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Beyond the Abortion Debate - Common Ground

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, a gentle rain began falling in some parts of the abortion-debate desert. A group called Search for Common Ground produced a public TV program called "What's the Common Ground on Abortion?" as part of a series of "common ground" programs covering gun control, hawks and doves, energy policy and numerous other issues. Dr. John Willke, President of the National Right to Life Committee, and Kate Michelman, Executive Director of the National Abortion Rights League, clarified their considerable differences -- and then they spoke to the question "Given your massive disagreement, are there areas in which you might agree?" They agreed that neither wanted abortions to occur; that both wanted to minimize unwanted pregnancies; that both could work together to promote adoption and reduce infant mortality; and that many on both sides wanted to promote birth control. They were surprised. No one had asked the question before.

Over the next three years people who apparently had not seen this program started creating dialogues among pro-life and pro-choice activists. Most of them called their groups simply Common Ground -- only later finding out that other such groups with the same name were cropping up all over the country (a possible morphogenetic phenomenon).

But one of the first groups called itself simply The Public Conversation Project.

The seed for it sprouted one day in December 1989. Family therapist Laura Chasin was watching an acrimonious TV debate on abortion in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She recognized some of the same patterns she saw in her work with dysfunctional families, and wondered if the therapeutic insights and processes of her profession could be applied to the polarization of political discourse. With a small group of colleagues she set up The Public Conversation Project as an experiment.

They gathered together some pro-choice and pro-life citizens who were willing to try some real dialogue. First, over a buffet dinner, participants took a few minutes each to say something about themselves that did not disclose their stance on abortion. Then, after agreeing to some communication guidelines (like "no interrupting"), they gathered in a circle to tell their personal stories about abortion -- how they came to think and feel and act as they did, what their histories were, what the heart of the matter was for each of them, personally. Then, speaking as individuals rather than partisans, they shared what they weren't sure of; what they struggled with; their own grey areas and mixed feelings about abortion. When the circle was done, they had come to know each other as unique human beings, not as stereotyped embodiments of political positions. And the full complexity of this issue, in the unique lives of real people, was much clearer to all of them. With that came a respect for the unique ways each of them had struggled with the issue, and what an intense struggle it was. In over a dozen sessions, each with different participants, the results were the same: stereotypes were replaced by real people.

In the summer of 1991, unaware that 9 months of abortion dialogues had just been completed on the other side of the continent, San Francisco's Peggy Green -- a pro-choice radical feminist -- was driving to visit her pro-life sister, Patti Gent, when she stopped for breakfast. There she saw a front-page photo of women screaming at each other in front of a Kansas abortion clinic. When her sister agreed it was possible for pro-life and pro-choice women to get together, Green joined with a San Francisco neighbor, pro-choice Amy Levine. They reached out to pro-life activists -- some refered by Gent and some found at abortion clinic demonstrations. One was Jane Smith (not her real name), a dedicated organizer for Operation Rescue, a direct action anti-abortion group. "She trusted us and shared our vision," said Green. "We couldn't have done this without her." Both sides discovered women on the other side who were deeply concerned about children and the treatment of women.

They named their group Common Ground, only later discovering that similar grassroots women's groups had sprung up in Dallas, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and elsewhere, all with the same name, all unaware of the others. St. Louis Common Ground was most advanced, providing help to low-income families, helping teens who wanted to place babies for adoption, lobbying for pro-family legislation and better prenatal care and launching programs to reduce teen pregnancy and increase young women's self-respect. One organizer said, "It was shockingly easy to identify issues we agree on."

Six months after its formation, San Francisco Common Ground brought together thirty-one women, balanced among pro-choice, pro-life and those who were ambivalent or undecided -- members of National Organization for Women, Operation Rescue, Feminists for Life and Catholics for Choice. Green remembers at that retreat "two women, one a lesbian abortion rights activist, the other an evangelical Christian. Both of them had done their time in front of abortion clinics. But one night at the retreat, during an exercise we all went through, there they were, sitting face-to-face, holding onto one another's hand and crying, silently, together." The goal of Common Ground, according to its brochure, was to "lower the fence at least enough to look into each other's eyes."

The following year, back east in New York, the Buffalo Council of Churches called on Search for Common Ground to help heal their community, which had become deeply divided on this issue. In response, SCG created the Coalition for Life and Choice, a national group that began facilitating dialogues across the country to help people in abortion-divided communities rehumanize each other, locate common concerns and develop ways to work cooperatively.

COMMENTARY: The poet Rumi said, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there." Too often notions of right and wrong lead us to stop seeing each other, to close ourselves off from the rich complexity and ambiguity and co-creativity of life. Co-intelligence calls upon us to open, to step into the wide field of life, to encounter each other and the world with our full hearts, and move together into whatever rich possibilities we can discover together. Never is this impossible -- even in life-and-death matters such as abortion. It is seldom, however, easy. The effort to reach toward The Other stretches us, makes us grow, loosens the edges that make us solid. It is dangerous work, challenging, and important beyond comprehension.

Follow-up: January 2000 article by six abortion pro-life and pro-choice who participated in Public Conversation Project dialogues for over five years.