Talking About Abortion: Civility and Liberal Impotence

I fear “common ground” dialogues because I fear a liberal impotence nurtured by a deep-seated culture of “civility” and conflict-avoidance.


This article is part of an ongoing discussion and debate hosted by Rewire on women’s rights to decide whether, when, and with whom to bear a child  in the context of so-called common ground and abortion “dialogues” with the anti-choice movement. Other articles in this series can be found here.

Writing at Religion Dispatches, Pastor Dan said:

There’s a significant trade-off between being nice (or engaging in “civil discourse,” as it’s called these days) and being potent. All the commitment to moral suasion, to building consensus, to reconciliation between political opponents, all the commitment in the world to “speaking out” about your values isn’t going to accomplish squat. (1)

Pastor Dan, I could not agree more.  And reading RhRealityCheck’s coverage of the so- called “common ground” engagement/debate made me want to send the blog authors your new book: Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful And Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century where you give one of the most thoughtful and forceful critiques of the “common ground” approach I have come across. 

The common ground approach to abortion is fundamentally flawed because the frame of “common ground” makes it seem like there are relatively equal numbers of people who disagree about abortion.   In fact, research and polling clearly and repeatedly shows that there is a rough consensus among Americans that abortion should be available in one form or another and that while there does appear to be a static difference in opinion, only those firmly opposed to abortion are becoming more polarized in their views.(2)

Those who advocate for unrestricted abortion access (which I do) do not need to dehumanize those who disagree with us, which Amanda Marcotte does in her piece.  The strategy of calling others liars, of claiming that others have evil motives, is an ancient strategy with repercussions that generally breed abhorrent violence.  While I do agree with Marcotte that we should not just take conservatives at their word (particularly when it’s “the Word”), I have to agree with Kissling’s critique of Marcotte that she employs a typical liberal hubris: liberals “know” better, liberals have superior access to the truth and facts, while everbody who disagrees must be uneducated or plain dumb.  As Kissling puts it: “In fact, you probably wouldn’t need a dialogue if you agreed on the facts.”  It’s important to remember that over the course of history, liberal institutions have asserted many nefarious “facts” that justified abhorrent acts of violence and violation (for example dubious and unethical medical testing/torture on African Americans and women.)

But I fear that Kissling, who is clearly set up to represent a moderate/liberal religious perspective, is enacting Schultz’s insight that too often liberals want to play nice, that we want to be “civil.”   While civility is certainly a virtue, there is such intense and insidious suffering in this world that liberals need to wield a stronger weapon than civility against the evils of violence—both the violence perpetrated by tyrants who rule nations and the violence perpetrated by tyrants who rule their homes (Judith Herman. Trauma and Recover: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1992.) 

Kissling demonstrates a willful ignorance about both the realities of providing abortions on the front lines and the realities of poverty in this country.  I found myself asking “Has she ever spoken with a mother of a 14 year girl who is 20 weeks pregnant? Or worked with a woman selling her children’s clothes in order to raise money for an abortion that only seems to get farther and father away?”  I have.  I have held an aborted 20 week fetus in my arms and blessed it.  It is because of my experiences with women and unwanted pregnancies that I find it unethical and immoral to support any measure that restricts women’s access to abortion.

Kissling also fails to acknowledge that civil debate is just a little bit challenging when you are talking with people who enable, if not nurture, violent radicalism, terrorism, and political assassination.  The abortion providing community is literally under violent attack. Civility was taken off the table a long time ago.

I fear these “common ground” dialogues because I fear a liberal impotence nurtured by a deep-seated culture of “civility” and conflict-avoidance; I fear that my brother and sister abortion providers will succumb too easily to assertions about religion, God, and morality being “against” abortion.  I fear that once again liberal institutions will be impotent in the face of evil.

“The culture war is not simply conflict over abortion or gay marriage. It is a one sided war of aggression against the civil rights of women and minorities and the rights of individual conscience…” (Journalist Frederick Clarkson quoted in Changing the Script, p. 32)

Let us stay grounded in our liberal and liberating moral traditions that enable us to compassionately, fiercely, and unabashedly claim the righteousness of our work of providing later-term abortions. 

As Pastor Dan puts it, if the Left is going to be effective, it’s going to have to take sides.  And if the Religious Left is going to be potent, then we are going to have to say:

“My God is the God of the poor, the violated, the abused. You can be for the poor or you can go to hell.”