Saturday 10/15 was the first anniversary of the ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds’ Princeton Abortion Conference–a historic gathering that brought a wildly diverse group of people together to find new ways to think and speak about abortion. (Speakers included people like John Finnis, Maggie Little, David Gushee, Peter Singer, David Garrow, William Hurlbut, Sidney Callahan, Art Caplan, Helen Alvare, Cathleen Kaveny, Ruth Macklin, and many more. You can watch the video of the sessions here.) Many exciting ideas were explored, including a host of great suggestions from William Saletan (a pro-choice journalist who covered the conference for Slate.com) which you can read here and here.
But perhaps the most important thing that came from the conference was the chance to form relationships across divides and, as a result, open new ways to approach this terribly divisive issue. In the past year I’ve had the pleasure of cultivating precisely this kind of relationship with Hilary Hammell, a woman who has done pro-choice and reproductive justice work both in the United States and internationally. Hilary and I decided that we wanted to celebrate the one year anniversary of the Princeton abortion conference by having a week-long exchange detailing both our common ground and issues about which we need to have more conversation. Check out the five posts below which correspond to the five days of the week that lead up to the anniversary.
Why Better Agreements Make for Better Arguments (Hilary)
Coherent Arguments Are Possible!
Your point about mapping our disagreements is well taken – the Princeton conference made me think that we could have better, more respectful, and more coherent arguments if we sat down and decided that that was our goal.
One thing that helps is to know when we are agreeing and when we are arguing — when we’re saying things that are really axiomatic or when we’re saying things that we imagine to be some uncontroversial axiom but which might really be part of a pro-life or pro-choice policy wish list. And so when I hear you say that X is common-ground for average Americans, but I don’t agree that it is, I will just put that on the list of “things to argue about.” I’ll tell you right now that some of the things you proffered for the average American’s common ground I would contest as such – but I’m not going to do it in this post.
We could perhaps create several different “things to argue about” lists, and your post made me think of at least four: “core values” arguments (this is also the ‘getting to know you’ process); “policy wish-list” arguments; “what the average American thinks” arguments; and “short-term goals” arguments. But all of these things used to be tangled in a big, incoherent, disagreement about “abortion” – naming the separate disagreements helps untangle the knot. And knowing what is truly intractable will help us not waste time pursuing red herrings when it comes to our integrative agenda between consistent-life and reproductive-justice folks.
As Emily Reimer-Barry noted, I think trying to be as deliberate and specific in our word choices helps us not accidentally spark arguments when we don’t mean to. If we can get as specific as possible about what we want to argue about, and try not to conflate one argument with another, then I think we can keep making progress (albeit slow) in this uncharted wilderness of actually talking to each other and trying to get clear about what we’re really talking about. For example, your use of the frame ‘birth control abortion’ (I will call that BCA) helps me better understand what you oppose; so I wouldn’t bother bringing a ‘what about rape?’ argument to you. This BCA frame may be sub-optimal from my perspective for lots of reasons…but it is so much more helpful than just saying “abortion”.
We have some misunderstandings or some arguments to address in future conversations, but I am very happy with your post, because even in the worst-case scenario – even if we have irreconcilable disagreements regarding short-term policy goals and about what the average American wants, not to mention our diverging views on an ultimate issue – you are still interested in the “integrative agenda,” even if it’s only part of the time. Because much of the time we may still be opposing each other on some policy initiatives such as an anti-sex-selection-law. (And you may not get why I would oppose that kind of law, but after we “get to know each other” more, it may make sense. You’d still disagree, of course.)
Separating “arguing” time from “agreeing” time would help; and getting to know each other better will help our arguments be more sensical and more coherent. I envision a future conference in which Day 1 is Listening / Getting to Know Each Other, Day 2 is Finding Agreements, and Day 3 is Arguing. Whenever we discover things that are not agreements in Day 2, we simply put them on the list of things to argue about the next day. And for those intractable ones, we’ll agree to go out into the world and stand on opposing sides in certain public debates. That is OK.
Agreeing to disagree, and working together anyway
Before I tell you about what reproductive justice means to me, I wanted to ask a threshold question. Since this is the last post of this series, I pose this question to anyone who is authentically curious about working with people across the pro-life/pro-choice divide. Can we have intractable disagreements on some very profound beliefs, but be willing to work together anyway?
This may seem like a softball question, but I think it’s important.
1. The “agreeing” mode of discourse is easier said than done.
I think a “let’s agree on stuff!” discursive mode is not as easy to embrace as it may seem. This mode can be difficult when we’re talking with someone with whom we’re accustomed to disagreeing or suspect may be trying to persuade us of something. I’m not sure if this is the right term in philosophy jargon, but whenever I talk across an ideological or partisan divide I brace myself for false syllogisms. The move goes something like: “Do you support freedom?” “Well, if you do, then how can you support taxes/environmental protection/unions?”
This is a move that is disingenuously trying to find axioms. It’s an approach that’s trying to get an agreement on something in order to then persuade on something else. The pro-choice version of this would be to take what you said about women’s bodily integrity and dignity and say; “So how can you oppose abortion?” The pro-life version of this would be to say; “you believe in protecting the most vulnerable, right?” “So how can you support abortion?
The cartoon version of this is to compare anything or anyone to Hitler.
I promise not to pull this move on you. I think that our post-Princeton attempts at common ground would be well-served if we first acknowledge the existence of false syllogisms and slippery-slope arguments and agree not to use them on each other. What do you think, CMT readers? Would this be helpful? I, for one, would be much more willing to talk frankly and candidly about my values and beliefs if I knew that no one would try to “gotcha” me. If I said something that didn’t seem clear or didn’t seem to be conceptually consistent, you should feel free to ask why Z can be reconciled with X, but we should do that in a way that is curious, not accusatory.
Plus, if we get to know each other’s worldviews better, we won’t be as tempted to try these moves on each other in the first place. We’ll know, in advance, why some syllogisms are false; and why seeming inconsistencies are not so.
I think there are people out there who really do have inconsistent and indefensible sets of policy preferences. But part of the reason I like the consistent-life people I met at the Princeton conference is because I didn’t hear any of them talking about weird, inconsistent, incoherent sets of policy preferences. None of the pro-lifers at the Princeton conference were pro-life but only on abortion and not on expanding access to health care and safe environments and on fighting poverty. This was noteworthy, since high-profile folks in politics often call themselves “pro-life” while gutting social services, health care, and other things that I think you’ve suggested are part of the consistent-life schema. So don’t take what I’m saying to mean that we shouldn’t argue and we shouldn’t try to call out inconsistencies when we see them. But I think we should approach each other – movement to movement – with a presumption that the other side’s schema is coherent even if we may not agree with all of it.
I want to emphasize that you should and can feel strongly about your core anti-abortion principles, and that we can argue about them when we are in the “arguing” space. We can also use syllogisms and persuasive-talk when we’re out there talking with other audiences, including “average Americans.” But I ultimately want to suggest that our integrative agenda is also an integrative agenda for most people, and that our attempts to engage with the general public will become better and more integrative the more we talk to each other – activists and intellectuals with strong opinions about abortion. I think that the average American isn’t somewhere “between” pro-choice and pro-life; she is deeply pro-life and also deeply pro-choice. But let’s argue about that later, if you don’t buy it.
2. Can we team up with an ideological opposite?
We have profound disagreements about some of our most core convictions. Can we work together anyway, and agree to disagree on those things, or are there reasons of “principle” why you may not want to work with me? For example, what would you do if a white-supremacy group wanted to team up with you – but on something that you both supported…something benign, like, say, a fundraiser for the local library. Would you work with them? I probably would not be able to. It would be a matter of pride, of principle. But I see Catholic pro-lifers as a group with which I can easily work. We have principled disagreements — but not ones that prohibit me from respecting your views or taking them, and you, seriously. Do you CMT’ers see abortion-rights proponents as viable collaborators, or do you think there are some pro-lifers who would not touch a person like me with a ten-foot pole?
I really like the approach of the group All Our Lives. They are basically an RJ group, but not on “birth-control abortion.” They support sex ed, contraception, LGBT rights…but don’t want those things to always be conflated with broad abortion support. I like their rejection of the binary. It makes sense to say “I agree with you on this, this, and this – but I just can’t go there, to that other thing.” And that’s how I feel about the “consistent life” principles. I agree with 85% of it. Is there room for me at the table?
What Reproductive Justice Means to Me
Now I will finally conclude, and I want to do it on an optimistic note by talking about my core values and what brings me to this conversation. The term “reproductive justice” was coined by a group of women of color who rejected the “pro-choice” frame precisely because they came from communities that “had few real choices.” RJ thus focuses on intersectional injustices – injustices based on gender, race, class, socio-economic status, and more; and RJ is not concerned only with abortion but with the right to have children; the right to treated with dignity while pregnant; the right to parent the children one has with dignity; to be free from oppression based on gender or reproductive role, as well as to be free from oppression based on race, class, socio-economic status.
But to me, RJ has more metaphysical, moral, and political meanings that make it a particularly satisfying kind of feminism. In a sense, it’s a disagreement with Lockean, atomistic political philosophy — but it’s also animated by liberal feminism. My core values say that women are equal to men; and thus should not be subordinated for reasons having to do with our different reproductive organs and different reproductive roles. And my approach to feminism insists that men are equal to women — and should and can do care-giving work and indulge in “interconnectedness” in ways that have traditionally, and stereotypically, been ascribed to women. I think RJ contemplates our connectedness – to our families, to our communities, and to our own bodies – more than liberalism (or libertarianism) does; but also rejects the idea that sex, gender, and reproductive organs must dictate one’s destiny, or makes one gender more likely than the other to be ‘connected’ or to give care.
Back to the integrative agenda
I think about abortion-related policies in a way informed by anti-subordination feminism. But I also think about the world in this way. I see employment, education, trade, health, and immigration laws through this lens, and I see the subordination of caregivers, the perpetuation of narrow gender roles, and the subordination of pregnant women and women-who-want-to-be-pregnant as, unfortunately, caused and exacerbated by contemporary policies in all of those arenas. I also hate the subordination of women who do not want to be pregnant (and I think laws that restrict abortion fall into this category); but this is clearly a place where we will disagree – about either the normativity of “not having children” in the first place, or the means by which this norm can be achieved.
But apart from that, I think you’re absolutely right when you say our most important integrative agreement is in our opposition to the subordination of women. I’d add that we also have an important agreement in thinking that lives are connected to other lives; that atomistic separation is neither normative nor possible. When families are split apart by migration, I see that as a reproductive-justice issue. Or is it a consistent-ethic-of-life issue? If our disagreement on abortion is what’s keeping us from seeing these shared concerns, then having better, narrower, and more peaceful disagreements will help us stop wasting time and missing opportunities.
Thanks, Charlie, for inviting me to post here. Thanks, David, Jana, Julie, and Emily for commenting. Your comments made me feel very welcome. I hope we can continue to think and write about these ideas, and that someday we can stop talking about talking, and start talking about what we can achieve, together.
What Kind of Common Ground? (Charlie)
Hilary, thank you for a very thoughtful and challenging post. I particularly appreciate your desire to get clear about the audiences from where we think common ground can and should come. I am not always as specific about this as I should be, and you have helped me understand that such specificity is necessary if one’s attempts to find common ground avoid seeming confusing or even disingenuous.
The kind of common ground I had in mind when I conceived the conference (and, I think, the kind that Saletan was after in his suggestions), quite frankly, did not have reproductive justice activists in mind. I don’t like the term ‘mushy middle’, but for those who want to get something like public consensus on public policy directly related to abortion (at least in the short term), I think the average American has to be the focus. As you said, the average American has complex views about abortion, but she generally does not have the kinds of views that activists have. The potential common ground between reproductive justice and consistent ethic of life folks is terrifically exciting, but the two communities constitute a small number of people. I do believe that issues like fetal pain, pregnancy reduction (when done for a reason other than the health of the mother), repeat abortions, abortions done on basis of the gender or mental disability of the prenatal child, etc., provide important opportunities for integrative common ground for a substantial majority of Americans. Nor is this common ground dissatisfying for mainstream pro-lifers, because, though it isn’t perfect, it not only moves us toward protecting some particularly vulnerable populations from what we consider to be a violent death, it also gets these populations into our public consciousness and on our moral radar in a way that forces our culture to take them seriously.
That said, this kind of common ground could be said to be nibbling around the edges, and I don’t think it alone serves as a long term solution to our problems. One reason why the average American has such complex views about abortion, in my view, is because the discourse is radically confused. Not only are the issues themselves complicated, but multiple (and sometimes conflicting) values are in play—often even within the same person’s point of view. If we want to move toward a discourse which cuts through the complexity of the issues and consistently reasons from coherent moral principles, I believe that something like the beautiful and compelling integrative agenda you propose is the long term solution. We may not get public consensus on it now, or even in the next several years, but I think as generation X and Y come into their own, we will have a fresh political discourse that is more open to the shared values of the reproductive justice and consistent ethic of life communities.
But let’s talk more specifics. You asked what being pro-life means to me and, relatedly, what I think about when I think about abortion. The answer to the former question is that I believe in a consistent ethic of life which should:
- Acknowledge the moral value of all life: persons (both human and non-human), non-human animals, and the broader ecological world.
- Have a presumption against using violence and especially aiming at death.
- Have a presumption for aiding those in need and especially or those who will die without aid.
- Foster a special concern for the most vulnerable (especially persons, but not excluding any entities which have interests) regardless of species, age, condition of dependency, net contribution to the economy, race, gender, class, health, wealth, power, or moral condition.
My understanding of birth control abortion is that it violates all four principles. However, it is only one of many systemic practices which fall into this category: abandonment of the global poor, factory farming of non-human animals, and ecological destruction also violate all four principles and should be called into serious question from the perspective of a consistent ethic of life.
But you know something else is at variance with the consistent ethic? Violating the dignity and bodily integrity of women. From our conversations over the past several months, I am convinced that this is where the most interesting conversation can be had between reproductive justice and consistent ethic folks—at least when it comes to abortion. Both camps can agree that we must fight for a woman’s right not to be pregnant against her will, and this will naturally lead us to an integrative common ground agenda that would include campaigns against sexual violence, for women’s general empowerment in relationships and society more broadly, etc. But exploring this common ground might also mean having some honest and perhaps difficult conversations about what it means to consent to sex and what it entails (for both women and men) in terms of taking responsibility for (both pre- and post-natal) children that result.
So, in summary, I come to this conversation not only trying to find common ground on issues that go beyond abortion (I agree that a general critique of neo-liberalism is a good example of this), but also to try to map out where we disagree and agree about abortion-related issues. I remain convinced that we can work together on issues were we agree, but I think it is equally important to explore our disagreements in the spirit of charity with the goal of truly understanding the views of our partner in dialogue.
 This is especially true if one takes seriously both the Church’s ‘Just War’ tradition (which only permits violence in defense of another against a non-innocent aggressor) and Jesus’ well-known prohibitions against violence and killing.
 This principle might recall the Catechism of the Catholic Church connecting abandonment of poor (especially when due to greed) to a violation of the fifth commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.’
 Though I would mention that rejecting neo-liberalism does not necessarily entail a kind of socialism that is at variance with a Roman Catholic understanding of the human person and the principle of subsidiarity.
Common Ground: The “Integrative”Agenda (Hilary)
Charlie, I think that if we can team up on certain common-ground issues (one of which I will propose in a later post), we will achieve two of the goals that you mentioned in your post. First, our alliance will explode stereotypes about what it means to be ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice.’ Second, we will get to know each other in a deep, important way – thus defusing the potential for stereotyping and mischaracterization that we are sometimes responsible for. And we will also achieve two other important things: we’ll give vocal, powerful, and needed support to some of the least talked-about problems in our world today; and we’ll be able to start devising and developing solutions.
What I’m hoping to propose is that we team up to level a robust critique of neoliberalism and to work on local- and medium-scale alternatives. Both pro-life Catholics and Reproductive Justice feminists share a deep disagreement with neoliberalism as guiding philosophy, as I will discuss, hopefully in my next post. But I first want to explain what this has to do with ‘fetal pain.’
The “Integrative” Agenda
In any kind of dispute or negotiation, there are two kinds of agenda items. Imagine you are bargaining over buying a car. You want to pay a max of $5000 and are hoping for $4000; the seller will accept a minimum of $5000, but is hoping for $7500. But you have some non-monetary desires as well. You really can’t take possession of the car for two months, but you’d like to buy it now. You’d like to change the oil, the fuel filter, and check the brakes before you drive off with it. So you start talking with the seller, and you find out that the seller also has a secret desire – she would like to keep custody of the car for a while, since she’s moving to Japan, but not for two months. You also find out that her brother is a mechanic and would be happy to do those things for you during the two months she keeps the car. He’s just starting out in the business and would love to have you as a client in order to get a reference – so much that he’ll do the work for a reduced rate, and the seller will incorporate that cost into her price for the car. Discussing these things you realize that your agenda and her agenda are exactly the same thing. It makes you both feel like you’ve “won” to have made this deal: you’ll buy the car now, but she’ll keep it for two months and get the work done on it for you. These are called “integrative interests.” The “integrative interests” are things that both sides authentically want – things that truly and deeply respond to each side’s interests. But how much do you pay for the car? Let’s say you negotiate back and forth and end up on a price of $5000. This is OK with both of you, but it’s not your ideal. You don’t want to part with $1000 more than you’d hoped to; and she doesn’t want to accept $2500 less than she’d envisioned. This is called a “distributive interest.” In most negotiations, these will be unavoidable. We can find and celebrate and exploit the “integrative interests” as much as possible – and we should – but eventually there comes a point when one party concedes something to the other. Usually, in a successful “distributive” negotiation, both parties concede something – something they can live with.
This “distributive” arrangement is the kind of “agreement” that I think Saletan was talking about after the Princeton conference (“I hate half of this proposal, but I can live with it”); and it’s what I think your ‘fetal pain’ concern is. What Saletan wrote about, and what many of the Princeton panels were about, are the kinds of things that may be “common ground” for the “mushy middle” – e.g. Americans who are not abortion activists on either side and who are known to harbor a kind of amalgam of pro-choice/pro-life views. But I think an inquiry into “common ground for a core sample of Americans” is quite different from an inquiry into “common ground” between activists on both sides of this issue. And I’m far more interested in the latter area of inquiry.
And so in my view, fetal-pain legislation is not “common ground” with RJ activists, and at least it is not “integrative” common ground with RJ activists. Here’s why. As you noted in your last post, I could be convinced that if there is a ‘less painful for the fetus’ way of doing an abortion, I would not stand in the way of promoting that method over other methods. But this would be a really fraught negotiation, because I have rhetorical and philosophical hurdles to even talking about “the fetus” in an isolated sense in the first place – which I would have to explain to well-intentioned pro-lifers, and which may well be surmountable (and you could of course argue with me about this initial hurdle, and try to convince me that it is not valid, is erroneous, is problematic, etc.). But if we surmounted that, for me to agree on some ‘fetal pain reduction’ agenda would not make me really passionate about it, because it simply does not come from my deepest interests. Also, for a pro-lifer, wouldn’t that kind of agreement be similarly dissatisfying, because, after all, we’re still talking about a world in which abortions are happening? All I mean by this is to say let’s dig deeper, and find out what our real interests are. Let’s not try to find quick concessions for our scorecards, but instead look for the issues where both sides feel like their core values are at stake. What problems are out there that infuriate both of us equally? What are some solutions to those problems that we both desire? What I want to do with pro-life Catholics such as yourself is look hard for these shared enemies and shared hopes. And when we find those shared concerns I will call it the “integrative agenda.”
The way I propose we find the “integrative agenda” comes from negotiation and mediation theory. First, we do what I proposed in my first post: we get to know each other by shutting up and listening to the other side. I want to ask folks who identify as “pro-life” to tell me “what does pro-life mean to you?” Or, what problems do you see and how would a better world look to you? Then I want to try to re-state it and see if I’ve got it right. Then we would swap roles. I would tell you and your movement what “reproductive justice” means to me. And have you try to re-state it. In talking about these worldviews we will, I hope, identify some key areas of shared concern. We will identify “problems” that we both agree are “problems.” We should then place those “problems” in the center of the table, as it were, and not argue with each other but think about how we might combat those problems. We will probably come up with some solutions that we both agree on and some ideas that one side sees as a viable solution but that the other side does not agree with, or agrees with only conditionally. But this exercise will help us, in effect, construct a map. A map of what our real disagreements are about – do we disagree on X being a problem, or do we disagree on Y being the solution? We’ll also discover, I hope, a rich and heretofore uncharted “integrative agenda.”
I know we’re also trying to eschew the labels, so maybe I would begin this effort not by saying “Charlie, what does ‘being pro-life’ mean to you?” but by saying “Why did you come to this conversation? What do you think about when you think about abortion?”
I urge others who are reading this post and who are intrigued by this approach to try a discussion like this with someone on the “other side.” Remember, the first step is listening. The goal is to understand, not to persuade.
 See Fisher and Ury, “Getting to Yes.”
Abortion: Beyond Labels (Charlie)
Hilary, I cannot tell you how edifying and hopeful I have found our exchanges over the past year since the ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds’ conference at Princeton. However, perhaps unlike you, I have not found them surprising. One of the reasons I undertook the project of the conference was because I was absolutely confident that significant common ground existed between many people who are labeled ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life.’ My experience in the academy, in the classroom, and even just talking over a pint in the pub is such that when the issues are spoken about with precision, pre-judgments of persons and groups are avoided, and the complexity of the issues are actually engaged, we often find that the disagreement is not as dramatic as we thought. Indeed, as you point out in your post, the real disagreement is sometimes not even about the act of abortion per se, but rather about an aspect of sexuality or the role of government in our lives. It takes some care even to discover precisely where we disagree.
One prerequisite for true dialogue is refusing to lump people into categories—and especially when doing so makes their positions easy to dismiss. This precludes us from actually getting to know the nuanced and complex history and positions of our interlocutors. When we refuse to put people into categories and instead look at their actual views (sometimes this requires getting to know each other personally—and forging these kinds of relationships was an explicit goal of the Princeton conference), we often find that the binary choice/life approach doesn’t work. In fact, there are many different kinds of people who broadly support abortions rights, and many different kinds of people who support a defense of prenatal human life, and for many different kinds of reasons. Feminists, for instance, are traditionally thought of as pro-choice, but many feminists in my circle are pro-life because they believe in nonviolence and that presenting autonomy as a primary value undercuts the kind of justice for disempowered vulnerable populations which is at the heart of feminism. Conservatives are traditionally thought of as pro-life, but many conservatives in my circle are pro-choice because they are suspicious of government playing a significant role in private medical choices and in the bodily-integrity of individuals. Many folks who identify as pro-life believe that abortion in certain cases is regrettably permissible (for instance, when sex has not been consensual and/or the mother’s health is in serious danger) while many of my friends who are pro-choice also think that certain abortions are less defensible than others. One thing that I hope came from the Princeton conference (and it has definitely come from our growing friendship) is that the complexities of the views that people hold on abortion don’t fit neatly into simplistic categories—and certainly not a lazy choice/life binary.
Understanding this complexity might help explain the disconnect between you and I about whether the issue of fetal pain is common ground. It may not work with people who are pro-choice for feminist reasons related to reproductive justice, but my experience, both at the Princeton conference and in other contexts, is that it is common ground with those who are pro-choice because, in their view, the fetus lacks any significant moral value that we are bound to respect. Once they can be convinced that a fetus would suffer pain as a result of the abortion, I’ve seen new kinds of conversations come about with regard to second and third trimester abortion. I certainly don’t speak for the whole organizing committee of the conference (we were certainly not of one mind about every issue), but I remain convinced that fetal pain and the other issues explored at the conference are important areas of common ground worth exploring.
Understanding this complexity is also an antidote for the personal judgments you mentioned in your post. Unfortunately, one uphill battle we must fight is against a media which almost always casts this issue in the very lazy binary we wish to avoid—and often pro-lifers get lumped in with the supposedly misogynistic side of the binary. If that is the image that you and others had of the movement, then I can understand the worry that trying to talk about ‘the family’ or ‘sexual norms’ might be read as code for the kinds of things that some feminists and the reproductive justice movement would find anathema. And though you wouldn’t have to look very hard to find a few misogynistic pro-lifers (especially when thinking about the ones on which our media tend to focus), we are diverse group of people which resists easy categorization. For instance, one of the strongest pro-life people I know recently gave up his doctoral graduate program to take care of his daughter as a stay at home Dad while his wife works full time as a physician. Another close friend and strong pro-lifer spends a great deal of her time doing prisoner counseling and rehabilitation. Many pro-lifers typically vote for liberals in elections.
On the other hand, pro-lifers can suffer from our own caricatures of pro-choicers. This usually involves something about their refusing to take the science of embryology and fetal development (and the arguments about the moral status of the fetus in light of the science) seriously, prizing consequence-free sex above everything else, having a moral anthropology which sees vulnerability and dependency as evidence of having less moral value, uncritical rejection of any position traditionally associated with a religious group, etc. But my interaction with you, along with many other good people who take a pro-choice stance, forces me to have a different position. Many who support abortion rights do acknowledge the significant value of prenatal human life. Many are very concerned about having a coherent understanding of sexuality, do not support abortion for ‘consequence free sex’ reasons, and care about focusing on vulnerable populations with special concern. And many are quite religious, or are interested in and sympathetic to religiously-motivated views.
Finally, yes, we have had to deal with a few more established members of the pro-life movement who are skeptical about the whole prospect of common ground. In addition to apparently wanting to define themselves by opposition to those who think differently than they do, it also worries some of them that many of us who are doing this are young and haven’t been out there fighting the battles for as long as they have. Some have publicly written that we are being taken advantage of by much smarter and craftier pro-choice veterans. Interestingly, some on the pro-choice side said something similar: common ground is a ruse or a gimmick by the pro-lifers to advance an agenda.
But I believe you are profoundly right to say that this debate is not going away any time soon. Even as support for abortion rights seems to be holding steady, support for abortion restrictions (especially within various states) seems to be increasingly rather dramatically. More and more young people seem to be having more complex views about abortion that do their parents. Dealing with this complexity is absolutely essential if the debates that are to come are to have any coherency and our discourse is to become something other than naked grabs of political power. That is why I am so grateful to have the conversation and friendship I have with you. It gives me hope that things can be done differently.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about abortion (Hilary Hammell)
Last year’s Princeton conference sought to do the almost-impossible: to bring together people with opposing views on abortion in an attempt to find common ground. I am a feminist abortion-rights supporter, but unlike some more skeptical members of the reproductive justice movement, I think the conference was important and that its goals are urgently worth pursuing.
But I also think its approach was flawed, and that some of the “common ground” ideas proffered, after the conference, by Catholic Ethics professor Charlie Camosy and by Slate’s William Saletan, were not the most important or exciting types of “common ground” (for reasons I will explain in more detail in a later post), and may not really be ‘common ground’ at all. That dissatisfaction caused me to contact Camosy, one of the pro-life organizers of the conference, in December of last year. I told him that I so appreciated that young pro-life Catholics such as he were even interested in talking to young abortion-rights activists like me in the first place. Such a thing is itself radical. I told him about my criticisms of his proposed ‘common ground’ ideas, and also told him that his argument against abortion, delivered at the conference, did not make sense to me – but that I could tell it made sense to him. What this disconnect revealed, in my mind, was that pro-choicers and pro-lifers have a lot more work to do in explaining our worldviews to each other before we can begin to argue coherently. I suspected as well that if we got to know each other better, we would do a better job at discovering the real common ground, which may not be what we think it is.
When we talk about abortion – and by “we” I mean anyone, but especially people who think about abortion a lot – namely activists on either “side” — we are talking about a lot more than abortion, without saying so. We’re talking about pregnancy, sex, inequality, gender, consent, metaphysics, human rights, theories of justice, theories of the state (probably also about theology and ontology – the question of ‘where do people come from?’). For example, when I talk about abortion, I’m really talking about a theory of gender equality, and I assume that people from my movement understand that. People from outside the movement may not understand the extent to which my views on abortion arise out of a theory of gender justice, rather than out of a neoliberal fetishizing of ‘choice.’ Similarly, when people with a more ‘pro-life’ view talk about abortion, they are often relying on a theory about consent to sexual behavior about which unfamiliar listeners may not be aware.
Our background assumptions need to become explicit if we’re ever going to be able to work together, because working together requires that we first understand each other.
Charlie and I imagined that in this five-day exchange we would reveal our discoveries as to what “common ground” really is between pro-lifers and pro-choicers, since we’ve been discussing that subject for the past nine months. I agree with him – common ground exists, and we can identify at least some of it. But I also want to argue that we still don’t know what most of our common ground really is. We still have to do a better, more honest, and more comprehensive job of explaining our own views and philosophies to each other. Only once those landscapes are known can we successfully find common ground and avoid caricaturizing the other side, imputing bad faith to it, or making incorrect guesses as to what we think common ground might be. I think that at the Princeton conference the organizers were guilty of the third mistake: making incorrect guesses as to what they thought common ground might be. (For example, ‘concern for fetal pain’ is not, to my mind, the most transformative kind of common ground with abortion-rights proponents, as I will explain in a later post). Meanwhile, many of the attendees (myself included) were guilty of the first and second mistakes: caricaturizing and imputing bad faith to the other side. Finding common ground in this context will feel like finding a needle in a minefield. But I believe that in spite of the toughness of the task, it is really, really worth doing.
That proposition itself probably requires a defense, at least for my pro-choice and reproductive justice-oriented readers. Why should feminists take pro-lifers seriously (and in an interested and compassionate way, not “seriously” as in “enemy”)? How can I square that with my revulsion at abortion-clinic protesters and at paternalist laws like Texas’s and Kansas’s? For two reasons. One is just Machiavellian: the anti-abortion movement is not going away any time soon. We can continue to try to beat back abortion-restrictive laws like Whack-a-mole, but pro-life people are fiercely serious and well-organized; anti-abortion laws seem to be gaining ground. For that reason alone, we should try to get to know these activists. We should find as many agreements as we can and collaborate on those, while seeking to defuse as many disagreements and misunderstandings as possible. I call that a cynical view – but one that may be enough for many who are unconvinced by my second reason: the teleological one. Feminists and pro-lifers (at least the Catholic pro-lifers) are philosophical kin in ways that we should discover and celebrate. I mean it! At the most abstract level, both of us have a vision of the Good. But at a more specific level, both of these movements are suspicious of hyper-capitalism; are focused on social injustice and inequality; and think a lot about family structures and the relationship of private life to public life. Pro-life Catholics share many policy preferences with the Reproductive Justice movement – universal health care; prenatal care; day care; parental leave. And these values come from normative principles, not utilitarian calculus. Further, as I hope Charlie will explain in more detail, Catholic lionization of “the family” does not, contrary to my pre-Princeton stereotype, serve as a code word for outmoded gender norms and strict gender roles. Building “traditional families” that don’t have to ascribe to “traditional” gender norms is one project of the contemporary feminist movement as well as the LGBT movement – pro-life Catholics are our spiritual allies here; they should be our political allies too. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do – positing a “common ground” idea before making sure that I understand exactly what it is that “pro-life” thought is all about; and before making sure I understand what I mean when I say I’m pro-choice; what it means when I say “reproductive justice.”
What do you think, Charlie? Do you think it’s been valuable to talk more about what we’re not usually talking about when we argue about abortion within our own echo chambers, and that doing this kind of exposition is a prerequisite to either finding common ground or having coherent disagreements?
Similarly, could you tell me a little bit about what caused you to want to reach out to pro-choice people and seek common ground in the first place? I find this a really exciting thing and that’s why I’ve been so eager to work with you – even though we’ve learned that being eager to do something does not mean that doing it will be easy. Is this kind of collaboration seen with suspicion in the pro-life movement at all? Is it something you have to defend to some pro-lifers, the way I think that I have to defend or explain it or sell the idea to some pro-choice RJ folks?
 For my pro-choice and reproductive-justice readers, I want to defend my use of the term “pro-life” to describe people like Charlie. I used to say “anti-choice” to describe this movement. But at the Princeton conference I got to know many young Catholics who identify as “pro-life” and who are thinking seriously about how they can achieve a “consistent ethic of life” – a world that, among others, would include universal health care. Charlie is this kind of “pro-lifer.” He has criticized the conservative, neoliberal right for using the moniker “pro-life” while eviscerating social programs, for example.
Hi Hilary– Welcome, and thank you for entering into this dialogue. I especially appreciated the idea that any debate will be better informed if one is sympathetically familiar with the deeper questions of worldview.
I would point out one thing about this: your post seems to suggest that the term “pro-life” is appropriate for “young Catholics thinking seriously about how they can achieve a consistent ethic of life.” That is, somehow someone like Charlie is the exception. But this does not seem correct. Here is a brief list of Catholics defending exactly this position, consistently, for decades: Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Bernardin, the constant statements of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the consistent editorial policy of the leading Catholic journal of opinion, Commonweal, and (so far as I can tell) the vast majority of teachers of Catholic moral theology in the U.S. (as is evidenced by the lengthy – and not young – signature list for Tobias Winright’s petition against capital punishment). In other words, almost the entire Catholic establishment of bishops and theologians. I’d be the first to note that not all have done so with equal vigor on all issues. But the official, stated, and acted-upon position has been upheld for decades.
Wow – this should be an interesting discussion –
Here’s one of my questions at the outset that I wonder if you might address (Hilary in particular, but also Charlie): you raise a point I often hear about whether feminists should take pro-lifers seriously. I find that an odd question, mostly because I am a feminist and I also hold a consistent life ethic. Do you think that people can only count themselves feminist if, and only if, they are willing to include the right to have an abortion as a basic tenet of justice?
And, if not, and along the lines of the conversation you and Charlie are opening up here: what kinds of things might scholars who care about gender issues be able to find in common with each other when it comes to abortion? Do I still have a place at the “feminist” table even if others would not call me a feminist?
Dear David, Thank you for your comment, and I agree. I didn’t mean to suggest that *most* people who say they are “pro-life” are so only in some “inconsistent” way and that Charlie is an exception. All I mean to suggest is that the true, “consistent” nature of Catholic pro-life thought is not well understood by non-Catholics such as myself — especially not by those of us who are generally secular and who, when faced with someone who disagrees with us on Issue X, to caricature that person’s views on all other issues. This initial lacuna in our understanding is something that, in my opinion, must be remedied before we can move forward on shared concerns in a productive way.
Dear Jana, Your point is along the same lines. First, I do not believe that one must support abortion rights to be a feminist. I am a feminist, and I support abortion rights. But one position does not require the other. For example, many folks who support abortion rights are deeply anti-feminist. (See, e.g., Hugh Hefner). Many folks who are virulently feminist are sort of ambivalent on abortion issues. And I think that pro-life Catholics are some of the most radically “feminist” thinkers out there – even if they don’t all self-identify as such, and even if abortion-rights is not part of their feminist toolkit. It’s precisely because I think that Catholic “consistent ethic of life” thought is actually so in line with reproductive-justice feminism (on most things!) that I’m so eager to figure out how to collaborate with Catholic pro-life activists. That was the idea that the Princeton conference stoked for me, and what Charlie and I hope to discuss in this series. I hope to help organize another conference someday on exactly what Jana suggests. I don’t have the answer yet for “what things we might find in common on gender issues” when we have differing views on abortion, but I very much want to find out, and folks like Jana should be more than welcome at the table. I have the same question as to whether I would be allowed at the “consistent ethic of life” table when I support abortion rights. I hope Charlie and I can parse that question a bit over the course of this series.
Hilary and Charlie,
Thanks for bringing your discussion to the blog and for attempting to find real common ground. It reminds of John Courtney Murray, SJ’s plea for civility:
“Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties of the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories . . . Civility dies with the death of the dialogue.”
Thanks for showing us that substantial civil dialogue can happen, even on the most controversial issues.
As another pro-life feminist, I agree that both groups share commitments to the social justice, have a strong vision of the good, and question much of what is socially normative.
I’m looking forward to the continuing conversation.
You say, “I think that pro-life Catholics are some of the most radically “feminist” thinkers out there – even if they don’t all self-identify as such”
This is so true. A friend of mine who knew Andrea Dworkin is now Catholic. I wonder if you’ve read Pope John Paul 2’s “Love and Responsibility”.
Charlie and Hilary, Thank you so much for your posts and for modeling the kind of dialogue that is sorely needed in our culture (and church for that matter). I’ve been reading all week. After reading today’s installment, I have to say that I am grateful that Hilary has named listening as the important first step. It seems like you are calling us to epistemological humility, and I think that is very hard for a lot of activists on both sides of the abortion issue. I also appreciate the careful descriptions and distinctions in all of the posts. I will keep reading!