Is Dialogue on Abortion Useful? Response to Marcotte

Frances Kissling

Some of us think that a civil public dialogue on abortion based on values, facts and outcomes would result in better public policy and less tea party rage.

I was catching up on my reading today and came across Amanda Marcotte’s piece declaring that dialogue on abortion can’t work if one side is dishonest. To know whether it could work you’d need to know the purpose of dialogues including the Princeton Open Hearts meeting. Then, you can evaluate whether it worked.  Simply put, one hopes that dialogue between those opposed to and in favor of a woman’s right to choose abortion would result in a more realistic public debate; less name-calling and attacking and more reasoned argumentation for each position. Some of us think a civil public debate that concentrated not on impugning motives but arguing from values, facts and outcomes would result in better public policy and in less tea party rage. In the course of such conversations, people connect with others who disagree with them and possibly continue the conversation with a view to making some contribution to the future of how the issue plays itself out. If one does not think working toward such goals is useful, then whether or not dialogue works is irrelevant.

For some in both movements on abortion, that is the case. There is nothing to be gained from understanding the other side. We understand each other all too well, the other is evil and the right course of action is to beat the crap out of them, prove to people how evil they are and just stick to our guns.  For me it’s a pretty brutal approach. The Italians have coined the expression “bruta figura” to describe it and apply it often to the Vatican. Amanda, I believe, is an advocate of this approach as is Austin Ruse, Doug Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, Bishop Chaput of Colorado, Judy Brown of AUL and several colleagues on the choice side. I’m not in this camp. I have the instincts, but I’ve become convinced it is without humanity and whichever side uses it will lose.

So with that out of the way, let me offer some alternative thoughts about why dialogue has value and what it requires.  

Amanda claims you can’t have a successful dialogue with people who are dishonest. Without reference to whether people at Princeton were “honest” or “dishonest,” I’d suggest that the major successful dialogues (including those currently in process) have all had to deal with the fact that each side believes the other to be profoundly dishonest and has a long list of grievances. Part of the dialogue process is whether people can discipline themselves for a good outcome to put those lists aside as well as entertain the possibility that they also occasionally play fast and loose with truth. With an open mind, you may come to see that just as you see the other as dishonest, they honestly see you as dishonest.  

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Two of the great dialogues of our time have been those between the IRA and the British and the Israelis and Palestinians. The first has concluded successfully and the second is ongoing. I am sure none of us believe that either side came to the table and did not at times lie, misinterpret or simply see the same “facts” differently.  And yet, we applaud the outcome.

Now, to what extent were people at Princeton both prolife and prochoice absolutely honest or forthcoming about their positions? By Amanda’s definition short of an opponent copping to her caricature of all prolifers as believing “that women exist mainly as breeding machines,” are “anti-sex,” have “ugly attitudes about women and feminism,” are “ willing to employ lies and other nefarious tactics for their ends” “ and “self deceptive” one needs to conclude that all of them were dishonest.

My own perception is that in a room of almost 400 people with video cameras going, most, not all, of the speakers who are opposed to abortion were pretty up front about their beliefs. They were no more likely to evade or gild the lily than the prochoicers.

When dialogue participants, including those at Princeton, hold back it’s not because they are “liars” as Amanda scoldingly calls them, but because dialogue requires restraint. Setting up through words old reactive patterns is not helpful. In this regard, I am glad Amanda was not there. I wouldn’t put my worst enemy in the room with someone who talked the way Amanda writes when she gets wound up about the “evil” antis.

Amanda also says you can’t “have a dialogue without agreeing on the facts.” In fact, you probably wouldn’t need a dialogue if you agreed on the facts. Fact fights dominate the life choice debate.

And those opposed to abortion are not the only ones who play fast and loose with the facts. I can just see Austin Ruse writing with the same venom as Amanda about a piece I read today by Catherine Epstein, writing about a film that is being shot about Drs Carhart and Hern makes the following claims:

The most frequent circumstances that lead to late abortion–which account for less than one percent of all abortions in the country–include fetal anomalies, in which a pregnancy is desired, but complications develop that endanger the mother or the potential life of the fetus. Fetuses are sometimes given devastating diagnoses, such as a one-year life expectancy in excruciating pain, creating an emotional and financial strain on the parents and other children in the family.

Young women and girls who are victims of sexual abuse sometimes don’t recognize their own pregnancy–or may feel too ashamed to tell others–before the second or third trimester. For other women the process of finding a provider, securing travel, getting time off work, and accumulating the necessary funds can take several months, by which time the pregnancy is in its later stages.

Factually, we have no data to support these assertions. After a web search did not reveal confirmation, I emailed  Guttmacher. Here is the response  “[we do not] know of any data to support these assertions about reasons for abortions post 20 weeks.  Reasons for second-trimester abortions may be very different than reasons for post-20-week abortions, but again there’s no info. We do know that young women (minors in particular) take longer to realize they are pregnant.”

Because I am prochoice I give Catherine Epstein some latitude. Some of what she speculates is reasonable. Some of it is the desire of an advocate to put the best foot forward but in my opinion strays from a rigorous approach to the “facts.” We do not know if there are more late abortions due to severe fetal abnormality or to denial and fear. We have no idea if denial by young women is the result of sexual abuse, none whatsoever. Claiming that lack of funding for a first trimester abortion is resolved with finding six times more money later in the pregnancy is highly speculative. The average cost of first trimester abortion is just under $500. On the website of one provider of second trimester abortions, a 24 week abortion is $3000. Abortions after that time are higher in price. Do we really think women who do not have the money for a first trimester abortion find the larger amount needed for a later procedure in any significant numbers?

Would Austin Ruse or Judy Brown be entitled to paint all advocates of choice as “liars” because of articles like Catherine Epstein’s?  I will leave it readers to cry out –“ but Cynthia’s is a rare example and the anti-abortionists lie all the time.” Each side believes the other side lies more. I believe the other side lies more; but I am biased in favor of our side. I know our people are essentially honest and dedicated to a good end.

Like Amanda, I want abortion to be legal and accessible. I want to “win.” Firm adherence to rights theory is part of the winning strategy; but it is clear that it has not enabled us to maintain the fullness of Roe’s promise. Some new things must be tried – from the reproductive justice frame to dialoguing with the enemy. Casting a “bruta figura” is a sure loser in my opinion.  

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