Bridging the Abortion Divide One Discussion at a Time

Common Ground

They've come from near and far, from urban Washington, D.C., and suburban Virginia and rural Maryland. They are lawyers and teachers, homemakers and professional activists.

And on the issue of abortion, they disagree profoundly. Some are strongly pro-choice, the others just as strongly pro-life, labels they've agreed upon. But they're here anyway, sitting in a classroom at American University on a recent Saturday, to chew over one of the crucial questions underlying the entire abortion debate: What is the best way to reduce the number of abortions?

As the nation marks the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, dialogue groups like this one - called Common Ground of the Nation's Capital - are quietly proliferating. They meet regularly, in living rooms and function halls, and hold structured talks led by a facilitator. "Active listening" is the modus operandi. No shouting allowed.

While some longtime activists remain skeptical of such attempts at rapprochement, others believe they are injecting at least an element of civility into one of the most divisive social issues in American history - and may have contributed to a decline in violence at abortion clinics. Indeed, sometimes the groups go beyond talk, and launch projects on related areas where they do agree, such as reducing teen pregnancy and promoting adoption. But, participants agree, talk in and of itself is enormously valuable.

"I used to just get angry when I saw news reports about pro-life activities," says Jillaine Smith, a communications analyst who's been a member of Common Ground for two years. "Now I wonder how it is they came to believe what they do. I don't immediately think they're wrong."

Teri Heger, a pro-lifer who began coming a year ago, says she's learned not to be uncomfortable around people who think differently from her. "This has challenged me to clarify why I believe what I believe," she says.

Even if all these groups did was talk, the value would still go beyond the immediate participants, members say.

"They take their ideas back to their communities," says Mary Jacksteit, executive director of the Washington-based Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, the national umbrella organization, which counts about a dozen groups and about 500 participants, some more active than others.

Healthy discussion

On this day, six members have come to the Washington group's dialogue, and they have no trouble filling the two hours allotted for talk. David Sobelsohn, a pro-choice member, lays out his ideas on how to reduce abortion: Make it easier for people to work and have children. Enact more generous parental leave laws. Expand day care.

He cites the Scandinavian nations, which provide lots of assistance to parents and have low abortion rates. "Here, parents have to choose between their jobs and their children," says Mr. Sobelsohn, a lawyer and activist for pro-choice causes.

Mary Haggerty, a pro-lifer, summarizes what Sobelsohn has said - to show that she's absorbed his point - and then offers her own solution: Greater dissemination of information about fetal development.

The more people know about what's happening in a woman's body after conception, the less likely they'll be to support ending it.

"Then," says Mrs. Haggerty, a mother of several grown children, "I go back to the pregnancy itself, and the relationship that's behind it."

Maybe the real problem isn't just abortion, she says, but the fact that the woman is involved with a man she shouldn't be with in the first place - and so when she gets pregnant, she doesn't want to have his baby. "I've been a women's libber 25 years," she says, "and I think more needs to be done helping women build up their self-esteem and building better choices before they get pregnant."

"I agree with everything you've just said," says Ann Stone, a pro-choice member of this group and head of Republicans for Choice.

By the end of the session, the chalkboard sports a list of about a dozen ways group members think the number of abortions can be cut down. Of course, with a little probing, members later agree some of the solutions would be extremely difficult to carry out.

Take the point about fetal development. Pro-life people have long argued that if only women knew what what was really happening, more would keep their pregnancies.

But it's not that simple. Who would prepare the information? Pro-choicers usually accuse pro-lifers of exaggerating the size and development of fetuses just a few weeks after conception.

Perhaps the two sides could come together under the auspices of the national Common Ground office, and prepare neutral materials on fetal development, one group member suggests. Others are dubious. Apparently some facets of the abortion issue are easier to come together on than others.

Worthwhile effort?

Among the nation's best-known figures on the abortion debate, opinion is divided about the effectiveness of these dialogues. Some, like Ann Stone, participate. Others don't.

Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued the pro-choice side before the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, is one of the doubters. "If you take one person who says abortion ought to be illegal and the other person says it ought to be a woman's right, I don't know where there is common ground," she says.

Offshoot group

Ms. Stone disagrees, and is preparing to establish an offshoot of Common Ground that she hopes will help politicians and political activists get over the fierce debate within their parties over abortion.

Ms. Jacksteit of the national network says collaboration can work in many ways, some small but still meaningful.

In St. Louis, where one of the earliest dialogues began, pro-choice and pro-life participants collaborated to help a young pregnant girl from the projects who wanted to keep her baby. A pro-choice member, who ran a women's clinic, donated prenatal care; pro-life volunteers gave her rides to her appointments.

The Washington group is just now beginning to talk about expanding its activities beyond the dialogue. As in previous years, members will man an information table at the annual March for Life on Jan. 22. But they're ready to work on issues such as how women are portrayed on television.

At the very least, these common grounders have forged personal bonds that transcend the divisiveness of abortion. At the Saturday meeting, one member revealed that her daughter, who had given up a baby for adoption eight years ago, had recently met him for the first time since his birth.

The group already knows the daughter, a sometime participant in their meetings, and the news about her son was received with joy. For a few moments, formal dialogue ceased and the room became just a collection of friends, sharing in a bit of happy news.

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