The abortion conflict poses a monumental challenge to advocates of consensus building processes. Even experienced conflict resolvers shrug their shoulders when the topic is raised, arguing that issues like abortion do not lend themselves to consensus building. After all, abortion is not a conflict in which proponents on either side are likely to change their views. The individuals involved are acting from deeply-held beliefs, values, conscience, and the sense that their views are, in fact, constitutionally protected rights. Clearly, a consensus process that aimed to "resolve" the abortion issue would be doomed to fail.
But a growing number of citizens believe that consensus building techniques can help pro-choice and pro-life advocates find some common ground - and they are proving it. In cities around the United States and Canada, independent dialogue groups have been working to forge consensus on issues related to abortion - if not on the abortion issue itself - and they have made some remarkable progress. Their story is one of courage, innovation, and continuing evolution.
Defying the naysayers
Many of these dialogues have been convened by the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, a project of the Washington DC-based nonprofit Search for Common Ground. The Network for Life and Choice articulated a philosophy and designed a process framework for dialogue among pro-life and pro-choice supporters. Initially responding to abortion-related incidents in Buffalo in 1992, the Network has since worked in at least 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada, convening one-day dialogue workshops and, in a number of cases, supporting ongoing consensus-building processes.
Just this May, the Network sponsored a national conference on abortion dialogue - the second of its kind - in Syracuse, NY.
The originators of the Network, Mary Jacksteit and Adrianne Kaufmann, drew on their experience as a labor arbitrator/attorney and a Benedictine nun/educator respectively to design a dialogue process focused on the common ground of relationship, the shared need to build trust and community, and a desire for fresh ideas about a divisive issue. Initially setting aside the question of whether common ground can be found on the issue of abortion itself, they convened processes in which a completely different exchange took place.
"Common ground dialogues," as they are called, seek first to harness the passions and energy of people involved in the abortion conflict to prevent further intergroup polarization and abortion-related violence, and to search for areas where joint action is possible. The dialogues are not designed to change the views of participants about the issue of abortion, not do they seek new "objective" information that can help participants reach a compromise. rather, trust is built through sharing stories and examining perceptions held by each side of the other. From this base, relationships are built, leading to mutual action and dialogue about the abortion issue itself.
In the one-day dialogue workshops, participants work in large and small facilitated groups. They exchange personal stories of how they came to hold their views on abortion, identify their heroines and heroes, and fill out a survey about their views and the views they imagine are held by those on the other side about abortion, sexuality, procreation, and birth control.
When the results of the survey are tabulated and presented to the groups, participants see a graphic representation of how close the actual views of both sides are, contrasted with the extreme views each attributed to the other.
The ongoing dialogue groups that have been established have addressed a range of issues, including the state and welfare of women and children, the feminization of poverty, adoption options, reduction of unwanted pregnancies, community safety and harmony, and more. Initiatives have included jointly authored papers and a jointly developed set of principles for sexuality education presented to a state legislature. In several cities, pro-life and pro-choice supporters have made joint public appearances to reduce tensions and potential violence in their communities and to show the public that pro-choice and pro-life people can work together.
Most importantly, members of these ongoing groups have built caring relationships with each other. Leaders on both sides have come to hold their former adversaries in high regard. While this has not meant giving up their views, it has meant an end to personal attacks, and to attaching the "enemy" label to those on the other side. Public and private talk about the abortion issue has become incrementally more humanized and less destructive.
Starting an abortion dialogue
Dialogue groups have begun in diverse ways, often led by grassroots activists, leaders of both sides, clergy, or other community members. Group initiators seek to bring others together in response to actual or feared community violence, to lessen the degree of tension in communities, to broaden understanding of the issues, and to cooperate on areas of shared concern - in other words, to do something different. Staff from the Network generally get involved only when invited by community members.
Initiating a dialogue group is challenging, in part, because advocates on either side of the abortion issue rarely know each other personally or call each other friends. Where there is no relationship, little casual opportunity for contact, and an image of those opposed as 'misguided' or even 'enemies', conflicts escalate more easily. Dialogue is thus a conflict prevention strategy as well as an opportunity to work together.
Evaluating the process
In 1996 and 1997, we conducted an evaluation of the Network's abortion dialogue process, interviewing over 50 participants in several cities. Only one person reported a negative experience in a dialogue. Most described their dialogue experience as inspiring, carefully orchestrated, authentic, transforming, and a source of creative possibility. Dialogue was celebrated as a good way to bring adversaries together as human beings, sharing laughter, meals, and personal trials, tears, concerns, and hopes for the future.
"Any effort to bring people together who are dealing with intense feelings and issues is healthy at a fundamental human level," said one participant.
Another noted that "the dialogue puts the issues and people into a more personal light, which makes it harder to dismiss others as just being lunatics."
Criticisms of the dialogue process include weak facilitation and moving to action too quickly or too slowly. Facilitators are recruited from the local community and are given a short training session by the Network to orient them to the process. However, uneven facilitation skills and a lack of in-depth screening of facilitators may lead to less positive experiences for some dialogue participants.
In ongoing groups, there is often tension between those who want to talk and those who are anxious to engage in joint action. Dialogue consumes time and energy, and does not always lead to concrete, measurable results. Some participants feel frustrated at a lack of tangible progress. Others experience burnout. For many, the satisfaction of building relationships far outweighs the costs of investing time and energy in ongoing dialogue.
Limits to progress?
Even where considerable joint action on shared concerns can be identified as arising from common ground dialogues, the question of whether the abortion issues itself is a step closer to resolution is legitimately raised. the abortion issue may be transforming incrementally through the way it is being talked about, felt, and acted upon. One participant in an ongoing group reported that, since his involvement, he feels immediate concern for "the other side" when he hears of a legislative or judicial victory for his side. This empathy may lead to advocacy with the humanity of the opposition in mind, which may affect some of the tactics used and reduce the likelihood of violence.
As trust deepens, dialogues allow for discussion on issues more closely related to abortion. Participants in ongoing processes have dialogued about what pro-life advocates do for women and children, what pro-choice supporters do for women who have had traumatic experiences with abortion, the limits of activism (e.g., the range of acceptable tactics and approaches), sources of moral authority, birth control, and abortion itself.
These deeper dialogues are difficult, sometimes involving new disappointments for participants who have come to accept their counterparts on the other side while clinging to the unarticulated hope that there will be some common ground on the abortion issues itself. For example, pro-choice participants may nurse the fond hope that pro-life advocates will recognize the need for some abortions, while pro-life activists may nurture the secret wish that pro-choice advocates will acknowledge the wrongness of abortion. When these hopes are not realized, disappointment can lead to renewed efforts to dialogue or to frustration. Even frustration may not lead people to give up on the dialogue process, however, once close relationships have been formed.
Still, abortion-related violence and incendiary rhetoric on both sides continue. Not everyone is willing to come to the dialogue table. While the abortion conflict is far from solved, those involved in the common ground movement hope that the momentum of dialogue will eventually isolate extremists from mainstream activists, making it possible to focus on preventing unwanted pregnancy and other issues of shared concern.