Peace for the Abortion War, Part II

In a war for human dignity, you cannot ask opponents to split the difference.

Researchers in the Middle East
recently asked citizens what it would take to bring about peace in their
war-torn region.  What they found might
surprise you.  In what many in the West
might consider a "common-sense" offer, Palestinians would be asked to give up
their right to return in exchange for a two-state solution and a $10 billion
per year for 100 years. Yet both Israelis and Palestinians from across the
political spectrum rejected these options. 
They would not sacrifice for peace.  

But, if researchers suggested that the deal would come with
an official apology from Israel,
the whole picture changed.  "Yes, an
apology is important, as a beginning," said Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy
chairman of Hamas.  When Benjamin
Netanyahu, a hard-line former Israeli prime minister was asked whether he would
consider a two-state solution if Hamas recognized the Jewish people’s right to
an independent state, he replied, "OK, but the Palestinians would have to show
they mean it." The researchers, Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, concluded in
their New York
Times editorial in January
that "making these kinds of wholly intangible
symbolic concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist,
simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus.  And yet, the science says they may be the
best way to start cutting [through] the great symbolic knot [of Palestine] that is the
‘mother of all problems." 

Imagine that: an apology. Not land, or money, or
sovereignty.  A symbolic act of
recognition, an act that says I see you and I understand, can have more impact
than "material and quality of life matters" on the possibilities for

There are several things to learn from this.  First, researchers did not survey the
hard-line leaders.  They went to the
citizenry and asked them what they needed as conditions for peace.  They raised the silent voices of those who
are most impacted by the conflict and presented their responses to the
leaders.  Second, the researchers found a
way to get at the heart of what is at stake, beyond the concrete and typical
concerns about electricity, water, and the economy that are often the focus of
negotiations.  Their research clarified
that for anyone involved in a conflict as long-lasting, deeply-felt and
consequential as the conflict in the Middle East,
the sacrifice of values and beliefs is considered unacceptable and could never
lead to peace.  

If you have been following my posts on how to bring peace
to the abortion war
here on Rewire, or have read Amanda
Marcotte’s critique
of my theory
, you probably know where I am headed.  In my posts I have proposed that the voices
of women who have had abortions should lead the dialogue about abortion in the United States,
not the current leaders of either side, as part of a strategy that I call

What I hope to convey now is that addressing abortion as a
matter of the heart and soul, rather than an issue of legal rights, can open up
new possibilities for peace.  I will show
why compromise or politically-minded "common ground" solutions will not resolve
our war: the abortion war.  

Many readers have questioned my use of the term "abortion
war" despite the fact that this terminology is a common cultural
reference.  I understand their concerns.  In conflict, the ability to define the debate
is part of the battle.  Each side wants
to name the problem in a way that supports their goals, and hurts their
opponents. This is also true for the abortion war. If you ask people with a
range of political views what the "abortion war" is about, you are bound to get
very different answers.  Some will say
that the war is waged to save innocent unborn babies, and others argue that it
was drummed up to drive a wedge between people who may otherwise agree.  Still others say that the "abortion war" is
in fact a patriarchal assault on women, their bodies, rights and
sexuality.  Fighting over the inherent
meaning, the root cause, of any given conflict is intrinsic to every

Despite their disagreement, what people on different sides
of the issue have in common is a deep and fundamental belief that their fight
is not only important and justified, it is an opportunity and a privilege to
fight for what they believe.  In essence,
this war isn’t about any one particular issue or right, it is about the
importance of who we are, our own human dignity, and the strength of our
conviction to fight on our own behalf.   

I offer myself as an example. 

I love a good debate. I love to be challenged to think in
new, critical ways and equally enjoy pushing others to do the same.  I believe fundamentally in people’s inherent
goodness and in each person’s innate desire to strive to be better – and I
believe that we can harness that drive to improve all of our lives.  And I have had an abortion, something I never
thought I would do, which has forever changed the way I look at the world.  After my abortion, I came to understand the
value of the phrase "Don’t judge others until you have walked a mile in their
shoes" in a whole new way. I made a promise to myself to practice that value
every day of my life. My abortion was an awakening, a maturing, and a loss of
innocence, in the best and the most difficult sense of the term.  Through direct personal experience with the
issue, in combination with my own personal passions and drive, I have found
this difficult debate over abortion to be an incredibly compelling place to put
all my experiences, values and beliefs into practice. 

This war gives me something to do, something valuable and
something important.  I do not want to
give up that sense of purpose in my life. 
Neither do many of the women and men who have formed an identity as a
pro-choice or pro-life crusader and who have invested time, passion, and money
in their cause.  That is why it is not
effective when outsiders call for an end to war through compromise.  Even though both sides can probably understand
why "Americans are just tired of fighting over abortion" – as Jean Schroedel, a
political scientist at Claremont
Graduate University
told the Wall Street Journal
– crusaders won’t accept compromise as a political solution
because it demands that they sacrifice deep and profound parts of who they are
and they will not.  They cannot.  I won’t.  

In a war for human dignity, you cannot ask opponents to
split the difference.  

But, the fight over abortion has created a conflict of epic
proportions, attacks are personal and crusaders are hurt. Feelings of
disrespect, humiliation, and worse, misunderstanding, at the hands of opponents
make the need to be seen and heard, to be proven right, even stronger.  This is how conflict works, how it escalates
and polarizes.  With a deeper
understanding about the cycle of conflict, not only can we de-escalate and
transform the abortion war, we can take the steps that lead towards peace.   

I believe that it is possible that as a society we may
arrive at a time when we are able to discuss the role government should play in
matters of sexuality, pregnancy and parenting without choosing sides through
the lens of war, without worrying whether a decision will strengthen or weaken
the political power of the pro-choice or pro-life movements.  Peace does not mean that we all agree, but
that we focus our higher purpose on transforming the conflict instead of
feeding a war.    

It is an interesting and unlikely time to plan for peace in
the abortion war. After years of political losses, there is a clear pro-choice
majority in all three branches of government and it is safe to assume that
peace is not in the political interest of winners.  And yet, after a long and vicious battle,
wins are no longer as sweet for either side. 
Warriors, while as committed and passionate as always, are tired. The
dramatic wins they hoped for have not occurred. 
One side has not captured the heart and soul of all Americans.  In fact, Americans have demonstrated
remarkable consistency on the issue – poll after poll demonstrates that most
people don’t like the idea of abortion very much, think it’s a pretty
significant emotional experience for women, and believe that it ends a human
life-of-some-kind, but are against making it always or mostly illegal, and hate
the idea of government regulating their private, personal lives.  

Rather than continuing to invest in what is bound to be a
long, vicious slog on an issue that feels increasingly irrelevant to Americans
confronting grave threats to our planet and economy, we can invest in
transforming the conflict and start addressing matters of the heart.  We can begin with an apology ("I’m sorry I
called you a baby-killer/vicious misogynist), a recognition ("The value you
place on life/rights is admirable"), or a symbolic concession ("I believe
abortion can be emotional for women/I believe in protecting the health of
pregnant women").  We begin by saying: "I
see you and I understand."  

Leaders on both sides can and should be the first and set an
example for the rest.  And, instead of
trying to recruit more Americans to the fight, when we already know they are
tired of it, leaders should invite Americans to join them: to grow our
collective understanding about the experiences of women who have had abortions
and to co-create a vision of care and support for women and their
families.  Americans are great
problem-solvers – all we need is a little inspiration and someone ready and
willing to lead the way.  

Together, we can and we should venture towards peace.  

Related Posts

This piece was also posted at Aspen Baker’s blog.