged, "There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that's a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about."

The assumption of the Open Hearts conference was that that bar should be set higher for both those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice. Perhaps some issues are "wrenching" enough or involve complex enough "choices" that the ways in which philosophers approach them in the academy are not that different from the way women and men sitting at their kitchen tables wrestle with decisions. Those who came to Princeton had the audacity to hope that way of thinking might have relevance to the political process as well.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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