Conflicted Agreement: Improving Discourse within the Abortion Debate
Politics are more divided than ever, and no topic appears to be more contentious or overwrought with frustration and stagnation than the topic of abortion. Yet, just as politicians are prepping for the next polarizing presidential election and will surely declare another “war on women,” there has been some new movement within the discourse. Not long after Pope Francis’ installation as the new Bishop of Rome in 2013, it became abundantly clear that he would not shy away from talking about such controversial issues as abortion, the use of contraceptives, or homosexuality. Pope Francis indicated in an early interview that the church needed to spend less time “obsessing” over these three issues, and more time creating an inclusive church. Despite the fact that the Pope’s comments ignited heated criticism from both sides of the abortion debate, everyone was talking, and listening; therefore, he did indeed move the discussion forward.
Evidence of common ground within the abortion debate, is not new but may be news to many. The fact of the matter is that many Americans have no idea how much they actually agree. A Gallup poll from 2011 said that “self-described ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ Americans broadly agree on more than half of 16 major abortion policy matters…” (Saad 4). Nevertheless after the 2012 elections, John Gehring, a Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, stated that “it’s hard to remember that there was a brief moment, and not long ago when a new conversation on abortion seemed at least possible” (1). Gehring blames the recent increase of anti-abortion legislation on the introduction of funding for unplanned pregnancies within the Affordable Care Act, once again solidifying hardline stances. However, Roland Merullo reporting for the Boston Globe faithfully called upon the Catholic Church to reconsider their ban on contraception, while also calling out the left to step forward and clearly state they are not “pro-abortion” for the sake of constitutional exercise. Merullo suggested that “If you really want to reduce abortions, then you must really want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies” (1). Our political culture as a whole would benefit a great deal from Merullo’s perspective, yet few people are talking about it. Merullo went on to say, “Now is the moment in history when instead of making ourselves feel good by shouting slogans, we can take concrete steps to begin peace talks. The alternative is dissention, bitterness, anger and…more abortions” (3).
Compromise is the byproduct of assessment, negotiation and most importantly, relationship. In the interest of dispute resolution, an argument must first occur to cause people to reflect on their morals and consider what is ethical to propose conciliation. Bringing attention to the fact that there are actually areas of agreement within the extremely controversial debate over abortion could encourage new avenues for discourse and also inspire argumentation of other highly contested, yet stagnant, cultural issues. Ultimately, society must come to terms with the fact that nothing is resolved by ignorance and inaction. Political opponents within all facets of the abortion controversies must recognize and take responsibility for their intense political rhetoric, and take ownership for the stalemate that is currently preventing just gains across all socio-economic lines.
Maintaining the intense divisions over abortion seems to most benefit politicians in need of political currency. The refusal of politicians to set rhetoric aside and acknowledge and work from a place of mutual understanding is ethically puzzling. To the political extreme it seems most beneficial to keep the argument emotional and divided. Pro-choice advocates want to keep abortion legal in every circumstance, no matter the development stage of the human life in question, and refuse to acknowledge any consideration that may take choice out of the hands of women. Pro-life advocates want to make every abortion illegal, regardless of any mitigating circumstances and refuse to accept any policy that may lead to tax-payer funded abortions. In an article for Religion & Politics titled, “What Ever Happened to the Common Ground on Abortion Reduction,” expert, Dr. David P. Gushee, a Christian Ethics professor and the director of The Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University said, “… I don’t have confidence that there is any kind of passion for making reducing abortion a priority or much interest in investing presidential capital on this, but I do think it is a conversation many people want to have” (Gehring 3). Statistics support Gushee’s claim that the public is desirous of new dialogue. The Public Religion Research Institute reported in a 2008 survey that “83 percent of voters support the common ground approach to reducing abortions” (Gehring 4). Despite this seldom publicized awareness, and the fact that both sides of the reproductive rights argument have made considerable gains in policy and public attention over the past few years, long term constructive dialogue still appears to remain elusive due to political expediency. If politicians are avoiding common ground in the abortion debate then what other political issues are they resisting for the sake of partisan vanity?
Many Americans, including policy makers, are not willing to engage one another in honest and productive dialogue because the social and professional risk is too great. Whether or not it is around the water cooler or within the political discourse community, it seems no longer popular to introduce new concepts without having already obtained a consensus. Assistant Professor Dr. Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University in New York, writing for Political Theology said,
Whether it is the news channels we watch, the blogs we read, our physical neighbors, our Facebook/Twitter communities, our churches, or the people we talk with at (non-family) parties, many of us consume information and form ideas within comfortable, largely disconnected communities which rarely force us to critically confront our already decided-upon positions. (41)
The trickle-down effect of pop-culture on American politics and healthy public discussion has made discerning complex aspects of American life more difficult, in so much that individuals have become more insulated and self-absorbed. Camosy goes on to say that “indeed, our sinful natures appear to crave the sort of sensationalized ‘us vs. them’ narrative, and strong market demand has led to a thorough drenching of our culture with this kind of media” (41). If Americans, including politicians, never courageously seek to overcome polarization in such contentious topics as abortion, to the extent that debates over abortion become monosyllabic attacks over emotion rather than substance, then American society as a whole will cease to be one that has more solutions than it has problems.
Possibly due to the high volume of rancor, the lack of straightforward media coverage, or simply moral discomfort, the average American is completely unaware of the empirical data that exists to indicate that Americans actually agree on a majority of abortion policies. A 2011 Gallup poll reported by Lydia Saad found that “self-described ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ Americans agree about nine major areas of abortion policy, while disagreeing on eight others” (1). Often times the reason why people avoid topics such as abortion, as a point of conversation or critical analysis, usually stems from one’s desire to avoid inciting an emotional debate, embarrassment for speaking out of turn for lack of knowledge, or to “save face” among peers who may think differently. When in fact, the data demonstrates that most individuals surveyed essentially agree with one another on many aspects of the abortion debate. For example, Gallup’s 2011 poll further uncovered that Americans agree, “… abortion should be legal when a woman’s life or physical health is endangered by pregnancy and when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. Both groups favor banning ‘partial birth abortions,’ and requiring parental consent for minors.” (Saad 2). Fundamentally, this survey indicated that there is much more mutual agreement than previously thought. Staying well-informed and culturally connected can demystify sensitive and emotionally charged debates. If individuals do not take personal responsibility for their beliefs, and never test their beliefs and knowledge against opposing viewpoints, dynamic argumentation will not occur.
Further preventing genuine dialogue is a refusal by pro-choice supporters to admit that abortion is a moral as well as an ethical issue. More than ever women are stepping forward to admit they regret their decision to have an abortion and their freedom of speech is not being as equally celebrated as their freedom of choice. The American public has grown weary of the divisive debate on abortion and the political oversimplification of a complex, multi-faceted argument. For example, in an USA Today article titled “Abortion is not ‘good’ for society,” they discovered that “… abortion advocates are waging a campaign to end the language of sadness and regret. The 1 in 3 Campaign aims to ‘end the stigma and shame women are made to feel about abortion’” (Bauer 07a). Yet abortion advocates seemingly want to change the way women think and feel about abortion, going so far as to purpose a change to the language one might use to describe their abortion, especially if it was a negative experience. Bauer, the president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families also pointed out that “not long ago, the shame of having a ‘bastard’ child equaled or even exceeded that of having an abortion. That’s clearly changed” (07a). The moral scope and the public understanding of the consequences of abortion seem to be widening. Perhaps the change of climate is due to scientific advances, or a broader study of embryonic viability, but it seems that the humanity of a fetus is being called into question more frequently. Bauer concluded that “one doesn’t need to consider abortion tantamount to murder to recognize that it cannot be reconciled with most people’s conceptions of love, family and the good things in life” (07a).
The logical common effort for both sides of the debate should be to reduce the number of abortions occurring in the United States. Acknowledging that there is an immense amount of middle ground from which to create genuine solutions is paramount. For this to take place unyielding positions must be relinquished on both sides of abortion politics to productively reduce abortions, preserve the freedom of choice and ensure the health and wellness of women.
Compromise in impassioned arguments such as abortion should be celebrated. Historically, abortion protests and marches have in some cases become violent. In decades past, abortion doctors were murdered by perpetrators who claimed they carried out their crimes to advance the right-to-life effort. Pro-life and pro-choice supporters should enthusiastically seek new paths to political relationship and conciliation. For example, Merullo, in his article said, “we’re a million miles apart in what we believe, but there’s one thing we have in common. Without demonizing anyone, let’s work together to reduce the number of abortions” (2). Merullo goes on to implore advocates on both sides of the debate to release hypocritical stances on such aspects as contraception, sex education and choice without responsibility. Merullo gives examples and asks, “How can we respect the beliefs of those who are against abortion availability, while acknowledging the fact that it is legal and likely to stay that way” (2)? Merullo suggests a more open exchange of ideas with college-age adults regarding sex education with an emphasis on cautious and thoughtful intimacy that does not promote a rush to sexual engagement or keep parents out of the loop. Continuing to develop dialogue and create new paths to compromise within the reproductive rights discussion, should be the goal of every advocate, supporter and lobbyist, otherwise the end result of argument will only be hot air and more self-promotion.
Policy makers and the representatives of the people within Congress should not consist of individuals that shy away from a truth-filled exchange of ideas, or authentic argumentation on behalf of the nation. They should instead consist of those best equipped and willing to engage in difficult dialogue and the sometimes uncomfortable process of synthesizing the notions of both parties. Physicist Dr. Jennifer E. Miller, is the founding director of Bioethics International and a residential fellow in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Dr. Miller co-chaired the Open Hearts Open Minds and Fair-minded Words Conference at Princeton University in 2010 and was interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez for her article featured in Human Life Review titled, “Charity, without Compromise.” This conference brought together prominent leading experts in the fields of science, faith and politics to purposefully and rationally discuss the constitutionality of human life within a democracy. Dr. Miller said, “I think we need to help each other as we look for the best ways forward in the abortion debate, no single person has all the answers.” (Lopez 35). Lopez, also an editor at large for National Review Online, makes clear in her article that she is a pro-life supporter not willing to concede the viability of a human life. However, she is writing about leaders on both sides choosing to participate in an open forum and encouraging others to enter into a constructive exchange of ideas. At minimum, contentious topics like abortion provide an opportunity to assess prejudices and acknowledge personal levels of resistance to others with opposing viewpoints. Mutual respect and understanding develop out of these difficult processes and could pave the way for practical resolutions.
Increasing the likelihood that common ground could develop and succeed within the discourse community of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, are women who have experienced abortion first-hand. Valuable are women who are willing to share their insights, giving intimate yet honest testimony within the public forum, in the hopes that sharing their experience will encourage greater personal responsibility. One such woman is Lisa Selin Davis, a prolific freelance writer for the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Davis was once a staunch abortion rights activist, participating in marches and rhetoric-filled symposiums, until an unplanned pregnancy in her 20s gave her an unexpected insight into the reality of her choice. Davis wanted to use her pregnancy termination to artistically exalt the benefits of choice for women, going as far as to take a personal video camera with her into her appointment. Davis however found the truth of the moment to be far more overwhelming than theoretical narrative. In an opinion piece for The New York Times titled, “My Abortion Wasn’t Art,” Davis said, “I wish that someone had alerted me to the harshness of the experience, acknowledged the layers of regret that built and fell away as the months and years passed. I want my daughters to have the option of safe and legal abortion, of course. I just don’t want them to have to use it” (SR.8). In a field of study stereotyped by screaming feminists on one side of the argument and bible-thumping evangelicals on the other, women like Davis are courageously sharing their experiences to open dialogue and help people understand the importance of both sides working together for the common good. Personal experience is a powerful conversation starter and brings individuals to the negotiating table ready to compassionately listen, setting aside political agenda for human decency.
The climate of abortion politics is changing and the argument should evolve with the atmosphere. Temperance and moderation may be essential to the politics of the future and should receive more than just lip service. No longer can anti-abortionists and reproductive rights advocates negotiate policies with indifference to the ever emerging moderate climate. Dr. Charles C. Camosy, in his article, “Intellectual Solidarity and Transcending Polarized Discourse,” pointed to an earlier 2010 Gallup poll by Saad that found, “Unlike older generations, the millennials generally support gay rights, but also that they are ‘trending anti-abortion’ at the very same level as seniors. In a telling statistic, a whopping 45% of American millennials identify as neither liberal nor conservative” (47). Americans no longer want politicians to sit on the sidelines and wait for the political winds to shift in their favor, but instead be engaged and participate more openly in a democratic process from which they may actually learn something through their opposing viewpoints. Settling disagreements with more logic than emotion, and more trust than suspicion is a worthy leap of faith for the benefit of the greater good. Camosy points outs that, “We have an opening to instead engage each other in the spirit of intellectual solidarity: to carefully sift through the complex issues that divide us, find where the disagreement lies, and move forward on issues where a substantial number of us actually agree” (47).
Determining at what stage life is truly a life to be protected, or just a small mass of complex human cells, may not be determined or conceded anytime soon. Setting political pride as well as personal pride aside for the greater ethical good, could be more than beneficial to both sides and society as a whole. Across the vast spectrum of religious and philosophical beliefs is the understanding that argumentation and truth seeking are the worthiest of pursuits. As a society we must challenge ourselves to reflect and discuss the issues that create the most discomfort in our daily lives. Striving to create a space for dialogue where none previously existed, or in the place of heated rhetoric is a noble and selfless pursuit that can only benefit our culture and teach us more about one another.
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