Getting past despair and indignation on abortion

In an issue like abortion, no side can claim a monopoly on conscience. Finding a deeper humanity, however, is a momentous step toward healing.

Toya Sarno Jordan/REUTERS
Anti-abortion and abortion-rights protesters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

This week the Monitor asks one of the most important questions in politics today: How could the abortion debate look different?

On the surface, the cover story is about one issue, and it is set in the United States. But really it is about much more. It is about how we view one another as human beings when we disagree fundamentally and vehemently. And that is what politics exists to manage.

Throughout history, disagreements often ended in catastrophic violence. More recently, they have ended in smaller outbreaks of violence – riots and terror attacks. Today, we are increasingly turning that violence inward through toxic partisanship and the contagious anger of social media, talk radio, and cable television. There is a slice of progress in today’s physical forbearance, yet the core problem – the poisonous effect of visceral disagreement – remains unresolved.

This is what Jessica Mendoza’s story hits head-on. How do we move forward when we so intensely disagree with someone that it weighs on our very sense of goodness and fairness?

Perhaps no single issue embodies this quandary more powerfully than abortion. Rendered at its most basic (and misleading) level, it asks: Whom do you love more, the woman or the fetus? There is no correct answer to this, and so society and politics spin in a cycle of despair and indignation. The current political dysfunction apparent across so many of the world’s democracies today is simply the expression of this dynamic in varying degrees and on various issues (immigration and LGBT rights, to name two).

What does Jess’ story tell us? It suggests that the only way out of this downward cycle is to embrace the humanity of those on the other side. Her story is part of a Monitor series on abortion in the United States, and she describes her purpose this way:

“We’re actively and simultaneously trying to not aggravate anyone and to create empathy in the discussion. So it’s about perspectives, bringing out the humanity in the people most involved. Trying to understand where people are coming from on abortion, why it’s so hard to talk about, and how it shapes our politics and lives.”

Today, when it is so easy to revert to judgment of the other side, that is no easy task, adds the Monitor’s Samantha Laine Perfas, who is producing a podcast series on the topic. She continues: “When you look at abortion coverage as a whole, you can very easily find ‘both sides’ of the issue. ... In some ways, the series is different because it’s embracing the mess and discomfort of this issue. 

“When you get beyond the noise you can begin to see the compassion and humanity that both sides bring to the table,” Samantha says.

This is no magical path to compromise or resolution. That’s because no such political path exists. In an issue as difficult as abortion, no side can claim a monopoly on conscience. Finding a deeper humanity, however, is a momentous step toward healing democracies bruised by rancor and disrespect. And that, in itself, can be transformative.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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