After listening to women, a Congressman switches sides on abortion

Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, a longtime opponent of abortion rights, says that he changed his mind after hearing the accounts of women in his state and across the US.  

Susan Walsh/AP Photo/File
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio publicly declared a position switch on abortion in an op-ed published online Jan. 27 in the Akron Beacon Journal.

On Tuesday, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (D), a longtime opponent of abortion, announced that after conversing with women in his home state and around the country, he had changed his position.

“I have sat with women from Ohio and across the nation and heard them talk about their varying experiences: abusive relationships, financial hardship, health scares, rape and incest,” Mr. Ryan wrote in an op-ed for the Akron Beacon Journal, where he explained his decision.

“These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become,” he continued. “And while there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families.”

The announcement is noteworthy because Ryan, a Catholic, stood firmly on the pro-life side of the debate for years: He has supported laws against abortion multiple times since being elected into the US House of Representatives in 2002.

But could his decision also be seen as an example of how open discussion could lead to better understanding? Without engaging in antagonistic rhetoric or finger-pointing, Ryan explained the process that led to his shift in thinking, which occurred, he said, over time.

“I have come a long way since being a single, 26-year-old state senator, and I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened and become more personal,” he wrote. “And while I have deep respect for people on both sides of this conversation, I would be abandoning my own conscience and judgment if I held a position that I no longer believed appropriate.”

Ryan also noted that while his views on abortion rights have changed, he still believes in some of the solutions he had fought for when he had been against the issue – like pushing for education and expanding access to contraception, both of which the lawmaker had supported in a 2009 essay against abortion for US News & World Report.

“Only then,” Ryan wrote, “can we hope to continue to make significant advances in what should be our true, shared objective: reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, which make up the vast majority of abortions. Isn’t that a simple approach on which we all could agree?”

Partisan animosity has reached an all-time high as Democrats and Republicans grow more divided than ever along ideological lines, according to a Pew Research Center study. The party gap has widened so much that 27 percent of Democrats view Republicans as a “threat to the nation’s well-being,” and 36 percent of Republicans think the same of the other side, the study found.

Yet there is bipartisan cooperation when it comes to “smaller items usually out of the public eye,” such as the 12 human trafficking bills passed in the House Tuesday.

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery,” James Burgh, a British Whig politician and early free-speech advocate wrote in 1754, in "The Dignity of Human Nature," a treatise that later became popular among American revolutionaries.

Absurd as it sounds to quote from such an old book, the tenet holds true today.

Criticism’s real value comes when it’s part of sincere, open dialogue – not when the critic uses it to target another person, or increase his or her own sense of self-worth, according to Tony Schwartz, journalist and founder of The Energy Project, a business that seeks to help workers from feeling depleted.

“It makes much more sense to think about offering feedback in a spirit of humble exploration rather than declaration, dialogue rather than monologue, curiosity rather than certainty,” Mr. Schwartz wrote for the Harvard Business Review. “Humility is the recognition that we don’t know, even when we think we know.”

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