2 Sides on Abortion Finding Common Ground First Point of Accord: Help for Pregnant Women

By Martha Shirk Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 22, 1994 | Go to article overview

2 Sides on Abortion Finding Common Ground First Point of Accord: Help for Pregnant Women


Martha Shirk Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Over coffee or cocktails, in church fellowship rooms in Denver and suburban dining rooms in Cleveland, several hundred activists from opposite sides of the abortion issue are doing something few ever thought possible: talking to each other.

What started as a series of awkward, secret conversations nearly five years ago in St. Louis has become a national movement, with outposts in about 15 states.

And earlier this month, a new national organization, Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, convened its steering committee in Washington after nearly two years of planning. Fifteen years before, a similar meeting in Washington erupted into chaos when an anti-abortion activist unveiled the swaddled body of a fetus.

The catchword for the new movement is "common ground."

In most places, common ground conversations have a simple goal: to help activists get beyond their differences and, together, help pregnant women.

So far, they've done little more than talk. But some groups can point to concrete accomplishments:

In Missouri, two people involved in the talks arranged prenatal care and full-time babysitting for a house-bound 10-year-old girl impregnated by her mother's boyfriend.

In Texas, activists on both sides built a house for a poor family.

In Wisconsin, a common ground group developed a proposal for sex education in public schools.

In Ohio, abortion-rights supporters and opponents worked out a "civility agreement" for clinic protests. They then collaborated on a newspaper piece in which they urged that Dayton not become an abortion battleground. BIRTH OF DISCUSSIONS

The seed for Missouri's common ground discussions was planted in the fall of 1989. That's when abortion opponent Andrew Puzder, in a commentary article in the Post-Dispatch, called on his colleagues and abortion-rights supporters to work together for new laws to help pregnant women and their children.

One reader took Puzder's message to heart: B.J. Isaacson-Jones. "I knew I had to talk with him," she recalls.

Isaacson-Jones called Puzder, and the two met at the abortion clinic she runs in the Doctors Building, at 100 North Euclid Avenue - after hours, at Puzder's insistence.

It was like a meeting between two superpowers who'd had missiles trained on each other for years.

Puzder, a lawyer, had defended many of the protesters who have been arrested over the years in clinic protests here. Moreover, he had written some of the Missouri abortion restrictions that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1989, in the decision known colloquially as Webster.

Isaacson-Jones's clinic, Reproductive Health Services, was the plaintiff in the Webster case. Her clinic is the busiest abortion clinic in the lower Midwest, and the one abortion opponents would probably most like to shut down. Doctors there perform 8,000 abortions a year.

For a few months, Puzder and Isaacson-Jones continued meeting secretly, usually at the old Caleco's in the Central West End. In July 1990, they invited seven others to join them there.

Over drinks, the nine began a process that continues today, with just four people. (The others say they dropped out because of time pressures.) Besides Puzder and Izaacson-Jones, the core group comprises Loretto Wagner, who organizes the annual pilgrimage to Washington by Missouri anti-abortion activists, and Jean Cavender, director of public affairs at Reproductive Health.

One of the group's first decisions was to call each other's movements what they want to be called - "pro-life," in the case of the anti-abortion movement, and "pro-choice," in the case of the abortion-rights movement. `SHARED HOPES, SHARED PAIN'

The activists resolved to not even try to convince each other to abandon their positions on abortion.

"Our goal wasn't then, nor is it now, to solve the abortion issue," Isaacson-Jones said at a recent forum at St. …

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