My Take on “Open Hearts, Open Minds”

A recent conference challenged participants to try to understand different perspectives on abortion, to see disagreement as an opportunity, and not to attack. Here are my thoughts in reflection on the meeting.

The conference Open Hearts, Open Minds, Fair-Minded Words, took place at Princeton University on October 15th and 16th, 2010.  Videocasts of the sessions can be found at the link.

I have to confess that I registered for this conference with neither an open heart nor an open mind. I intentionally don’t engage in conversations about abortion with people who oppose it.  It’s a form of self-preservation.  I don’t understand a worldview that espouses curtailing women’s autonomy and human rights as necessary and even good in order to protect potential human life.  I simply will not abandon my conviction that women retain their agency, dignity and self-determination, regardless of whether they are pregnant or could become pregnant.  Nor will I judge women for making decisions about their reproductive lives that are best for them.  Knowing that this conference would be a radical departure for me, I ventured to Princeton anyway. Unsure of what to expect and anxious, I nevertheless wanted to lend my support to allies who supported abortion.  I also intended to bear witness to conversations that at least on their surface centered on abortion outside of its actual context, that is, outside the bodies, lives, and experiences of the women who get pregnant and have abortions. 

The organizers of the conference, Frances Kissling (Center for BioEthics, University of Pennsylvania), Peter Singer (University Center for Human Values, Princeton), Jennifer Miller (Bioethics International), and Charles Camosy (Department of Theology, Fordham University), challenged the hundreds of participants to view the conference as an opportunity to understand the thinking of those who feel differently about abortion than we each did personally, and to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn something, not to attack.  The discussions ranged across many issues including the moral status of the fetus, the concept of fetal pain, and the potential discriminatory affects of abortion (as in sex selection or after pre-natal diagnosis of fetal differences).  While each session was thought-provoking in its own way, I want to focus on the opening plenaries on Friday and Saturday morning because they challenged me the most and helped me reaffirm my own values around abortion.

The conference began with a plenary entitled “Bridging The Abortion Divide: Recurring Challenges, Emerging Opportunities.”  Of the five speakers on the panel, David Gushee, a faculty member at McAfee School of Theology struck me most.  He described abortion as “tragic” and implored people to resist abortion as a common social practice.  He defied the idea that abortion was an exercise in women’s human rights or moral agency, but rather he framed abortion as an act of desperation in every case.  And while he shared that he believed every person deserved respect, he also made clear that abortion was never, could never be, a moral good. 

Gushee’s reflections on the need to address the social and economic conditions that perpetuate poverty (one of the main reasons that women choose abortion is because of lack of social and financial resources) resonated with me.  Yet, he never addressed inequality, patriarchy or sexism.  In fact, he seemed to gloss over exactly how those conditions adversely affect women’s lives.  Instead, he repeated the need to limit our engagement in contributing to or supporting the tragedy that is abortion. He made me think of the movie, the Princess Bride.  After one character repeatedly uses (and misuses) the word “inconceivable,” another character says, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”  I think David Gushee and I have extremely different ideas of what tragic means, and moreover, what it means to resist.  I don’t believe abortion is tragic in itself.  I don’t believe that what drives abortion in every case is desperation.  I’ve known too many women who have had abortions to believe that.  I only wish that the conference had valued those experiences enough to lift up their voices, instead of silencing them.

Saturday morning began with the plenary, “From Morality to Public Policy” and featured several legal scholars.  I personally felt challenged by Helen Alvare’s premise that as a woman, “I was chosen to care” for others and that my support for abortion distorted my essential nature.  Alvare, who is affiliated with the George Mason University School of Law, also added that bodily integrity was not an important enough issue to discuss in the context of abortion.  I found these statements patriarchal and offensive. 

I was relieved, however, when David Garrow (Homerton College, University of Cambridge), avowed that Roe v Wade and related cases were rightly and inevitably decided and carried the moral weight of Brown v Board of Education.  He put forward that the crux of the conflict around abortion was society’s feelings around sex, which were also reflected in the political right’s opposition to birth control, gay rights and marriage equality.  Cathleen Kaveny (University of Notre Dame Law School), spoke movingly about views of morality and how they interact with the law.  She was the first person at the conference to raise sexism and its contribution to inequality.  She was also the first pro-life person to really address ideas of justice, and though her ideas stemmed from a religious background, she allowed for different ideas of justice and how to consider the disproportionate burden of injustice born by certain communities, including women, people of color and low-income people.  Kaverny was the only self-identified pro-life speaker, who spoke to values that I understood.  Like other speakers, she spoke about the social conditions that shape and condition women’s decisions about pregnancy.  She also spoke about women with empathy and understanding and brought them into the conversation more than her pro-life colleagues had before or since.

Finally, Dorothy Roberts (School of Law, Northwestern University) called for the recognition of the moral agency of women and argued that women matter equally outside of the context of the fetus.  She was also the first person to talk about the reproductive justice framework as a broad-based approach that addresses the entire social context in which a woman lives and which deeply affects all of her reproductive decisions, not just abortion.  Professor Roberts highlighted that motherhood among women of color, particularly African-American women, and poor women was constantly under attack and devalued.  She called our attention to the pattern of blaming reproduction by women of color as the source of inequality and many social problems.  She cited the numerous campaigns taking place across the country that equate abortion in the Black community with genocide as another example of how society devalues motherhood by questioning Black women’s moral agency.  Professor Roberts also criticized the idea offered by earlier speakers that adoption was a universal, common good and suggested that adoption was a racist, classist system meant to benefit middle-class families, often at the expense of low-income people and people of color.  She appealed to the audience that any movement toward common ground on abortion had to be based on values of social justice. 

Professor Roberts then outlined the numerous policies that hurt and devalue the parenting of women of color and offered positive policies that government could implement to support families.  I was grateful to Dorothy Roberts for giving voice to the work of the reproductive justice movement, where women and their families are central to all discussions, as actors and as leaders.  For the first time during the conference, I felt like someone was speaking about abortion in the context of women’s lives and all the other realities that women must confront every day. 

I tried my best to keep an open heart and an open mind and remain engaged in the various conversations.  Yet I kept returning to several key questions.  What about the woman?  I couldn’t move past the idea that the conference was afraid of bringing women who have had abortions into these discussions.  To talk about abortion as if women were not central to the conversation, was just a further devaluing of women and all the reproductive decisions we make over the course of our lives. 

Where was the discussion about the moral status of the woman?  From the comments of many speakers and audience members, I was not convinced that we were in agreement on the moral status of women, and what society’s obligation was to them.  As one speaker proposed, “Is there a category of personhood for pregnant women that is separate from other people?”  And if so, when does that take affect?  Once a woman is pregnant?  Does it start at puberty and end at menopause?  What about women who cannot or are highly unlikely to ever get pregnant?  Are they exempt from this “separate, but equal” categorization?  Or as my colleague, Lynn Paltrow says, “At what point during pregnancy do women forgo their human rights and dignity?”  Until we all agree that women are moral agents, who are free to exercise their full human rights, I’m afraid these conversations won’t bring us any closer to bridging the gap between those who support the right to choose abortion and those who do not.