Where can opposing sides of the abortion debate find common ground? This is a good question but only one of many. What do we mean by “common ground” and who wants it? Who doesn’t? What would it look like? Are there different kinds of common ground? Would finding common ground end the abortion wars; lead to public policies that would cause partisans to “beat their swords into ploughshares”; admit to doubt in public conversations; treat the “other” not as adversary but as companion on a difficult journey? Really, what do these searchers for common ground want? I’m one of those searchers, a participant in the abortion rights movement since 1970 who is still trying to figure it all out. Perhaps the best contribution I can make is to share my journey—of how I did not become fixed in my thinking about abortion, of how I strive to be open to personal change. After all, it is Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese proponent of engaged Buddhism, who noted that there is little purpose in entering into dialogue on controversial issues if you do not wish to be changed.
I remember my appearance on “Nightline” in the Ted Koppel days when Koppel asked Nellie Grey, the founder of the Right to Life March on Washington, if common ground on abortion was possible. Grey answered that until those in favor of abortion put their knives down “there could be no common ground.” And then the early effort by Ellie Smeal, then the president of National Organization for Women (NOW), to dialogue with the NOW members who had left to start Feminists for Life. They showed up with a fetus in a jar. At the same time, advocates of abortion rights demonize those opposed to legal abortion as “anti-woman” and exhibit a lack of any recognition that abortion is a morally serious act with more than one value at stake. We answer every question about abortion by telling the questioner to “trust women to make good decisions.” Talking to—no, listening—to each other is extremely difficult.
Another challenge to efforts to find common ground is the marginalization of religious leaders as possible leaders of such efforts. In the Catholic world, the strong lobbying efforts by the bishops to make abortion illegal place them outside the pale of common ground leadership. The late Father Richard McBrien, who brought Mario Cuomo to Notre Dame for a groundbreaking speech on abortion, was at times tone-deaf on how to talk about abortion.
After President Obama gave a May 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, in which he urged graduates to be open to those with whom they disagree, McBrien claimed in Religion News Service, “The issue is not whether abortion is moral or not … The issue is whether it should be criminalized and, if so, under what circumstances? … All of us believe abortion is immoral. The question is, what is the best way to at least reduce the number of them?”
This seemingly rational statement of agreement grates on the non-religious ears. We do not all agree that abortion is immoral; for some it can be a deeply morally correct decision not to bring new life into the world.
Are we then condemned in the U.S. to an undiminished war on abortion—a war that seems likely to be lost by those in favor of legal abortion? The recent appointment to the Supreme Court of another Catholic justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who is likely to further gut or even overturn Roe v. Wade is alarming to abortion rights advocates. Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Kavanaugh are all opposed to abortion as a matter of faith, as is arguably Gorsuch, who was raised Catholic but later joined the Episcopal Church. Are these members of the court likely to overturn Roe? It’s a question too complicated to answer here, but certainly, the continued erosion of access to abortion through state legislation is assured.
This situation makes all the more tragic the failure of the most visible effort at rational conversation and peacemaking on abortion: the “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words” initiative. The 2010 conference on “life and choice in the abortion debate” was inspired by Obama’s Notre Dame commencement address. He followed up the speech with a short series of White House meetings with leaders on both sides of the issue. “Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction,” Obama said at Notre Dame. “But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.” It was a hope that fell on deaf ears.
The effort failed for the reason that many common ground and dialogue efforts do—a lack of understanding of how long it takes for such efforts to be fruitful. A dialogue on theological perspectives among Catholic and Buddhist theologians has been going on in the U.S. for more than a dozen years with the same participants. It is still unfinished. Also misunderstood by the Obama team was the simple fact that leaders of near absolute movements do not good dialogue partners make. They don’t have the freedom to drop postures. Public efforts tend to fail for the same reason. One does not admit doubt in political debate. For Catholics, perhaps the patron saint of dialogue should be doubting Thomas, the apostle.
Doubt is indeed the central requirement for what I have come to believe is the only form of common ground possible. That form is conversation aimed at understanding the other based on the humility to admit we don’t have all the answers to the complex, multivalued inquiry into the conflict between our newly found political and cultural respect for women as moral agents and our growing positive desire to live in a world where all forms of life are valued—persons of all colors, genders, and ages, as well as animals and even intrauterine life. To be valued is not necessarily to have rights, but it is at a minimum to be mourned when lost.
Early in his papacy, it seemed that Pope Francis had an inkling of this when he told America magazine: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently … We have to find a new balance.”
The pope spoke of healing wounds. Here, too, we have seen an erosion of the promise of not common ground but constructive public dialogue. More recently, harsh language has dominated the pope’s comments. This June he referred to abortion in cases of fetal abnormality as “the murder of children … we do the same as the Nazis to maintain the purity of the race but with white gloves.” In October he referred to abortion as “hiring a hit man.”
For some Catholics like myself, his shift in language is deeply disturbing. Once again, we lack a disciplined, compassionate spokesperson. Why? Most likely the pope is responding to political movements on the legalization of abortion in Ireland and in Argentina.
Where do we go, those of us who are turned off by the hatefulness of the political discourse that demonizes advocates of a woman’s moral agency and demonizes those who are genuinely concerned with what seems to be callousness to unborn life?
I say we join neither camp. Some, not all of us, need to conduct a cultural conversation in which we acknowledge doubt, find like-minded people who see value in both positions and work together, especially in our places of worship. At a minimum, religious denominations cannot become adjuncts to the existing secular organizations active on abortion. We are not the Methodist NARAL, the Catholic American Life League, or the Jewish Planned Parenthood. We transcend these identities and are or should be peacemakers in the abortion wars.