[Sojourners, January 1995]
For years I scoffed at the idea of violence outside abortion clinics. Sure, plenty of violence was going on inside the clinics—over 4,000 babies killed every day. But opponents of abortion are pro-life, I kept saying. We’re in this because we oppose bloodshed. Occasionally I’d wince to hear that someone who was Not Clear on the Concept had harmed an empty building, an action that was wrong, risky, and stupid. But the notion that anyone would aim a gun at an abortionist’s head and pull the trigger was ludicrous.
Then somebody did it.
Worse—if it could be worse—Michael Griffin shot Dr. David Gunn in the back, compounding bloodshed with cowardice. A year later Paul Hill did the same thing, spraying bullets inside the cab of a truck and killing, not only a doctor, but an elderly man functioning as his chauffeur. Crazy violence, once contained inside the safe-and-legal walls, was bursting out in scary and unpredictable ways.
It was no surprise, then, to see a headline in a recent newspaper: “Man Shoots at Pro-Lifer at Baton Rouge Abortion Clinic.” According to police, Ernest Robertson got a gun from his car and pointed it at protester Richard Mahoney, who turned to run away. Fortunately, this time the bullet missed. “It’s just a situation where two emotional people were engaged in a confrontation,” says police spokesman Don Kelly.
People have been emotional about the abortion issue for over twenty years, and perhaps we should be grateful for the restraint that has kept guns out of the picture till now. But with the advent of this new level of bloodshed, finding non-violent solutions becomes more urgent than ever.
How do you de-polarize a situation? How do you cool tempers down? While the tension of fighting political battles freezes the opposing armies in battle mode, perhaps there are areas outside the political sphere where dialogue can begin. Perhaps, when we consider the real troubles that real pregnant women face, we can find some common ground.
Dialogue groups between pro-choice and pro-life partisans have sprung up across the country in the last five years or so; they’re usually termed “Common Ground groups.” Recently, a national Common Ground Network for Life and Choice has begun linking them together. To listen to the experiences of these varied groups is to glimpse the many ways opponents can learn from each other, while maintaining the integrity of their own beliefs.
For example, a dozen pro-life and pro-choice partisans recently met for the first time in Washington, DC. We discovered that we’re not as hardened as the stereotypes would suggest: one person, who had been an activist on his side for 25 years, said “Any thinking person has to be deeply ambivalent about abortion.” Another introduced herself by saying that she had figured the issue out in black and white, and was afraid that listening to the other side might disrupt her prejudices. She was right, and left the event feeling that she’d made new friends.
Most groups put the bulk of their energy into the dialogue process, learning through trial and error the intricacies of the conflict-negotiation process. Some groups have attempted joint action, but this is more difficult; even well-funded groups in ideological agreement often have difficulty seeing their projects become reality.
But there is a third role that Common Ground groups can play. They can simply be a witness. When a hideous, insane event occurs, like a shooting outside a clinic, they don’t have to rush to blame, defend, or ridicule. Instead, they can stand united in clear opposition to any illegal violence, no matter who holds the gun. When a study is announced that touches the periphery of the abortion issue—for example, on sexuality or adoption—they don’t have to mine it for opportunities to make their opponents look bad. Instead, they can point together to insights that help us move toward a society where abortion no longer looks like a grim necessity.
The emergence of this “third voice” is inadvertently hastened by the pro-life and pro-choice establishments. To participate in a Common Ground group is to find yourself criticized, sometimes harshly, by your own side. “You’re only giving them credibility” or “They have blood on their hands” are typical objections. Those who attempt to listen to and in some way love their enemies find themselves named as enemies as well. Official rejection of Common Ground paradoxically strengthens it, defining it as a separate voice.
This painful issue has long been defined in terms of political power, and is nearly poisoned by the intransigence and insensitivity that goal dictates. I live close enough to Washington, D.C., to be able to see, on a clear morning, clouds of foggy thinking and hot air drift over Capitol Hill. When it comes to the abortion issue, we urgently need a cool breeze; as we’ve seen, bad thinking leads to bad talking and worse actions. Where pro-choice and pro-life people come together to understand each other and discover fragments of agreement, there is hope for clearer skies. A cooler, more temperate breeze may be right around the corner.