The Common Good
May-June 1999

A Civil Discourse

by Julie Polter | May-June 1999

Seeking common ground on abortion clinic activism.

Marilyn Cohen is director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, Iowa’s first outpatient abortion facility. The clinic has been the target of blockades, invasions, and firebombing. Karen Swallow Prior is a former spokesperson for Western New York Rescue in Buffalo, a regular "sidewalk counselor" at a clinic, and has been jailed for participating in clinic "rescue" blockades. To put it mildly, Cohen and Swallow Prior do not agree about abortion.

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Yet not only have they managed to speak civilly to one another, they have done so concerning one of the most volatile and controversial engagement points between pro-choice and pro-life activists—demonstrations outside of clinics that perform abortions. One fruit of their dialogue is a working paper that they co-authored, "Common Ground on Abortion Clinic Activism." This paper not only gives each woman’s perspective on the values that determine and shape the position on abortion that each has taken, it outlines the principles related to demonstrations and activism that Cohen and Swallow Prior found they could agree on.

That shared territory includes a mutual commitment to nonviolence as a principle in both pro-choice and pro-life activism. They both "affirm and celebrate the role of the First Amendment in advancing all public debate, including debate over abortion." They agree that women’s ability and capacity as moral decision makers must be recognized and respected by all parties, and that ethical clinic activism must exclude methods that are meant, or likely, to produce fear or intimidation.

The women’s dialogue and resulting paper is the result of their involvement with the steering committee of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. The network supports local dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life activists around the country, and at the national level it has produced two other papers co-written by pro-life and pro-choice representatives—one on adoption and another on teen pregnancy.

One could argue that the polite and respectful dialogue between Cohen and Swallow Prior is entirely beside the point in our current cultural climate. Until it was ordered shut down permanently in February, the "Nuremberg Files" Web site featured "wanted" posters of doctors who perform abortions (the names of doctors who had been killed were crossed off), along with personal details including names of family members, addresses, photos, and license-plate numbers. A violent fringe feels their opposition to abortion justifies terrorist actions: bombings, sniper attacks, suspicious packages accompanied by called-in threats of anthrax.

PRO-LIFE ACTIVISTS have not been the target of organized violence. But some of them would argue that ultimately the 1994 federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (under which the case against the Nuremberg Files site was pursued) goes beyond its intended goal of curbing dangerous and harassing confrontations at clinics and actually infringes on the free speech rights of those who oppose abortion. At the level of public discourse, Daniel Taylor argued in a recent Christianity Today article that the widespread media and societal call for tolerance often serves to mask an intolerance of conservative cultural and political views, including a pro-life position. Whether or not this sense of being tacitly censored is always warranted, it is undeniable that stereotypes often drive the abortion debate.

But it is this very landscape of conflict, mutual defensiveness, and random violence (all about a legal activity that many people hold to be itself a morally abhorrent act of violence) that makes the shared principles outlined by Cohen and Swallow Prior (and their commitment to dialogue) both radical and vital. There are options other than flame throwing and apathy. But it takes focus and work and listening skills, of a sort not especially promoted or nurtured in our media culture, to go more than bumper-sticker deep in any public debate. All the more so when that debate is one rooted in values as primal as those at play in the abortion discussion.

Dialogue does not block a sniper’s bullet or stop unwanted pregnancies. But calling one another to examine our values and seek consistency in living them out counters rhetoric and stereotypes that contribute to a climate of violence and divert key resources from the society-wide task of nurturing and defending life and human dignity.

—Julie Polter

JULIE POLTER is associate editor of Sojourners. To order a copy of "Common Ground on Abortion Clinic Activism," send $7 per copy to Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts, Syracuse University, 410 Maxwell Hall, Syracuse, NY 13244; (315) 443-2367; www.maxwell.syr.edu/parc/parcmain.htm. The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice can be reached at 1601 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20009; (202) 265-4300.

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