The Grand Folly of Focusing on “Common Ground”

I believe in making common cause with people of all persuasions, but here’s what I learned about the quest for common ground on issues where people have diametrically opposing worldviews. Originally published at On The Issues Magazine.

©Elaine Soto
©Elaine Soto

The day before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was expected to rule, rumors circulated that the agency would approve Plan B One Step emergency contraception as a non-prescription item and allow it to be sold without age restrictions. Freelance writer Robin Marty predicted via e-mail, “Conservative reaction will be a total shitstorm.”

Instead, the next morning, it was Marty and other progressive women who doubled down in paroxysms of shock and anger.

The same unholy alliance of theology and right wing politics that defines zygotes as persons apparently had tied into knots the intestinal fortitude of President Obama and his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, in a raw political preemptive strike, unprecedented in American history, overturned the FDA’s scientific ruling that would have brought Plan B out from behind the pharmacist’s counter.

Being inclusive doesn't end with simply being welcoming.

Leading inclusive conversations requires a new "language."

Get my new resource to help organizations like yours not just survive, but embrace these times of change & thrive.

FREE Language of Leadership Guide Book


Our “Common Ground”-obsessed president had done it again — betraying the very women whose votes were the key to his election, while getting nothing in return from anti-choice extremists who would never vote for him, no matter how much he tried to appease them.

But wait. During his campaign, candidate Obama vowed to prioritize passing the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) to guarantee women reproductive self-determination as a civil right. How is it that within a few months after election, he not only said FOCA wasn’t high on his priority list, but also persuaded leading pro-choice groups to back the Capps bill to make federal restrictions on abortion for low-income women more pervasive than ever?

That cascaded into the political shitstorm known as the Stupak amendment, which, in turn, spiked federal and state anti-choice bills in a magnitude unseen since the mid-1990s. Without the countervailing force of proactive initiatives, the pro-choice side fell on the defensive again.

So much for common ground.

Meanwhile, the FDA did its job as a scientific body and removed the restriction that purchasers of Plan B had to prove they were 17-years-old. But even in the Bush-era’s dismal War-on-Choice once an FDA ruling was made, it stayed.

It’s been calculated that if all women had access to EC and used it properly, up to half of unintended pregnancies and abortions could be averted. Shouldn’t that make EC the ultimate “common ground” in the abortion debate? Logically, opponents of abortion should be lining up to advocate for emergency contraception. But as author Rita Mae Brown has said, “If the world were a logical place, men would ride sidesaddle.”

To understand the seeming illogic, it’s necessary to confront a triple whammy of reasons why attempts to find common ground fail: the wagging finger of patriarchy, the clashing world views about sex and the contrast of constituencies.

Wagging Finger of Patriarchy

Insisting that women are moral equals to men is still a big elephant in the room, sometimes even hard for people who identify as pro-choice to confront. Because it’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. Harder still to see injustice when it’s all around you, and feminism is an unfinished revolution that aims to change a deeply patriarchal culture from within.

Obama’s Dad-in-Chief response to overturning greater EC access (the old “I don’t want my 11-year-old daughter to get it so I support the age restriction, medical advice be damned”) was presaged by his post election finger wagging at women when he reneged on FOCA: “I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they… suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations.”

The same phenomenon emerges in public opinion polls that find the more in control of her own life and decisions a woman is, the less others support her decision to choose abortion. The less in control, the more of a helpless victim the woman is, the more likely people support her right to choose. For example, if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, around three-fourths of respondents think abortion should be available, whereas if a woman is married and financially stable, the ratio flips to fewer than one-quarter saying she should be able to terminate the pregnancy.

Differences in worldview about women and sex are rarely acknowledged on abortion and contraception…

Simply an issue of women’s freedom” doesn’t sound trivial to me, but when one is operating from a male-dominant framework, it makes all the sense in the world. It’s why every advance toward women’s reproductive self-determination has resulted is an explosive reaction, why in 1873, as women were just beginning to assert their rights, Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice and fought to pass the laws making it illegal to send information about abortion or birth control through the mail. It’s why so many opponents of abortion are also opposed to birth control. It’s why doggedly logical pro-choicers’ attempts to foster common ground by making birth control available to prevent unintended pregnancy are routinely rejected by abortion opponents.

Although conservative fundamentalist groups such as Focus on the Family would likely be apoplectic at the suggestion, the fact is when we’re talking about family, what we’re really talking about is sex. Without sex, there is no family. And when we talk about sex, what we’re really talking about a complex web of social interactions, all of them defined to a significant degree by women’s personal agency and sexual power.

Michelle Goldberg writes in The Means of Reproduction, “There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order.”

Clashing Worldviews about Sex

Freeing women from those ancient biological bonds of involuntary childbearing changes the gender power balance profoundly. And, yes, that does change the family structure.

Yet these differences in worldview about women and sex are rarely acknowledged in common ground discussions about abortion or contraception.

So what seems to pro-choice individuals like a slam dunk – EC is another method of pregnancy prevention; therefore, even those opposed to abortion should embrace it — is yet another sign of the impending fall of the republic to those who oppose abortion. The latter are just as queasy about birth control because they are queasy about any sex without procreative consequences. Their argument goes that if women — and heaven forfend, teens — have access to pregnancy prevention after intercourse, they will become promiscuous hussies.

No wonder then that in 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade, as the anti-abortion movement was starting its first forays to recriminalize abortion, a young reporter bounded into a news conference where I was being introduced as the new executive director of Planned Parenthood in Arizona and declared, “My nightmare is that 40 years from now, I’ll be a little old lady still asking the same questions, reporting the same story of the clash between the two positions.”

Forty years will soon be upon us, and the debate rages on.

Contrast of Constituencies

People with conflicting world views can work out some common cause: measures they can work on together to build relationships. Supporting local food banks, for example. But don’t expect common ground on policies rooted in something as fundamentally clashing as views about whether sex is for procreation or pleasure, and whether women will be treated as true equals or not.

Yet many — usually people supportive of the pro-choice view — still try to find the common ground. That, too, stems from fundamental differences in the two constituencies.

Pro-choice activists need to put a lot more starch into their spines…

To name a few such efforts: There’s the Common Ground project at RH Reality Check (duly eviscerated by Frederick Clarkson and by RHRC’s own editor-in-chief Jodi Jacobson, as well). It tried to get out ahead of Obama’s Common Ground quest that resulted in a bill called “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act,” cosponsored by pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and anti-choice but pro-family planning Tim Ryan (D-OH) Not surprisingly, the legislation suffered its demise at the hands of the anti-choice majority in the House of Representatives.

There’s the well-respected Public Conversations Project founded by Laura Chasin that has tried mightily to facilitate productive common ground discussions about abortion. I myself joined with Chasin and several dozen other remarkably smart and sincere people in an online abortion conference sponsored by the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and lasting, appropriately, nine months. But that labor couldn’t birth significant actionable common ground, either.

The two constituencies differ about the roles of women and the purpose of human sexuality. Oh, we all have the same body parts, many of the same aspirations for our lives and we almost all use birth control at some point. Kristin Luker found in her groundbreaking comparisons that pro-and anti-choice women are surprisingly similar in family demographics.

Difference lies, however, in the breadth of tolerance for other points of view. Some of those opposed to abortion, like the Catholic Bishops and fundamentalist Evangelicals, have no stake in finding common ground, because any shred of tolerance shakes the foundations of their absolute and unambiguous positions.

I asked mediation expert Victoria Pynchon how a mediator would try to bridge this divide. When she found herself sitting in flight next to a fundamentalist Christian Republican woman who “believes that a zygote is a person that trumps the life of a woman and believes in every literal word in the Bible as she was taught it,” she asked respectful questions to probe whether she would find an opening for genuine discussion of alternative views.

“Martha,” the name Pynchon gave her seatmate, articulated these beliefs: (1) life begins at conception; and, (2) “inconvenience” or even serious burden to a pregnant woman cannot justify the termination of any human life. Women, in particular, should be prepared to sacrifice their own lives to protect the lives of their families and children. She believed in a set of fixed moral rules from which there can be no deviation.

Eventually, “Martha” came to say, “I don’t know what I would do” if she were raped. But then she mused that Jaycee Duggar, whose years of enslaved sexual abuse resulted in children, nonetheless loves her offspring and wouldn’t wish them nonexistent.

“You have to be able to enable the other person to acknowledge a place of doubt,” Pynchon told me, in order to engage in a conversation that could lead to common ground between two diametrically opposed views.

But how do you translate that into actions? Or policies, for that matter?

For that, Pynchon didn’t have an answer. She concluded that the culture war over abortion isn’t based on views about what the Bible says or when personhood begins, “but deeper fears about authority vs. self-determination; rules vs. ethics or morals that require critical thinking; and, the desire to draw a bright line around human life so that no mistakes are possible.”

“Doubt R us,” I replied, describing pro-choice constituents. We love to turn over ideas and take contrary positions for the fun of it. Pro-choice is live and let live. It’s don’t tell me what to do or say or, especially, think. And that makes the perfect opening for people with moral certitude and water-on-stone persistence. They stay with an argument until they wear us down.

Course Adjustments Needed

The folly is in trying to force common ground, where one side has no stake in compromise, whereas the other side wants to appease.

Pro-choice activists need to put a lot more starch into their spines, clarify their bedrock beliefs and learn from their adversaries about the efficacy of persisting.

Women voters, in particular, can declare their independence (here’s a petition to deliver the message) when a president betrays their trust, and use the power of their voices loud and clear: “We elected you and we demand you stop giving our rights away or we will unelect you.”

Because in fact, no, we can’t all get along all the time. If women are to preserve what’s left of our human and civil rights to make childbearing decisions, we must get over thinking we can make everyone happy and, instead, lead ourselves forward to do what we know is right.



  1. Aletha on January 14, 2012 at 12:01 am

    You’re playing with our future and we’re not going to take it. Do not take our support for granted.

    I like that sentiment, and the idea of declaring independence, but why would the President not disregard this as a bluff? Democrats have consistently taken our support for granted. Until declaring independence actually represents a threat to the Democratic Party, Democrats will continue to betray us and take our support for granted. In a two-party system, why not? A petition with a bit over five hundred signatures is not going to make the President sit up and take notice. Despite his own fickle support for reproductive rights, he knows he can scare most feminists into voting for him by alluding to the potential for a Republican President to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who will tip the balance against Roe v. Wade. Politics as we know it is an extremely cynical and manipulative game, and the President is a master of it.

  2. Gloria Feldt on January 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Can’t disagree, Aletha. That’s part of the problem I try to point out. He can say it but if we say back to him, :that’s not good enough,” he will change.

  3. Gloria Feldt -Facebook conversation on January 14, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    Scott Blaine Swenson Hey Gloria, you’ve “eviscerated” the facts on why RH Reality Check once pursued engaging this discussion, but I understand why. The left’s strategies have seen a steady erosion of access and no one ever has to answer for that. Why?

    Gloria Feldt Scott, I understand your bitterness because the your very worthy effort did not turn out as you’d hoped. However, you are overlooking the massive successes of the reproductive rights, health, and justice movement. In fact these very successes spawned the virulent detractors. And they will never be appeased no matter what we do to reach out and try to understand them. Backlash occurs with fundamental social change. In this instance the change in gender power (which we believe to be an expansion of justice) is immense. Failed strategies occur when the moral certitude and proactive agenda I suggest and have actually implemented in many situations are neglected. When we want everyone to like us and fail to play political hardball like the Catholic bishops and other antichoice groups do. But most of all when we fail to assert the moral value of women and instead react defensively and with tepid messages. This is not all the fault of the prochoice movement. As I think Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Nine explains cogently, by deciding Griswold and Roe on privacy grounds rather than gender discrimination, the Court handed us an impossible rhetorical and values imbalance. That’s why I think the Freedom of Choice Act is needed and why a vigorous initiative of that sort would change the conversation fundamentally. And that would do a lot more to find the common ground that exists in America around fairness and gender equality and aspirations for our daughters than all the attempts to do it around the narrow subject of abortion, however well meaning.

    Scott Blaine Swenson Not the least bit bitter, Gloria, but thanks for suggesting that. Word choice is fascinating. I have nothing but respect for you, which is why I found your spin on this, three years later and somewhat exaggerated, quite amusing. As you know… from our correspondence at the time, RhRC pursued this as an independent journalistic endeavor, using new media tools to engage diverse opinions within the prochoice community and among those who sought common ground with us. RHRC was never intended to be captive of one viewpoint within the community. I agree, we should be tough and hold to principle. I view the ability to reach for the center (not compromise) as a position of strength, the acknowledgment that securing the hard fought social change we all celebrate requires expanding the dialogue and meeting the electorate where they are. That’s what the millions of dollars in research suggests, right? I’m not suggesting that’s what the politicians have done, but that’s because the movement hasn’t created the political permission for them to stand firm, that’s our collective responsibility. The right did that, and has held our politics hostage for a generation. We can keep fighting three year old battles, or we can actually understand what the right does, she who enlarges her base to include the center, wins. That’s not compromise, that’s strategy. Politicians will always compromise unless and until they know the center can hold. I do agree with you, cultural shifts take time and change isn’t easy. That’s why I’m eager to find new paradigms and stop re-litigating the past. Far from bitter or weak, I speak of a strong, principled, and lasting change we must still work to solidify.

    Gloria Feldt I think finding common ground is great when you can and I believe in finding common CAUSE. Sometimes that comes from finding common ground (shared beliefs), and sometimes it comes from trying to prevent mutually assured destruction, but either way, it’s a viable political strategy and a way for people to get along in society even if they are very different. s you probably know, I was the person who got anti-choice Democrat Harry Reid and pro-choice Republican Olympia Snowe to cosponsor the Equity in Prescription and Contraceptive Coverage Act, just to cite one example.

    I have worked across more aisles than most people even know exist. It is admirable–patriotic even–that people on the side of women’s right to determine their own childbearing are willing to listen and respect those who believe the opposite. I repeat, I support finding common ground when you can and common CAUSE even if it’s only to prevent mutually assured destruction. But “common ground” programs fail when they assume beliefs are necessarily equal to facts and allow misrepresentations (lies, even) and unsubstantiated allegations to stand. Same as in the climate change “debate.” They also fail when they do not require deep respect for the humanity of the other, from all participants. And they can’t require it because those on the far ends of the anti-choice spectrum have no stake in truly respecting those on the other side of the table whereas the pro-choice people keep trying to find ways to get along, to compromise, and to believe logic will prevail. The problem I had with the RHRC common ground project, as much as I applaud its intent, was that the framing had those fatal flaws built into it, with the predictable results (the apogee being reached for me when Waldman and Saletan spent an hour on Bloggingheads trying to determine exactly how much money would be the tipping point to persuade a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption rather than choose abortion, as though the woman herself neither had nor deserved moral agency in the matter). The result was not just philosophically wrong; it was a pro-choice self inflicted wound, politically detrimental to women at the very moment that an ostensibly pro-choice president needed all of us working to strengthen in his commitment rather than feeding into his habit of deal-cutting and appeasement. As I pointed out in the article, his enforced common ground initiative was defeated not by those on the pro-choice side, but by the anti-choice members who would never have voted to expand access to birth control under any circumstances. The same has happened over the years on sex education and many other issues where women, sex, control, and gender power are central issues. Kirsten has said this very well, and I have blathered too long. I do invite any of you to post these comments either on my website’s Heartfeldt blog where I posted it or on the OTI site where the article was originally published. It’s an important conversation. If we’re going to find new paradigms, first we must practice them with moral certitude ourselves

  4. Aletha on January 19, 2012 at 1:59 am

    Gloria, I am curious why you think the President will change. Is this just your boundless optimism at work? We could say, that is not good enough, but it seems his attitude is, political reality dictates that he must play to the middle, so what are you going to do about it? I see people protesting many of his policies in many ways, but not in any kind of unified way, and occasionally the President seems to listen, throwing a crumb out to appease his critics, but overall, I think he is changing for the worse. His rhetoric speaks with one voice, his actions another, and as the election campaign heats up, the more he is accused of being liberal or socialist or radical, the more he will run away from those labels. He may or may not realize his chances depend on support from women; the conventional wisdom is that elections turn on support from those called swing voters.

  5. […] to the Catholic Bishops on contraceptive coverage, especially on the heels of his recent caving on Plan B emergency contraception, he is toast with the wide spectrum of progressive and middle-of-the-road women who elected […]

  6. […] Aravosis observes, to reenergize Obama’s base which has been discouraged by his penchant for appeasing Republicans on so many issues. A Pew Research poll (PDF) found 49 percent of whites surveyed and 68 percent […]

  7. […] Aravosis observes, to reenergize Obama’s base which has been discouraged by his penchant for appeasing Republicans on so many issues. A Pew Research poll (PDF) found 49 percent of whites surveyed and 68 percent of […]

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.