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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.