Magazine article The Christian Century

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Can We Talk?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Can We Talk?

Article excerpt

RAIN WASHED DOWN the streets of the American University campus in Washington, D.C. Students dashed from building to building under cover of umbrellas, ponchos or soggy newspapers. In a room several stories above the streets a point of calm was developing in the midst of another storm, a storm that has been raging for 20 years. A handful of pro-life and pro-choice partisans were talking and listening to each other. The mood was subdued and reflective, in tune with the pattering rain. In this intimate setting, people were saying things that they never imagined saying before, especially not in the presence of the "enemy."

In one small group, an aggressive pro-choice lawyer was talking passionately about the protection of abused children. She spoke about children's helplessness before their adult attackers. "They're so small and vulnerable, and they have no one to defend them." A pro-lifer in the group said softly, "You know, that's the reason a lot of people give for being pro-life."

This group and others like it got their start six years ago, when pro-choice leader B. J. Isaacson-Jones was reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was drawn to an article by pro-life lawyer Andrew Puzder that cited statistics for maternal and child poverty in Missouri and stated that "surely these numbers alone suggest the existence of some common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice factions.... While neither side is going to make concessions on the basic underlying issue (life vs. privacy), it is difficult to see how either side would hurt its position by jointly seeking legislative aid for impoverished women and their children (born and unborn)." Isaacson-Jones, then administrator of Reproductive Health Services, one of the country's largest abortion clinics, called Puzder, and invited him to meet her for an after-hours conversation. He agreed and the two met several times to discuss such issues, as adoption, welfare reform, and crack-addicted pregnant women.

After having met privately for several months, Isaacson-Jones and Puzder were invited to appear on a local TV show. The station was so cautious about mixing these two famed enemies that they put them in separate studios for the live show. Then at one point in the show Isaacson-Jones said, "By the way, Andy and I have been talking..." Within a week the secret meetings were national news.

FIVE YEARS later, over 500 people have participated in Common Ground dialogues. A typical initial session begins with an explanation of the common ground concept. "Our goal wasn't then, nor is it now, to solve the abortion issue. We are not trying to mediate compromise or even find middle ground," says Isaacson-Jones.

Instead, participants visualize common ground as the area shared by two overlapping circles. They do not challenge the integrity of each complete circle but make a decision to focus on thearea of overlap instead of on points of disagreement. The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which unites local Common Ground groups, puts it this way: "When all participants are standing together in the area of intersection they can look out at their differences but their perspectives change, because they are standing in the common space looking out, instead of staying in their own circles glaring at each other."

Organizers go over the ground rules, asking participants to speak honestly and personally (not for an organization), reminding them that they've come to learn and not to debate, and urging them to respect confidentiality, both during the meetings and afterwards. Participants then break into small groups, perhaps two pro-life, two pro-choice and a facilitator. They are invited to take turns explaining why they hold the positions they do, and encouraged to talk not only about core beliefs but about influential life experiences. A return to large-group sharing might include lunch, then another session in small groups.

A Common Ground questionnaire asks participants to rank their agreement with opinion statements on the abortion issue. …

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