Last year, Princeton University hosted a conference called “Open Hearts, Open Minds;” the conference aimed to bring Pro-life and Pro-choice advocates together to find new ways to think and speak with each other about abortion.
One Pro-choice participant, Hillary Hammell, wrote a retrospective this week about the conference and its wake. Being pro-life, I disagree with her ultimate position; however, she correctly describes the background of this culture war. And while I am not Roman Catholic, I really appreciate her suggested strategy for future discourse; her analysis can be expanded into Protestantism as well. She discusses in this retrospective some of the lessons she learned. Did they square the circle? No, but they certainly demonstrated the importance of being slow to anger, slow to speak and quick to listen.
Last year’s Princeton conference sought to do the almost-impossible: to bring together people with opposing views on abortion in an attempt to find common ground. I am a feminist abortion-rights supporter, but unlike some more skeptical members of the reproductive justice movement, I think the conference was important and that its goals are urgently worth pursuing.
But I also think its approach was flawed, and that some of the “common ground” ideas proffered, after the conference, by Catholic Ethics professor Charlie Camosy and by Slate’s William Saletan, were not the most important or exciting types of “common ground” (for reasons I will explain in more detail in a later post), and may not really be ‘common ground’ at all. That dissatisfaction caused me to contact Camosy, one of the pro-life organizers of the conference, in December of last year. I told him that I so appreciated that young pro-life Catholics such as he were even interested in talking to young abortion-rights activists like me in the first place. Such a thing is itself radical. I told him about my criticisms of his proposed ‘common ground’ ideas, and also told him that his argument against abortion, delivered at the conference, did not make sense to me – but that I could tell it made sense to him. What this disconnect revealed, in my mind, was that pro-choicers and pro-lifers have a lot more work to do in explaining our worldviews to each other before we can begin to argue coherently. I suspected as well that if we got to know each other better, we would do a better job at discovering the real common ground, which may not be what we think it is.
When we talk about abortion – and by “we” I mean anyone, but especially people who think about abortion a lot – namely activists on either “side” — we are talking about a lot more than abortion, without saying so. We’re talking about pregnancy, sex, inequality, gender, consent, metaphysics, human rights, theories of justice, theories of the state (probably also about theology and ontology – the question of ‘where do people come from?’). For example, when I talk about abortion, I’m really talking about a theory of gender equality, and I assume that people from my movement understand that. People from outside the movement may not understand the extent to which my views on abortion arise out of a theory of gender justice, rather than out of a neoliberal fetishizing of ‘choice.’ Similarly, when people with a more ‘pro-life’ view talk about abortion, they are often relying on a theory about consent to sexual behavior about which unfamiliar listeners may not be aware.
Our background assumptions need to become explicit if we’re ever going to be able to work together, because working together requires that we first understand each other.
Charlie and I imagined that in this five-day exchange we would reveal our discoveries as to what “common ground” really is between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, since we’ve been discussing that subject for the past nine months. I agree with him – common ground exists, and we can identify at least some of it. But I also want to argue that we still don’t know what most of our common ground really is. We still have to do a better, more honest, and more comprehensive job of explaining our own views and philosophies to each other. Only once those landscapes are known can we successfully find common ground and avoid caricaturizing the other side, imputing bad faith to it, or making incorrect guesses as to what we think common ground might be. I think that at the Princeton conference the organizers were guilty of the third mistake: making incorrect guesses as to what they thought common ground might be. (For example, ‘concern for fetal pain’ is not, to my mind, the most transformative kind of common ground with abortion-rights proponents, as I will explain in a later post). Meanwhile, many of the attendees (myself included) were guilty of the first and second mistakes: caricaturizing and imputing bad faith to the other side. Finding common ground in this context will feel like finding a needle in a minefield. But I believe that in spite of the toughness of the task, it is really, really worth doing.
That proposition itself probably requires a defense, at least for my pro-choice and reproductive justice-oriented readers. Why should feminists take pro-lifers seriously (and in an interested and compassionate way, not “seriously” as in “enemy”)? How can I square that with my revulsion at abortion-clinic protesters and at paternalist laws like Texas’s and Kansas’s? For two reasons. One is just Machiavellian: the anti-abortion movement is not going away any time soon. We can continue to try to beat back abortion-restrictive laws like Whack-a-mole, but pro-life people are fiercely serious and well-organized; anti-abortion laws seem to be gaining ground. For that reason alone, we should try to get to know these activists. We should find as many agreements as we can and collaborate on those, while seeking to defuse as many disagreements and misunderstandings as possible. I call that a cynical view – but one that may be enough for many who are unconvinced by my second reason: the teleological one. Feminists and pro-lifers (at least the Catholic pro-lifers) are philosophical kin in ways that we should discover and celebrate. I mean it! At the most abstract level, both of us have a vision of the Good. But at a more specific level, both of these movements are suspicious of hyper-capitalism; are focused on social injustice and inequality; and think a lot about family structures and the relationship of private life to public life. Pro-life Catholics share many policy preferences with the Reproductive Justice movement – universal health care; prenatal care; day care; parental leave. And these values come from normative principles, not utilitarian calculus. Further, as I hope Charlie will explain in more detail, Catholic lionization of “the family” does not, contrary to my pre-Princeton stereotype, serve as a code word for outmoded gender norms and strict gender roles. Building “traditional families” that don’t have to ascribe to “traditional” gender norms is one project of the contemporary feminist movement as well as the LGBT movement – pro-life Catholics are our spiritual allies here; they should be our political allies too. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do – positing a “common ground” idea before making sure that I understand exactly what it is that “pro-life” thought is all about; and before making sure I understand what I mean when I say I’m pro-choice; what it means when I say “reproductive justice.” . . .
 For my pro-choice and reproductive-justice readers, I want to defend my use of the term “pro-life” to describe people like Charlie. I used to say “anti-choice” to describe this movement. But at the Princeton conference I got to know many young Catholics who identify as “pro-life” and who are thinking seriously about how they can achieve a “consistent ethic of life” – a world that, among others, would include universal health care. Charlie is this kind of “pro-lifer.” He has criticized the conservative, neoliberal right for using the moniker “pro-life” while eviscerating social programs, for example.
I suggested the necessity for working-out this vein in my blog post about the future of Democrats in Alabama.
On many of the hot-button issues, without compromising our individual principles, we need to demonstrate a vigorous fellowship (or in old times, civic republicanism). Engaging these deeply personal issues in a civil dialogue on the merits of arguments without engaging in mortal combat will prove quite attractive to the electorate. It will go a long way towards eliminating the untrue perceptions which have been advertised so well by Republicans. Being a Democrat does not require unanimity nor uniformity nor union but neighborly-cooperation in our mission. An internal unity of togetherness can become a positive credibility factor in our campaigns and outreach.