Insight: Amidst all the shouting, a civil conversation about abortion

On the morning of December 30, 1994, John Salvi entered the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, and opened fire with a rifle. He seriously injured three people and killed the receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she was talking on the phone. He then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street to Preterm Health Services, where he started shooting again, injuring two people and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, then-Cardinal Bernard Law and the then Governor. William Weld has called for a de-escalation of the violent rhetoric employed by both sides in abortion debates. This call represented an opportunity for visionary and philanthropist Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Massachusetts. The initiative had conducted facilitated dialogues on difficult topics, especially abortion, and they decided to raise the bar.

They interviewed dozens of leaders on both sides of the abortion chasm and selected six to participate in a dialogue. They were the president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the president of Massachusetts Feminists for Life, the director of the pro-life office of the Archdiocese of Boston, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, the executive director of NARAL ProChoice Massachusetts and I, an Episcopal priest with a parish in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

I had been involved in pro-choice activities and dialogues within and beyond The Episcopal Church for a few years. I had become, by default, the point person in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on abortion. Most priests of the time felt that this was too delicate a matter to discuss in public. And most pro-choice activists distrusted religious professionals.

I was therefore in a difficult position to occupy, but I felt called to be an integral part of my ministry. Shortly after my ordination in 1985, I was asked to speak at a national conference of abortion providers on the topic of “Abortion as a Moral Choice.” I was skeptical of how many people would attend such a panel on a beautiful spring day in Boston.

But the room was full. The people there, those who worked in the trenches of reproductive health care, were deeply grateful to learn that their work was not of the devil. I believe they felt not only validated but also forgiven. And that day, I was convinced that I had to speak out as a priest advocating for abortion as a moral choice and for women as the moral agents best able to make decisions about our reproductive decisions.

The six of us selected for the leadership project agreed to meet four times. We dated for 18 years. And now, nearly 30 years after we first met, we’re coming together again to star in a documentary about the abortion divide, set to air this summer.

We never looked for common ground or compromise. Our goals were to be able to communicate openly with our adversaries, build relationships of mutual respect, help defuse the rhetoric of the abortion controversy, and reduce the risk of further shootings. We have achieved all these objectives and many more undreamed of during these difficult first meetings. One of the biggest was co-writing an article about our experience, which the Boston Globe published in 2001.

None of this could have been accomplished without good faith, deep commitment and excellent facilitation.

We started in secret, all sworn to complete confidentiality. The other five women all feared losing the trust of their boards and constituents if it became known that they were participating in a project “across enemy lines”. As for me, I felt that I had nothing to lose, but I kept confidentiality with others, at least for a time.

HUMANITY ON BOTH SIDES

I can say so many things about these years of dialogue. This business was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and one of the best. It took infinite patience, never one of my strongest assets. It required huge commitments of time and energy, patience, courtesy and strict adherence to our ground rules.

The first effect of our coming together was that we became human for each other. Some of us knew oF each other on the other side of the divide, but had not met on the other side of it. I think it was more difficult and scary for pro-lifers; they came into the room thinking we were baby killers. We probably thought they were stupid. Both sides had to revise our opinions, and that was humbling.

At first, we were all asked what we thought we had to give up to participate in the dialogue. I said I thought we should give up on being right.

You mean, be fair, said one of the pro-life women.

Nope, I said, I mean be right. I think each of us has a part of the truth but none of us have it all..

We had many discussions about respect. Could we respect our adversaries if we did not respect their positions? We said we respect anti-abortion positions. They did not respect ours. For me, at least, it was a dead end. Quite late in the process, I asked the anti-abortionists if they thought that I, a priest, was a moral person. They couldn’t or wouldn’t answer that. So I don’t really feel respected.

But curiously, I feel honored by all the participants. I believe one of the great gifts we discovered was the ability to honor one another. We all deeply appreciate each other as women. We watched over each other beyond the walls of our dialogue. When one of us was harassed by a rabid pro-lifer, our dialogue friends alerted her and the FBI. We attended the funerals of each other’s husbands and brothers, sent condolence cards and had masses said when parents and other loved ones died. Former “public enemies” have become good private acquaintances, if not exactly friends.

THE GIFT OF LAUGHTER

Another gift that strengthened our bonds was the gift of laughter. As we talked in sessions, ate together, and caught up on our personal lives, witty commentary and hilarity abounded. To our surprise, we realized that we felt relaxed together, comfortable enough to crack jokes and happy with the little community we had created.

The pro-lifers talked a lot about love. They all loved children. They loved everyone. This love has always seemed to me abstract, almost cheap. But between the six of us, we have achieved, I believe, benevolence, the love that gives itself.

The experience transformed me. It has transformed us all. None of us changed our beliefs except to deepen them. Having to explain and defend our beliefs was a fairly new experience for most of us; as we see more and more in this country, we tend to associate with like-minded people who intuitively understand and share our commitments. Having to explain and defend our beliefs sharpened our understanding of them and deepened our allegiance to them.

The ability to spend long periods of time discussing with people with whom you strongly disagree, on the very issue on which you disagree, is an unusual privilege, I would even say a luxury. . I can only hope that as a society we will find more and more ways to give this gift to others.


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