Common Ground: Are We Expecting Too Much?

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Common Ground: Are We Expecting Too Much?

Frances Kissling

When moral absolutes collide, claiming you can end the cultural divide with a public policy prescription may actually be an obstacle to achieving more modest, but valuable, objectives.

There are days
when I think if I hear one more antiabortion evangelical or Catholic
"progressive" tout his or her efforts to end the culture wars by
creating a "common ground" position on abortion I will turn into the
nonexistent irrational radical feminist extremist bitch they already
think I am. And I actually believe in the search for common ground. But
I believe in the search and in the process, which is an end in and of

When people who disagree passionately on something
important to them take the time to sit down and engage each other, good
things happen. At a minimum, they find out the "other" is a human
being, not the devil incarnate.

But rarely do such efforts culminate in
common ground on public policy and then only after years of very hard
work. Multiple efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together
haven’t brought peace to the Middle East and the process of bringing an
end to the "troubles" in Northern Ireland took forever. And when near
moral absolutes clash, as they do on abortion, claiming you can end the
cultural divide with a public policy prescription may actually be an
obstacle to achieving more modest, but valuable, objectives. Even the
convening power of the White House, which is holding a series of
meetings with advocates and opponents of a woman’s right to choose, may come up short on

One of the problems with the current efforts, including
those of the White House and aforementioned evangelicals and Catholics,
is that too small a group decided on the components of common ground
and is now trying to get others to "buy in" to a prepackaged
conclusion. Those outside the White House who started the common ground
ball rolling had some heavy-duty personal and political objectives
fueling their efforts. Longtime old-style progressive religionists like
Jim Wallis and social justice, peacenik Catholics joined forces with
socially conscious megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Hunter.
Some had always been aligned with the Democratic Party, others may have
sensed they could have unique influence in a party sensitive about its
polling weakness with weekly churchgoers. But they were also motivated
by their values. To their credit, evangelicals in particular have moved
closer to accepting that poverty, world hunger and the environment are
moral issues, and on those positions they are more in line with the
Democrats than the Republicans.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Abortion was the stumbling block. But the Democrats,
stinging from the 2004 election debacle, were eager to accommodate.
Left out of the deal, however, were women, whom the party has always
taken for granted and whom the antiabortion evangelicals and Catholics
consistently ignore.

Recognizing that they probably won’t succeed in making
abortion illegal, the Democrats’ faith-based allies decided that they
could still use their moral disapproval to shape policy. They asserted
that the number of abortions that takes place in America constitutes a
moral tragedy and called for initiatives that would reduce the number
of abortions. According to their mind-set, this was common ground, an
abortion-neutral prescription for ending the culture war.

But the common ground they had found was among themselves
and themselves only; they just expected everyone else to agree. The
arrogance in this has led not to a diminution of the culture war, but
to a sharpening of the cultural divide. Had they bothered to consult
people who know something about common ground, they might have actually
found a way not to go to war even if they could not find a way to agree.

The Family Institute of Cambridge, Mass., got involved in
common ground efforts in 1989. Laura Chasin, a family therapist at the
institute, was watching a television debate on abortion and was struck
by the similarity of the interactions between the debaters with those
she observed in family therapy. She wondered if some of the techniques
used to help families understand each other and interact in a healthy
way could be applied to abortion.

Laura and her colleagues began a long-term project of
citizen dialogues that brought together pro-choice and pro-life
activists. I participated in a one-on-one dialogue that lasted a whole
day with a pro-life scholar I respected and wanted to understand
better. The Public Conversations Project, as it came to be called, took
a giant step forward when, following the murder of two clinic workers
in Boston in 1994, it led a five-year dialogue between local pro-choice
and pro-life leaders. The dialogue was private and only publicized at
the end of the five-year period. No one changed their mind about
abortion; Chasin and colleagues were smart enough to know that was an
unrealistic goal. Inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate
decreased, and there were no more incidents of violence, as the local
leaders came to understand each other better. They spoke publicly in
less demonizing ways, shedding light rather than heat. Chasin and her
team had drawn another lesson from that television program about
abortion; they were concerned about the observers of the debate as well
as the participants. They figured if you could teach people who
disagree viscerally to talk to each other civilly, viewers might
actually get some good information from both sides and be able to make
better decisions about their own beliefs. And maybe you could prevent a
few murders.

Along the way the Public Conversation Project developed
some guidelines for others who might want to improve the way we talk —
and think — about abortion.

The president himself seems to welcome an open dialogue
on abortion. As he said at Notre Dame: "I do not suggest that the
debate surrounding abortion can or should go away … But surely we can
[make our case to the public] without reducing those with differing
views to caricatures."

President Obama’s Notre Dame speech demonstrates an
understanding of common ground far closer to the modest, achievable and
humble objectives of the Public Conversation Project than that of those
evangelicals and Catholics who have handed down the answer to the
abortion wars as if they were delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses.
The PCP asks: "How do we support the wishes of participants to break
free of the old patterns and experiment with new ways of thinking and
relating." Again, in his Notre Dame speech, the president concurred
when he suggested that we "cling to outworn prejudices and fear those
who are unfamiliar." The PCP has designed conversations that answer the
president’s question about "how we work through these conflicts."

Perhaps most important, the PCP works quietly and does
not toot its own horn, issue press releases or make extravagant claims.
It assumes that participants have more complex views than their slogans
or policy positions can reflect, and facilitates in safe and private
spaces, the freedom to explore and admit your own doubts about your

Abortion opponents are quick to say that Roe cut off the
conversation about abortion that the country needed to have to come to
consensus. It would be tragic if in attempting to craft a legislative
solution to our disagreements about abortion, we also cut off much
needed thoughtful conversations. The president acknowledged in his
other common ground speech in Cairo that change does not happen
overnight. He said we must "say openly the things that are in our heart
and that too often are only said behind closed doors."

Now, those in the administration who are leading the
discussions on common ground need to take the president’s words, and
PCP’s lessons, to heart. Right now, meetings are going on behind closed
doors in the White House among people who disagree about abortion and
family planning and sexual morality. Reports from participants make
clear that they are not structured in ways that enable people to say
what is on their minds and safely pursue disagreements or really engage
the "other." This is an enormous lost opportunity. Someone in the White
House needs to pick up the phone and talk to people who know how to
help people have tough conversations without killing each other. Call
617-923-1216 (the Public Conversations Project) and ask to speak with a
family therapist.

This post first appeared on Salon.