Last week, a leading "pro-life" blogger Jill Stanek made a cameo appearance in the comments section of a blog of mine, "The Call for Common Ground on Abortion," on Huffington Post. My post basically reported on, and offered perspective about, a conference call the White house organized for pro-life and pro-choice groups. It took the opportunity to announce the administration's intent to explore common ground in the abortion conflict. In my post, I pointed out that it's clear Obama's team wants to make progress on an issue that has divided and damaged us as a country for too long. They had explained the areas they hoped could unite pro-choice and pro-life people: reducing unintended pregnancy, including teen pregnancy, making adoption a more accessible choice for women confronting unintended pregnancy, and supporting struggling families with wanted pregnancies. They want to move forward, and have set up a common sense framework to do so. It's hard to demean such earnest intent.
But many veteran leaders in the "pro-life" movement are immovably stuck in their positions. They appear deeply invested in rehashing the same, seemingly eternal arguments, in continuing what even to a staunch pro-choicer like myself seems like a tedious fight. The natural inclination of rational Americans pining for common ground, as most of both persuasions on the abortion issue are, might be to zone out the heckling. But listening to this increasingly out of the mainstream arguments by people like Jill Stanek helps to understand the reason we have suffered from intransigence for so long. Too many of the most committed people, and here, the pro-choice side is not immune, feel that anything the opponent agrees to must be suspect. Bloggers like Stanek, those speaking into the echo chamber, are apparently so invested in continuing the fight that they won't budge. One suspects their incalcitrance is based not just on morality, but self-interest as well. If the vitriol isn't high enough they worry their base might drift away.
Jill is the perfect example of the unbending culture warrior. The one committed to fanning the flames of the ethereal, abstract side of debate and belittling or ignoring the common sense, brick and mortar proposals for problem solving. Jill is no doubt a smart chick. Her posts are always engaging even for those of the pro-choice persuasion like myself. If only she used her abilities not to undermine common ground efforts. Obama's common ground pledge (and my piece about it) did not muster any interest in Jill in finding a solution. It did inspire her to return for the billionth time to the well-worn arguments. She writes,
"Cristina, the basic questions: Why care about reducing the need for abortion? What's wrong with it?"
"Hi Jill, nice to hear from you. I think it's the same reason to reduce teen parenthood and to reduce the need to place a child for adoption. If any woman in one of those circumstances were to be asked, "if you could go back in time and avoid being in this predicament, would you?" nearly all would say yes. I think we should reduce teen parenthood and the need for adoption too. These are each often tremendously difficult choices that ideally no woman should have to face. Adoption, abortion, and parenthood are all the results of unintended pregnancy and I believe women should have access to each of these options legally and safely. But it's unintended pregnancy that's the real problem here. That's what we need to work to avoid.
"Sorry to not give you the "gotcha" moment you were looking for. For Huffpo readers, Jill Stanek is a leader in the anti-abortion movement and probably the most popular blogger on that side of the issue. Jill, here are my questions for you: Why are you opposed to preventing unintended pregnancy and access to contraception as one vehicle toward that end? Why do you pursue the outlawing of abortion even though it has failed to reduce abortion rates wherever it's been tried? Why not institute the policies that result in the lowest abortion rates on earth? So what if it's the most pro-choice countries that have the lowest abortion rates, aren't "pro-life" results what you're after?"
"Christina, seriously, thanks for the kind words on my credentials.
But you didn't answer me. You may consider my question a "gotcha," but it's foundational. How can we devise solutions when we haven't defined the problem? What exactly is the problem with abortion? Why is it "a tremendously difficult choice[ ] that ideally no woman should have to face"?
"What is wrong with abortion? Is it or is it not morally neutral or even superior, as new Cambridge Episcopal Divinity School pro-abort President Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale tagged it - "a blessing" and "holy work"?"
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"Well, actually, if you read what I wrote again, you'll see I was referring to adoption and teen parenthood as "often tremendously difficult choices." Sure, abortion can be a difficult choice for some women too (though or some women it is accompanied by no grief, though, just relief) and studies show that the more religious a woman is the harder struggle she has with it. So possibly, it's the culture she's in that creates guilt with her decision.
"Regardless, my point is that all choices accompanying an unintended pregnancy can be (but aren't always) difficult, but that's no reason to outlaw any of them. Based on your logic, it's grief that is the measure of what the "right" decision is. Then a woman who suffers grief after placing a child for adoption made the wrong choice, an immoral choice, right? Why not ban adoption then? Why not tell her that the reason she's feeling bad is because she made the wrong decision, one that God does not condone? That would be a terrible thing to do with women choosing adoption, and it's a terrible thing to do to women choosing abortion too.
"I've attempted to answer your question twice. You have not answered my questions even once. Please do. Why can't we agree to try to help women avoid having to make these decisions in the first place? Tell me Jill, honestly, what do you think are the areas we can agree on? Because I think there's a bunch."
In the end, Jill never once attempts to answer any of my simple questions, which is typical. I've noticed this tactic used often by those pro-lifers who work in the movement. Whenever the discussion gets off ethereal principles and onto the problem solving, they revert back to airy lectures. They continue to want to talk about the morality of abortion and are desperate to change the subject when it's about solving what they consider a moral crisis. They're the ones who have a problem with abortion. Why is the pro-choice camp the only side trying to come up with solutions, often successfully, to their problem? President Bush didn't promise to attempt to reduce abortion rates during his Presidency and, early indicators suggest, he lived up to that disinterest. The decline in abortion rates slowed during his administration, teen birth rates spiked, and the economic nightmare he left us in seems to already be causing an uptick in abortions. All that is traceable to Bush policies and mismanagement.
Meanwhile, the dramatic declines in abortion rates brought to us by President Clinton and the Obama administration's promise to deliver the same results elicit sneers and ire from the "pro-life" movement. (I put "pro-life" in quotes because you can't really be pro-life if your actions create more of the abortions you profess to hate.) Bill Clinton, if based on results alone, was the most pro-life president we've ever had and the pro-life movement hates him for it.
This is why the Obama team needs to look past the old-guard culture warriors. People like Jill Stanek approve of the rhetoric of the "culture of life" but are not interested in reducing the need for abortion. She's seems more interested in attracting eyeballs to her site. Looking for common ground solutions from operatives like her is like turning to Michael Vick for dog-training tips.
The common ground movement Obama is hoping to advance will come about because of people who want real solutions, whose livelihoods don't depend on the conflict continuing, people who believe we deserve a better national dialogue and better leadership on this issue. We've finally got an administration willing to moderate a productive discussion. It's time to get the hecklers out of room, and get on with the work.