Walk the Walk: Honoring Common Ground on Abortion

In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, Charles Camosy, one of the organizers of a recent conference of pro-choice and pro-life leaders, presents his view of what happened contextualized by concerns that “religious pro-life voices in the public debate are often marginalized.” He notes that “first, the arguments they make are often simplistic and refuse to engage serious responses from their opponents. Second, secularists simply rule them out of bounds because ‘religion’ has no place in the debate. Third, they often marginalize themselves with their caustic and off-putting rhetoric.” One wonders in reading the rest of the article if the author read his own critique.

The task of enabling people with dramatically different views on abortion to hear each other and develop respect for principled differences is fraught with difficulty. An early attempt by Ellie Smeal at the National Organization for Women to do just that with Feminists for Life resulted in a good day-long talk, which was then undermined when one of the participants came to the post-meeting press conference and placed on the table a jar that contained a fetus. In a milder way, and I am sure unintentionally, Charles Camosy’s post on the groundbreaking public dialogue, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words” (OHM), threatened the fragile trust and good will the OHM conference sought to foster.

As the pro-choice counterpart on the organizing committee, I’d like to offer a very different view of what did and did not happen at the conference and, using the Camosy post as an example, highlight both the care that was taken to foster respectful dialogue and the importance of continuing that care after the event if we wish to bring such nurturing engagement to fruition. I would also like to disassociate myself from the conclusions the piece draws and the language used.

Understanding an event as complex as a gathering of 400 scholars and advocates who hold the widest possible range of views on abortion, from total opposition to legality to total support, requires many voices; mine is only one, as was the author’s.

At the Princeton conference, in near equal numbers, speakers and attendees spoke kindly, with intellectual rigor and with passion. At a time when seemingly all political conversation is increasingly adversarial and escalatory, ideological and political opponents who would never rub shoulders broke bread and talked about their families, vegetarianism (all the meals were veggie), poverty, war, and abortion. These rare cross-conflict conversations and debates were made possibly by participants’ willingness to extend themselves to one another, to put aside their normal desire to convince and “win,” and by a set of guidelines written by the organizers that enabled peacefulness while diminishing distrust.

For the guidelines and process, the organizers went beyond the usual conference planning to experts in dialogue for advice, most importantly the Public Conversations Project which has facilitated hundreds of such dialogues between people on all sides of hot issues in religion and political life. The guidelines the PCP helped craft created the boundaries necessary to prevent passions and the baggage of years of mutual distrust and suspicion from damaging our conversations.

One of the most crucial of these boundaries was: “When speaking, speak for yourself. Avoid sweeping generalizations.” Given the diversity of the views present in the room, any claim about what a significant segment of the people in the room believes is not possible. We would not, in other words, either speak for others or characterize the views of others in general terms, since we are then claiming the ability to speak for them. The speak for yourself rule is critical in dialogues where deeply entrenched views have historically made it difficult to hear and understand the other.

It would have been closer to the spirit of the conference had Camosy’s post been clearer about his pro-life views and avoided assertions regarding the shared values and policy positions of participants—particularly those who are pro-choice. By presenting lists and claiming that “many (though not all)” share these views, Camosy implicitly marginalizes those who don’t—which is exactly why we ask people to only speak for themselves. That marginalization fosters the very polarization the conference sought to avoid. The “many” of the article are the righteous and those who dissent from the claimed shared views become a new “other.”

Furthermore, the values and positions presented were far from points of consensus, which explicitly excluded coming to conclusions. It would be highly problematic to draw conclusions about what a substantial segment of attendees believed, as most of them never said a word. Among the forty speakers themselves, opinions were very diverse. (For a far more balanced report of what speakers presented go here; and for a feminist critique, here.) Camosy’s conclusions seem to be reproductions of the pro-life positions he arrived with. This is not an uncommon outcome to dialogue and demonstrates how difficult it is for even those of goodwill to hear others fully.

Many pro-choice attendees, for example, do not characterize abortion as either violence against women or violence against the fetus; thus, we are placed outside the circle of dialogue by Camosy’s assertion. By writing about shared values using this language, Camosy forces the frames of those opposed to abortion onto everyone, allowing no opportunity for those who disagree with his characterization to challenge it.

We were also asked to avoid dismissive or attacking language that polarizes since, in a conflict like this, escalatory words erode trust very quickly. Despite being one of the words he was asked to avoid, Camosy used the word abortionist in his post, along with a similarly polarizing phrase “the systematic killing of unborn children.”

Further inflammatory language can be found in the description of shared values and policy positions, including a shared default position opposing violence against the fetus when “she can feel pain.” The fact that there was a panel on the topic of fetal pain indicates a shared concern among the organizers to consider the topic; the focus however was on when and whether the fetus feels “pain,” not on “violence.” No conclusion was reached by the panel.

Reporting on the difference of scientific opinion rather than using hotly contested and polarizing terminology—which was avoided during the conference by virtually all—would have been more inclusive and kept all inside the circle of dialogue. As organizers we spent a long time developing descriptions of panels that would not offend either pro-choice or pro-life people. Yet by using contested terms throughout his post, Camosy not only fails to live up to the spirit of the conference but undermines the progress made by so many people from both sides who worked very hard to live up to it.

Those of us who wish to play the role of conveners—as Camosy and I did here—have a unique responsibility to walk our talk. More than the conference speakers. More than the participants in the audience. It is we, after all, who extended promises of trust-building guidelines and a spirit of inclusion to cautious voices on all sides, asking them to take the risks necessary to talk and to listen. When we don’t live up to that same spirit, all we manage to do is affirm every cynical instinct, every pessimistic expectation that is so pervasive in the politics of abortion and that keeps us from achieving anything together. And our responsibility to uphold these ideals doesn’t end when the conference is over.

There is no doubt that we, like others with a stake in the debate, will fall short of our own expectations and rules from time to time—and that we will interpret those rules differently. What I do hope is that when we have differences we can publicly and civilly disagree. My need to disassociate myself from Camosy’s article is not personal. I applaud his commitment to the conference; it was after all his idea. We share a desire that those who attended can build relationships of trust and make progress in much smaller and more private forums.

There is indeed so much work left to be done, and the stakes are high. If we are to continue in conversation and bring constructive, forward-thinking approaches to what has long been a difficult issue, it will require dogged determination, the courage to be vulnerable in front of those whom we passionately disagree with, and above all else, consistency. It was clear to me from the hundreds of people who spent two days at Princeton that there is a constituency of people cautiously eager to take such approaches. If we want them to ever come back, if we want them to keep listening to those of us who support dialogue or common ground, we must take every effort we can to live the guidelines we are asking others to hold.


I hope I have succeeded in this piece in honoring the guidelines and fostering trust and continuing the dialogue we began at Princeton. As part of that commitment, I consulted a number of pro-choice colleagues who attended the conference, and while I am solely responsible for it, I want to thank them and at their request, acknowledge their support for the ideas expressed—the organizations are mentioned only for identification purposes:

Kelly Blanchard, Ibis Reproductive Health

Donna Crane, NARAL

Rebecca Cook, University of Toronto

Kellie Conlin, National Institute for Reproductive Health

Bernard Dickens, University of Toronto

Dawn Johnsen, Indiana University

Ruth Macklin, Yeshiva University

Kirsten Moore, Reproductive Health Technologies Project

Kim Mutcherson, Rutgers University

Lynn Paltrow, National Advocates for Pregnant Women

Eyal Rabinovitch, Baruch College

Dorothy Roberts, Northwestern University

James Trussell, Princeton University

Miriam Yeung, National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum 

Laurie Zoloth, Northwestern University