Adversaries in Abortion Struggle Can Find Common Ground

THE recent murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Fla., provides a vivid warning of how fragile are the bonds of humanity when a conflict becomes bitter and polarized.

Yet, while bitterness and polarization characterize the abortion debate, that is not the whole picture. Around the country, something compellingly different is developing: A movement is forming in which pro-choice and anti-abortion supporters discover that they share common ground and are able to cooperate to accomplish mutual goals. People involved in this "common ground" movement are, in effect, channeling their energies in positive directions that build, rather than tear apart, their communities.

Those in the common ground movement do not suggest that either anti-abortion or pro-choice individuals should change their fundamental positions. That simply will not happen. The common grounders agree to disagree over the core issue of abortion, and they focus their attention on issues on which pro-choice and anti-abortion supporters agree. Tragic violence occurs when the humanity of those on the other side is stripped away, and they become the "enemy."

Common ground groups in such places as Buffalo, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Boston are trying to rehumanize "enemy" names and faces. Some, such as the Public Conversations Project in Boston and Common Ground in San Francisco, specialize in mediated dialogues between anti-abortion and pro-choice supporters.

Such speaking and listening sessions provide participants with an opportunity to learn about the life experiences that caused people on the other side to reach their positions. Participants regularly discover that both sides are made up of thoughtful human beings who usually have gone through painful, personal experiences in formulating their views.

Community-wide dialogue is the aim of the Buffalo Coalition for Common Ground. The Coalition was formed to defuse the polarization that occurred last spring when Operation Rescue came to Buffalo. The Coalition is equally divided between the pro-choice and anti-abortion positions. It has sponsored a workshop for activists on both sides of the issue, served as the host city for a meeting of common grounders from around the country, and is working with a Buffalo television station to produce a program calle d "What's the Common Ground on Abortion?"

In 1989, Search for Common Ground produced a television program of the same name for a national public television audience. Featured were Dr. John Willke, then president of the National Right to Life Committee, and Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League. After these two advocates fiercely disagreed on the core issue, they were asked a question that almost never gets asked: Given your massive disagreement, are there areas on which you still might agree?

MANY were found, including reduction of the number of abortions, discouraging unwanted pregnancies, promoting adoption, and lowering infant mortality rates. Participants also agreed that many people in their respective camps could work together in supporting birth control. And, perhaps most significantly in the aftermath of the Pensacola shooting, both Ms. Michelman and Mr. Willke agreed that they absolutely reject the use of violence.

While none of this provides an antidote or an answer to what happened in Pensacola, it demonstrates that anti-abortion and pro-choice partisans can collaborate as members of a larger community for which they share joint responsibility.

The country as a whole would be better off if the national debate could be expanded to include the "common ground" approach.

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