A pro-choice activist describes what it's like when a major pro-life protest occurs in her city: "I'm the one who calls in the army [of volunteer clinic escorts]....It's like a war. I don't like it. I'm tired. I want to see if there's another way to deal with this issue."
So on a brilliant spring day she joined 100 other people in Madison, Wisconsin, in the first national conference of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. For four days pro-choice activists, clergy, doctors, and women's clinic directors could be found with pro-life activists, clergy, lawyers, and crisis pregnancy center volunteers in workshops, strategy sessions on teen-age pregnancy and adoption, andperhaps the biggest surprisefriendly conversation.
These people didn't ignore their very real differences on the core issue of abortion, but they also didn't allow those differences to distract them from seeking the "common ground" that exists even among adversaries.
The Common Ground Network came together in 1993 out of dialogue and joint action between pro-choice and pro-life supporters in Buffalo, St. Louis, and elsewhere. The network links such "common ground" groups around the country, providing resources, training, and facilitators.
Activists from both "sides" of the abortion issue sit down together for extended discussion under specified ground rules: respectful speech and behavior; a desire to understand; a pledge to refrain from attempts to convert and convince; and confidentiality. Discussion moves from issues directly related to abortion (What's the life experience that's led you to the position that you've taken?) to related topics suggested by group members (What are your beliefs about birth control? How do we best teach our children about sexuality?). A goal is to identify areas of agreement and possible cooperative work. Examples have included promoting adoption and developing a mutual "code of conduct" for public hearings concerning abortion.
Participants are not expected to give up their pro-choice or pro-life activism. In between dialogues, they often continue to face each other as adversaries in the media, city council chambers, or across demonstration lines.
"COMMON GROUND" DOES NOT mean compromise. While compromise has a rightful place in our society, groups affiliated with the network begin with an understanding that there are core principles on which neither side in the abortion issue conflict can compromise. This doesn't, however, preclude the possibility of civil dialogue and coming together on other principles.
In view of the verbal and physical violence that has characterized the abortion debate in the United States, for adversaries in that debate to meet with listening ears, with handshakes, confessions of stereotyping, forgiveness, and statements of basic human respect for one another is not a trivial thing. These groups serve as a needed witness in a country at war with itself on many fronts.
Still, Common Ground groups are not only about people unexpectedly "getting along"an oddity to be noted and then dismissed. Most participants have a commitment to their communitiesa desire that they be safer, more caring places to live, where even sharp disagreements do not bring about violence and torn relationships. They want to see practical changes that increase the resources, justice, equality, and choices available to women and familiesand many don't see other options.
"I don't think anything else is working, and [Common Ground] is our only chance," said Connie Cook, a pro-choice participant in Common Ground of the Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa). At the conference one could sense a tangible desire that Common Ground efforts might be like yeast, eventually permeating and changing our country's public discourse on the abortion issue.
Could a Common Ground approach change the way we talk about other issues as well? The Buffalo Coalition for Common Ground has been testing this out, helping to organize, for example, a common ground dialogue day for the Presbytery of Western New York on the question of the ordination of gays and lesbians. The coalition is currently planning a day this fall on teen pregnancy, which will bring together people working on the issue, teen-agers, and their parents for common ground-style conversation.
"This approach requires lots of preliminary workcollecting good data on the topic, making sure you get the right people," says Stan Bratton, one of the founders of the Buffalo Coalition. "Balance is the crucial thing"without which one side or another may feel that the planners are promoting a certain position or agenda. For the teen-pregnancy forum, planners have brought in Planned Parenthood, pro-life adoption agencies, the city school board, the Catholic diocese, the Hispanic Coalition, a predominantly African-American hospital, and the coordinator for youth services for the county, among many others.
The common ground approach is not easy, and its impact and achievements may be modest. It is quiet and grassroots, not flashy and well-known. But for the greater good to be true and lasting, it has to be built one brick at a time. Common Ground offers one concrete model for how we might begin building up, instead of tearing down.