In our time, we are sorting out an apparent collision involving the right to life and the call to freedom. The values expressed by the two sides in this struggle are not subject to compromise in any simple way. What is possible, today and always, is a search for common ground, and a civil recognition of the immense human dignity of our opponents.
Chapter 6: Common Ground and Civility
six brief insights
Choice is not the enemy 103
One small common ground effort 105
Simple civility matters 107
Against eugenic abortion 109
Common ground: study eugenics 111
Common Ground: Help Pregnant Refugees 113
I try to listen to the Lord, but sometimes I am thick-headed. It seems to me that the Lord has to say things at least three times before I notice. And so, decades ago, it took three incidents within a few weeks to pry open my reluctant eyes, to see that pro-lifers can and should be ready to cooperate with pro-choicers sometimes.
First incident. A neighbor came to see me, to talk about his teenage daughter’s pregnancy. She was still in high school, and neither he nor his wife thought she was ready to be a mother. They were planning to make sure she did the only intelligent thing, as they understood it, s soon as possible. But she didn’t want an abortion. And she had asked her dad to go see me to talk about it. I didn’t bother making a pro-life argument. I argued that if they weren’t pro-life, they should at least be pro-choice.
I don’t mean to be dishonest. If the daughter had wanted an abortion, I would not have made that argument. But it was an easier argument to make, and it worked out. The child was born, and today all three generations in that family are pleased about their decision.
Second incident. I was outside the Hillcrest abortion clinic in SE Washington, talking to women and couples approaching the place. There were a dozen or so pro-choice folks outside, blocking my way so I couldn’t converse (or interfere or harass, depending on your point of view). A car pulled into the lot, and a man got out of the driver’s seat. He went around to the passenger side, and talked a bit, then shouted a bit, and then wrenched the door open, grabbed the woman sitting there, and pulled her out. She screamed and cried, but he dragged her toward the door. I tried to speak up a bit, although I can’t remember what I said. The pro-choice group blocked my way. If either the man or the woman tussling their way to the door noticed anything from the sidewalk, they probably heard just noise. The man won: he dragged her inside. I don’t know anything more about their story; as far as I know they were there for a few hours, long enough to complete her planned procedure. But when that door shut and they were inside, I lost it, and shouted for a few minutes, denouncing the people who blocked me. Skipping the profanity, I called them hypocrites. How could they dare to call themselves “pro-choice,” when they watched a man drag a woman inside – physically, no metaphor here – and they had nothing to say about it. They took the man’s side against the woman’s choice. Empty dishonest bastards!
Third incident. There was a debate in Congress, about American support for family planning programs overseas. Part of the debate was about coercive abortion: would America support forced abortion? Congress was moving toward funding international family planning, but not coercive programs. In that context, there was a debate about the definition of “coercive.” If the Chinese program pushes women toward abortion – without physical coercion, using only financial and social pressure, reducing her wages or befits and ostracizing her – is that “coercive”? Pro-lifers wanted a broad definition. But the person who led the fight on the floor of the House to ensure that coercion was defined broadly was a pro-choice Congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi. She fought against American funding of coercive abortion, and she prevailed.
Three times in a few weeks, the strongest pro-life argument was a pro-choice argument. So I can’t demonize pro-choicers; they aren’t the enemy. The real struggle is more complicated than that.
The search for common ground is partly a history of frauds. We got our common ground, and they got theirs. Nonetheless, I’m committed to the search. There are frauds, but there are also valuable insights. And even without conceptual breakthroughs, civility is immensely valuable, always.
The pro-choice proffer of common ground often includes sex education, contraception, and concern about teen pregnancy. I don’t think this goes very far. Planned Parenthood considers sexual activity outside marriage to be normal, considers pregnancy a common hazard, and considers birth a disaster sometimes. But Catholics consider sexual activity outside marriage a common hazard, considers pregnancy a blessing, and birth a cause for joy. There’s not a lot of common ground there.
The pro-life proffer has sometimes included pregnancy aid, opposition to pornography, and opposition to infanticide. But the devil is in the details: will pregnancy aid include ultrasound? Can you define pornography? Infanticide: this is a transparent slippery slope argument.
A search for common ground is a fraud if it unites one side and divides the other. I am not certain my example passes that test: I think that opposing forced abortion unites people who identify themselves as pro-life, and sometimes divides people who identify themselves as pro-choice. That is, it seems to me that the pro-choice side includes some people who support coercive abortion, and it’s worthwhile separating these population control advocates from pro-choice feminists. So this may flunk my fraud test for common ground.
Still, here’s the story. The two sides have sometimes cooperated in opposition to forced abortion.
I asked a pro-choice friend if she would picket the Chinese embassy with me, because the Chinese family planning policy at that time permitted one child only per family. That policy was anti-life and also anti-choice, so perhaps we could picket together. She agreed, with several stipulations: this was a one-time event, not the beginning of something; and we would be brief; and we wouldn’t advertise; and this was a personal event, not a political act. I agreed, and we picketed.
At that time, the Chinese embassy was on a busy road, Connecticut Avenue at Kalorama Circle, just south of the bridge over Rock Creek. Cars came across the bridge, then turned left a little, making it easy to read our signs on the ride side of the road. My sign said, “Pro-lifers oppose forced abortion in China,” and hers said, “Pro-choicers oppose forced abortion in China.”
Some people coming around the curve saw me and started to give me the finger – then saw her, and froze, or brushed away flies, or picked their noses absent-mindedly. Others saw her and started to shake their fists – then saw me and froze, scratched their ears, or patted their bald heads. People eating sandwiches stopped chewing and stared. Eyes popped, mouths dropped. No one went by without registering shock. Cognitive dissonance run amok!
She had said this was to be a personal event, not political – just to see how it felt. It felt good.
Let me offer two quick incidents.
In 1984 (approx), three pro-lifers entered the procedure room of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Silver Spring, and made ourselves comfortable. As long as we were there, no one would die.
We considered our action to be a nonviolent intervention, protecting unborn children from death and protecting women from exploitation. The staff at the facility considered our action to be an invasion – of their patients’ privacy, and also of Planned Parenthood’s private property.
The person in charge there, an assistant administrator named Debbie Y-- , ordered us to leave, and argued with us a bit. When it became clear that we weren’t going to leave voluntarily, she called the cops. And their view was simple: intervention or invasion, it was illegal. They arrested us.
After we were arrested and handcuffed, we lay on the floor awhile waiting for transportation. Debbie saw me, handcuffed and a little uncomfortable, and got me a pillow. I was okay; I didn’t need a pillow. And what was at stake was far more significant than some healthy guy’s complete comfort. Still, what she did was kind – and it was kindness to an opponent. We were “enemies,” I guess; but I admired her civility, and I still treasure the memory. That was 35 years ago, but I still think of her often – not every day, but every month – and I pray that I will be like her, in some ways.
In a common ground initiative, I got to know a thoughtful woman who ran an abortion clinic. When we trusted each other enough to ask questions, I asked her how she could do such destructive work. She said she had been abused by her husband. No, no, I said, please don’t change the topic. Explain why you do this. She said her husband had abused her. I asked and she answered like that over and over, maybe a dozen times, and then I very slowly figured out that she wasn’t changing the topic. She was answering my question precisely. I didn’t recognize the answer because I was ignorant. She was patient with me, and I got it eventually, because (1) I trusted her and (2) she was patient.
I would add a few words to make her answer clearer, something like: “I swore I would always help women who felt trapped by abusive men – always, no matter what.” But those are my words, not hers. I disagree with her; loyalty has limits. But I think I understand her at least dimly, and I admire her.
What drives her, if I understand it, isn’t logical, but it is (1) completely understandable and (2) common. People who are interested in reality will adjust to it. And that means, in part, grasping the fact that abusing women kills children. So, pro-life friends: when you see someone abusing a woman, see also a dead baby, and respond accordingly.
She transformed the way I understand pro-life work. Yogi Berra, mangled: you hear a lot of things by listening.
Can pro-lifers and pro-choicers agree on one small step to eliminate or minimize eugenic abortions due to a powerful medication?
There are about five thousand Accutane abortions annually. That’s a soft figure, an extrapolation from studies in Canada a decade ago. And the name “Accutane” is not in use any more; that’s the original brand name for isotretinoin, no longer made by the original manufacturer but still available as a generic drug. It’s the treatment of last resort for acne, and it’s powerful. But it causes birth defects, often enough that the FDA requires physicians who prescribe it to make sure their female patients are using birth control. When something goes wrong, about 90% of the women who find themselves pregnant while taking Accutane choose abortion.
Acne isn’t a joke: it scars your face, and it scars your psyche. And Accutane works well. But what about these associated abortions?
If nothing else comes from it, Accutane abortions should at least lead to a respectful discussion between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Today, most pro-life leaders are tied tightly to the Republican party, which generally opposes government regulation. Most people who identify themselves as pro-choice are more supportive of government regulation. So what will the two sides say about strengthening FDA, so that it can ban Accutane, or at least regulate it more effectively?
There are about five thousand eugenic abortions annually that could be prevented by taking a drug off the market. Will pro-lifers talk about it among themselves, and decide to focus their attention and the attention of the nation on this? Or will they promptly defend the free market, and oppose governmental interference?
(The question has curves. The national leader most likely to strengthen the FDA is a conservative Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley from Iowa. When he was chair of the Senate committee overseeing the FDA, he took on the drug companies over and over, with determination. He’s a conservative, but not anti-regulation when lives are at stake. And in his struggles to strengthen the FDA in years past, his opponent, often, was Sen. Ted Kennedy. Unexpected curves.)
Suppose most people agree that Accutane has benefits that we simply won’t vote to ban, that we just won’t discard until we find something that treats acne as effectively. But can pro-lifers and pro-choicers work together on an educational campaign focusing on sexually active women upset about acne? Just say no – to Accutane?
Regardless of the state of the law for the time being, can’t pro-lifers and pro-choicers work together to get at a horror lurking in the background of the Accutane fight? What is this obsession with producing perfect babies? Why in the name of all that is gentle is there such a strong consensus – like 90 percent! – that children with congenital abnormalities should be discarded, if they are found “in time” – that is, before birth? Can we work together to disrupt this horrifying but near universal demonic fixation?
Can we, together, reject violence perpetrated for eugenic purposes?
I support a search for common ground. Not long ago, many Americans spent the Fourth of July with picnics and food and alcohol and fireworks – but also with speeches or shows recalling the fights and attitudes that Americans share. Together, we embrace the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. Imperfectly but sincerely, we proclaim – together – that some truths are obvious, including that all people are created equal, and that we all have some rights that are ours simply because we are human. Together, we admire the courage and determination of Washington at Valley Forge and the other heroes who made these words come alive with enough vigor that they became the foundation of a nation. We share these ideas and ideals.
We squabble about the American project. Were the Founding Fathers all hypocrites? Does religious liberty embrace Muslims? Does the Bill of Rights give each of us permission to join an unlimited arms race with our neighbors?
The Civil War was about a compromise in our assertion of ideals. While we held slaves, we stated that all men are created equal. So we had to decide, sooner or later, whether we abandon the ideal and keep our slaves, or hold tight to the ideal and free our slaves. As a nation, we fought a war to settle that question, and the side that held to the ideal of equality prevailed. When we said that we held it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, we meant it, despite our grave shortcomings.
Today in America, we are split again, with growing bitterness, over two versions of this ideal. Like any bitter fight, this one has a list of grievances described differently depending on where you stand. But I focus on two: it seems to me that both sides find ways to limit our joint declaration of rights. One side asserts that rights are given by the state, not by God, and that our nation does not have to recognize the rights of non-Americans. MAGA! We will make America great, not humanity; there is no “right” to immigrate. The other side asserts that human rights are held by all humans, regardless of national borders – but what’s a human? Embryos aren’t people. We have to make a decision, as a society, when we will recognize this growing entity as a member of our society, maybe at birth or maybe whenever the pregnant woman decides she’s a mother; but for sure, assert most leaders of the Democratic Party, things that are the size of a mosquito brain, that look like mulberries, aren’t human.
To me, it seems strange beyond telling that when you know someone’s position on immigration, you can predict their view on abortion – not always, but often. The partisan split today is about many things, but there’s a fiery core – about different views regarding the rights in our shared Declaration.
I think it would be worthwhile to launch a national exploration of eugenics, the ideology that gave birth to abortion on one side, and race-based immigration restrictions on the other.
I note with interest that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is solidly pro-choice, makes extensive use of research done on the American Eugenics Society (renamed the Society for the Study of Social Biology, and now called the Society for Biodemography and Social Biology) – research by a deeply committed pro-lifer.
I can’t help coming back to this simple hope, that Americans can agree to help pregnant refugees and nursing mothers.
There’s a temptation, among Republicans, to see a pregnant refugee as a plain old refugee, someone else’s problem, one of millions. The next step, if you help that woman, is her smelly boyfriend, and then her whole extended family – her village, actually.
There’s a temptation, among Democrats, to see pregnancy aid as a fraud, an anti-abortion ploy, an emotion-laden camel’s nose under the tent with the whole rightwing world backed up behind it. The next step, if you tolerate that nose, is camel-spit, and then a minute later the big tent becomes a circus. I understand the fears.
So see the problems, then: you can’t help but see them. But see also the person! Face the problems with her, and solve them with her, one by one, as well as you can! Here’s a pregnant young woman. She’s homeless and running, but she can’t be hopeless or helpless if we meet her eye to eye and then act like the human beings we want to be.
At the border, a pregnant woman should be given priority, and provided with food, water, clothing, shelter, telephone, medical care, and advocacy. Can we do that?
In refugee camps, the United States should cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide expanded care for pregnant women, including medical care and advocacy. Can we do that?
Pro-choice advocates may want to argue that if want to help pregnant women, we need to provide abortion as well as pregnancy- and birth-related support. Two responses. First, carrying a child to birth is more expensive and complicated than abortion; one can argue that it is balanced and reasonable – and abortion-neutral – to provide aid for the more expensive choice. Second, adding abortion to a pregnancy aid program would promptly undercut broad support for it.
Immigration advocates might want to argue that the best way to help refugees is simply to provide what they are asking for, what they have a right to: asylum. I won’t argue against that, except to say that when we can’t take a full step, it may help to take a half step.
It seems to me that good people on both sides of the national divide want to help pregnant refugees. Perhaps we can’t help them, because we can’t cooperate across the divide. But it seems to me that this shameful obstacle is among the best reasons for trying: we need to re-establish a habit of cooperating when we can. In a large and complex nation, we want people cooperating with opponents to get something good done. Working together on a good project can help people to see each other in a good light. Cooperation on a limited project will not solve the abortion battles, nor the immigration crisis. But it will help us to stop demonizing each other.
We are divided, but cooperation is still possible. I’m not arguing; don’t prove me wrong. I’m inviting: prove me right.
Blessed is she who comes in the name of the Lord.