Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers Need to Stop Shouting Past Each Other

The best people on both sides of the abortion debate share one important thing in common.

Pro-choice and pro-life activists mingle as they hold up placards and chant in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, January 22, 2015. 

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The abortion debate is one that can bring out the worst in people in even the best of times. It’s an emotionally fraught issue that pits two admirable and worthwhile causes—the equality of women and the protection of unborn children—against each other, with no easy answers but very high stakes.

In the wake of the horrific Nov. 27 shooting at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood that killed three people and wounded nine, a dialogue that was already toxic has gotten even worse. The question we face now is whether there is any way to bring out the best in people—on both sides—during the worst of times. We have been shouting past each other for too long. Both sides have reduced their opponents to stereotypes and clichés, painting each other as selfish, uncaring, and disrespectful.

Abortion-rights proponents have seized the high ground afforded to them by the shooting to accuse pro-lifers of inciting alleged Colorado Springs shooter Robert Dear with violent rhetoric. They have targeted Republican presidential candidates for not speaking out vociferously enough against the violence. In a Facebook post, feminist Jessica Valenti called for pro-choicers to “support Planned Parenthood BECAUSE of the abortions they provide, not in spite of them.”

These reactions are understandable but hardly productive. Dear appears to be an isolated and perhaps deranged loner. Blaming his actions on rhetoric is insulting to people who protest peacefully and comes across as seeking to silence debate on the issue. Conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru argues that it’s less the pro-life rhetoric that bothers pro-choicers than the worldview—“that abortion is the unjust killing of living human beings”—and he makes a good case. Even President Obama, in a statement supporting Planned Parenthood, says it is “fair to have a legitimate, honest debate about abortion.”

Finding common ground is necessary, and I would like to believe it’s possible. Pro-choicers have been vociferious in their demands for access to birth control, and they should be applauded. But guess what—an overwhelming majority of pro-lifers support birth control, too. No one wants children growing up unloved or in poverty, though each side sees different ways to alleviate that, with liberals emphasizing a government safety net and conservatives touting adoptions and private charities. These are safe topics that can be used to renew the conversation. (“Renew” because there have been plenty of attempts in the past.) But it will require patience, listening, and sincere attempts at understanding. We will need to disregard the loudest and least thoughtful voices on each side. We will have to accept that we will never entirely agree. As Emily Bazelon noted in the New York Times Magazine on Nov. 30, “Opposition to abortion is an issue with cognizable moral claims on both sides.”

I have long grappled with my own feelings about abortion. Acknowledging the humanity of the unborn and believing that a child has the right to be born brings with it the extremely high cost of asking a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth to that child, regardless of whether his or her conception was unintentional or unwanted. It requires further acknowledgement that children will be born into poverty and other difficult circumstances. In the end, because I cannot find a way to justify the idea that a 24-week-old fetus is more deserving of life than a 10-week-old fetus, or that a wanted child is more worthy of life than one who was unplanned, I come down on the side of the child. And I know that there are pro-choicers who have struggled with the same question and believe that acknowledging the right of women to have control of their lives brings with it the extremely high cost of terminating potential human life. They don’t disregard the humanity of the fetus, but they value a woman’s sovereignty more highly.

But then there are the abortion-rights advocates who dismiss pro-lifers as uniformly anti-sex and anti-women, as religious zealots. It’s a way to avoid dealing with the actual dilemma that abortion presents. And at the other end of the spectrum are conservatives who, in opposing not only abortion but birth control, refuse to deal with reality.

The problem with trumpeting abortion as a social good—and I will pause here to say that Hanna Rosin made this argument eloquently and powerfully in Slate—is that it undermines any opportunity to find common ground. We should all be able to agree that fewer abortions are a good thing. But to argue, as Valenti did in her Facebook post, that “abortion is moral”—not even the right to an abortion, but abortion itself—does nothing to win hearts and minds. Arguing that abortion shouldn’t be discouraged suggests that it is a trivial decision, which is callous and can bring pain to those who were the products of unplanned pregnancies. At the same time, conservatives who refuse to acknowledge that women who have access to reliable and affordable health care and contraceptives are going to have fewer unwanted pregnancies—and fewer abortions—are contributing to the same problem, but in a different way.

Seeking common ground is not a new idea. But it’s rather Sisyphean—something always happens to make the rock roll back down the hill. Pro-lifers were indignant a few years ago at what they saw as underreporting of Kermit Gosnell’s murder trial. Pro-choicers recoil when pro-lifers try to pass “personhood” statutes or laws based on fetal-pain studies. The debate over abortion funding and birth control mandates during the passage of Obamacare left everyone grumpy. The videos released this summer by the Center for Medical Progress might not have proved that Planned Parenthood did anything illegal, but they did help both sides reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. We can continue to let these events separate us, or we can step back, take a deep breath, and realize that the charged emotions that set us apart are actually evidence that the decent people on both sides of this issue are united in wanting what they think is best for women and children. And that should be the starting point of a new and better conversation.