My Call for Common Ground Gets Answered

Jen Boulanger

From my recent experiences, I believe the potential benefits of engaging in common ground outweigh the risks.  And I’m not going to give up an opportunity to sit at the table and make sure that my voice and the voices of women I have helped over the past 15 years are heard. 

There are so many of my colleagues who cringe at the thought of common ground.  Initially, I was one of them.  And how can you blame us?  Especially now, after another one of our doctors was murdered.   It would be unreasonable to expect any of us to sit at the same table as someone who supports killing abortion providers.  And generally speaking, pro-choicers like myself believe we are the common ground.

I admit that I am troubled by the thought of sitting at the same table with people who vilify me.  But I believe that there are reasonable pro-life individuals who are as upset as I am about the current negative and hateful rhetoric propagated by the lunatic fringe of the pro-life movement.  And although we will likely never change our core principles and beliefs about abortion, we can agree that there is no place in either movement for violence, intimidation, or harassment.  We all care about public safety and the quality of life in our communities.  So why shouldn’t we cultivate and encourage a joint effort?

Over the first few weeks after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, abortion protesters in Allentown, PA increased their visibility and their hateful rhetoric.  Although the entrance to the Allentown Women’s Center is behind the building, protesters moved their demonstrations to the street in front of the building, displaying enormous graphic billboards of bloody, dismembered fetuses.

On June 10, I decided that it was more important to inform people about the acts of terrorism in my own community than to risk my personal safety by making a public appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show.  I never imagined the outpouring of support I would receive, nor who I would receive it from.

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The following day I was contacted by the Rev. Dr. Manfred K. Bahmann, a local Lutheran Pastor who told me his wife saw me on the show.  As you may imagine, our clinic is not used to being approached by clergy unless there is an anti-abortion church demonstration going on outside.  And we have pretty strict security guidelines, so when he first showed up unannounced on our doorstep he was turned away.  But I cannot be more thankful that he did not give up so easily.

When we finally met in person, Pastor Bahmann expressed his concern over the level of terrorism being experienced by a clinic in our community, as well as outrage that a Lutheran doctor was murdered in Kansas.  When I described the harassment and intimidation that clinic employees and patients endure here, he asked me how he could help.  I had trouble believing what I was hearing, but at the same time I experienced an overwhelming sense of relief.  After providing Pastor Bahmann with some background, we decided to meet again after he had a chance to confer with some of his colleagues.  

In the meantime, a woman by the name of Patricia Wilburn published a letter to the editor in The Morning Call, Allentown’s local newspaper.  In it, she argued to leave the graphic images out of abortion protest. She never said whether or not she is pro-life or pro-choice, but she did say that she didn’t want her 3 children forcefully subjected to unwanted images.  This article brought about some poignant voices on both the pro-life and pro-choice sides that conveyed that there are better and more peaceful ways of getting pro-life messages across.

These are examples of the kind of reactions Patricia’s letter received:

“I will say that not all Pro-Life organization publicly show graphic pictures. We do have the freedom of speech and to stand up for what we believe in but I think a beautiful picture of an live baby in the womb is at times much more affective. The prayer group I peacefully protest with holds up a sign simply stating that we are praying for the unborn child accompanied with a picture of the Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is hope for a more peaceful and respectful pro-life movement.”

”for me this isn’t a choice of whether abortion is right or wrong. it’s about whether the image of it is too graphic for a public setting which after reading the writer’s letter i feel it is too extreme for children”

“Liberals and conservatives don’t want their children to be exposed to the obscenities that these domestic terrorists push on to the unsuspecting public.”

“Its morally irresponsible to force young children (1-10 years old) to view photos of dismembered babies. THAT is what this article is about. Patricia is NOT discussing religious or abortion agenda.”

“Pictures of aborted fetuses don’t offer any kind of educational value whatsoever and serve only to use various "pleas to emotion" fallacies.”

A few days later, Pamela Varkony, a local republican commentator wrote an op-ed piece after she was offended by receiving an image of a mutilated fetus sent to her by one of her facebook “friends”.

These women took incredible risks to publicly take a stand on a controversial issue.  But it wasn’t all for naught.  Remarkably, soon after these two articles were published the protesters outside the Allentown Women’s Center almost completely stopped displaying their signs in the busy street (although they are still displaying them around the clinic’s parking lot and at the homes of clinic staff).  

In early July, Pastor Bahmann and I met again.  About a week later we decided to hold an open house at the Allentown Women’s Center for members of the clergy to learn about the problems with protesters at the clinic and talk about the related public safety concerns in our community.  I had no idea how the clergy members felt about abortion – and that wasn’t the purpose or focus of our meeting.  

Clinic staff and an interfaith alliance of local clergy leaders came together on the issue of public safety and improving the quality of life in our community.  We agreed that a) it is unacceptable for people in our own community, specifically abortion providers and women seeking abortion services, to be harassed, intimidated or threatened; and that b) it is reasonable for the city to enact some safety measures that will protect clinic patrons and staff entering the clinic, without violating the rights of those who wish to demonstrate peacefully outside.

Although it was a small meeting, it was an enormous success and we plan to build upon the outcome of this meeting with more community clergy members in the near future.  The goal is positive social change that improves the quality of life for people in our community.

From my recent experiences, I believe the potential benefits of engaging in common ground – to eliminate hateful rhetoric, admonish violence, promote peace and focus on prevention – outweigh the risks.  And I’m not going to give up an opportunity to sit at the table and make sure that my voice and the voices of women I have helped over the past 15 years are heard.  

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