Network provides means to bridge abortion chasm

Sunday, November 2, 1997

If there's one issue that most defies “finding common ground,” it's abortion. Not since the fight over the abolition of slavery have Americans been so deeply divided and the public debate so hostile and angry. The result then was the bloodiest and most tragic chapter in our nation's history. Can we do better?

For a small, but growing number of courageous Americans, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” They've formed the Common Ground network for Life and Choice, and they're serious about establishing dialogue between abortion-rights opponents and supporters.

This isn't an initiative driven by one side of the debate. Leaders and members include strongly committed people on both sides. Nor is the Network asking anyone to change his or her core beliefs. Finding common ground does not require compromising deeply held convictions or principles.

The effort to build bridges on the abortion issues parallels the work of the First Amendment Center on religious liberty in public schools. Much like the network, we have discovered that our shared civic principles provide a frame work for addressing even our deepest differences.

The first step in any “common ground” effort is honest, direct dialogue. This is possible when people come together prepared to listen to one another and to speak without name-calling or ridicule. Civil discussion requires first and foremost that we understand one another, even when we deeply disagree. Commitment to respectful and civil debate is the cornerstone of a successful democracy.

The next step is to identify areas of shared concern. Most people on both sides of the abortion debate are concerned about teenage pregnancy, the availability of adoption, the need for adequate day care and many other, related issues. The network helps Americans learn a fundamental lesson of good citizenship: Genuine dialogue about shared concerns will often lead to creative solutions. The Wisconsin network, for example, examined the issue of sex education in the schools and came up with a set of principles that could be supported by both sides.

The network started in 1992 with a pilot project in Buffalo, N.Y. This remarkable effort is now under-way in Cleveland, Denver, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and other cities throughout the country. (To find out more about these initiatives, contact the Network by calling 202-265-4300 ext. 240.)

Will this work? Yes, because most Americans realize that how we debate, not only what we debate, is critical. Personal attacks, hate speech, violence — these tactics don't work and they destroy the fabric of our society. Far from being a quixotic quest, the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice is a practical, and desperately needed, exercise in civic responsibility.

A number of years ago, following the killing of a doctor who worked in an abortion clinic, Christian evangelical leader Charles Colson warned that the crime “was not only senseless, it was symbolic — its message that a democracy poisoned by hatred and division can be as dangerous as the streets of Sarajevo … . Our public square threatens to become Matthew Arnold's darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Can we do better? Can we (on both sides) advance our cause and, at the same time, prevent violence and hate?

We must.