Archive for Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Constructive talk on abortion

October 18, 2000


They gather on the first Monday of the month, transforming a nondescript Montgomery County, Pa., conference room into an oasis of civility. For two hours, they discuss abortion America's most volatile issue even though they do not, and will never, agree.

Just having this regular conversation, between people who call themselves pro-life and others who identify themselves as pro-choice, is swimming against the national tide.

And to sustain it for five years during which doctors have been slain, protests have been ugly, legislative debates have been heated, and court decisions have been testy is extraordinary.

In this election season, the issue hangs perilously, like Damocles' sword. When voters say they are worried about who will pick new judges, isn't that code for abortion?

Common Ground Network for Life and Choice reminds us that tough moral issues don't have to be either fought over or ignored. Both sides can push for policies they can support together rather than demonize each other.

Their effort is not unique. U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., has been leading a task force of pro-life and pro-choice constituents to find ways to reduce abortions.

Yet it's impossible to overstate how difficult this kind of respectful process is. "Tortuous," says Greenwood.

As Roger Rosenblatt wrote in "Life Itself: Abortion in the American Mind": "Most people do not speak of abortion at all. ... The problem is too private, too personal, too bound up with one's faith or spiritual identity. ...

"We will march in demonstrations, shout and carry placards, vote in a national election where abortion is an issue, but we will not talk about it."

The eight or 10 members of Common Ground have drawn up a list of shared values (promoting adoption, for example) and sought to reach out to new groups. They practice the almost-lost art of listening, especially to someone with whom they disagree.

At last month's meeting, for instance, a relatively new member, Barbara Markowitz from Flourtown, Pa., startled herself by overcoming her shyness to speak her mind. "I respect everyone who believes life begins at conception, but I will never believe that," she said reluctantly. "I'm sure that this is not the most popular response, since the majority of the people here are pro-life."

No one tried to change her mind. In fact, they were glad she was there, because they have twice as many pro-life members as pro-choice. Everyone's uncomfortable with that statistic.

So recruiting new members is one goal. And surviving is another.

The national Common Ground Network disbanded as a distinct entity a year ago, merging into a larger mediation group. Ironically, the relative calm on the streets and the stalemate in public opinion have hurt Common Ground's ability to grow.

"It's not a strong part of our culture to approach issues in any other way but opposing rights," says Mary Jacksteit, the professional mediator who helped oversee the national project.

Yet this small band of optimists persists. They are scheduled to meet this month for the first time with representatives of Planned Parenthood. In the meantime, Greenwood's group successfully lobbied the state to run $1.2 million worth of television ads promoting abstinence in a way that both pro-lifers and pro-choicers approved.

The task force, he says, "is a constructive way to manage the issue that does good for the community and doesn't hurt politically, either."

Greenwood wonders why more politicians don't replicate the effort. So do I.

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