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Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words:
A Conference of Life and Choice
in the Abortion Debate
Princeton University, Oct. 15-16, 2010
Impressions from a Variety of Perspectives

Images from Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words Conference
Photos taken at the Conference:

  1. Kelly Vincent-Brunacini, Rachel MacNair, Hannah Maher Murphy and baby Declan
  2. David Gushee with Rachel MacNair
  3. Sidney Callahan, Sharon Long, Rachel MacNair, and Jen Roth

Jen Roth:

The first thing I want to say about the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words conference is this: it is remarkable to be able to discuss abortion at all without people simply retreating into (metaphorically (mostly)) armed camps. That seldom happens in the normal course of things, and the conference was valuable for bringing us all together, even if the spirit of listening was sometimes forgotten -- especially near the end, when I think we were all a bit worn.

As could be expected from an academic conference, much of the discourse was very theoretical; I'd have preferred a more down-to-earth, practical emphasis. Abortion is a fascinating topic for philosophical discussion, but it's also a real issue of flesh and blood and life and death, and we must always remember that. A number of participants noted that there were relatively few people of color on the panels, and I think this weakened the conference. Most of us would agree that racial injustice is one force that contributes to high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion among minority women.

The most productive panels I attended were the opening plenary and the session on supporting pregnant women. In the former, panelists did an excellent job of engaging with each other's genuine views, not straw people. In the latter, the participants were able to come to a remarkable accord both on the types of social and economic support that pregnant women need, and on many of the barriers to providing it. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike vocally agreed that it is hypocritical to praise the work of crisis pregnancy centers while cutting funding for the social welfare programs they rely upon. Several participants also wished aloud that people who object to war could do as well as people who object to abortion have done in preventing the government from paying for it!

Perhaps not coincidentally, both of those panels featured Consistent Life endorser David Gushee, who did a beautiful job expressing his deep sympathy and compassion for all human beings. During the first day's panels, I sat next to a woman who turned out to be an abortion provider. We got to talking, and she mentioned to me how much she'd liked what Dr. Gushee had to say. I strongly believe that the consistent life ethic (although he did not specifically name it as such) is able to reach people when standard pro-life approaches will not.

Was the conference a success? We probably won't know for some time. It wasn't much more than a baby step - there was still too much "talking at" and too little "listening to," and I heard a disheartening amount of prejudiced and thoughtless remarks both on panels and in casual conversation. Still, five hundred people thought it was worth their time and expense to come and talk to people they oppose on one of the most bitter subjects of the day. Personally, I got contact information from both pro-lifers and pro-choicers who want to work together on practical proposals of importance to all of us. There was talk of putting together a coalition of pro-life and pro-choice groups to oppose budget cuts for social services that help pregnant women and their children. If we can start taking steps like that together, that must count as a success.

Sharon Beth Long:

The Open Hearts Open Minds conference was a very pleasant surprise. When I first told my prolife friends about the conference they were very skeptical, thinking that if it's an academic conference the purpose must be to bash prolifers. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It was a series of seminars, each made up of both prolife and pro-choice academics who extremely articulately laid out their positions. The attendees were at least one third prolifers who also were very articulate.

The panel discussions included the nature of the fetus, help for pregnant women, rights to conscientiously object to abortion and the provision of other medical services, and whether abortion should be a constitutional question. The rules concerning applause and rhetoric as well as time limits for the seminars were very strictly adhered to, which helped the process. Both pro-life and pro-choice people were tolerant and the level of the discussion was very adult and polite. It was a wonderful learning experience for both people seasoned in their respective pro-life and pro-choice movements as well as for the many students who were there.

I understand that the conference was taped and possibly also filmed. I urge people to see this if is posted to website and I do hope that this is done on an annual or biannual basis.

Rachel MacNair:

The strict discipline of the panel discussion with short questions from people lined up at the mikes may well have been necessary for this scholarly enterprise, but it left me with over a dozen comments to make and only one of them worked as a mere one-sided question. Still, it was quite interesting to watch pro-choice people step out of their echo chamber and engage in the exercise of considering how their words sounded to pro-lifers (and vice-versa, of course). The debates were not attempts to persuade or score points, but to understand differing perspectives, which is a different dynamic and a helpful one.

But the framing in this format was also restrictive. There was a plenary on the question of whether a mother had a duty to bring the pregnancy to term if we did grant the "moral status" of the fetus. I kept thinking of Patricia Heaton's statement that someone with an unintended pregnancy was entitled to unintended joy. A pregnancy that is desperately unwanted at 3 months often leads to an entirely wanted delivery. And the idea that maybe an abortion isn't her choice at all, but pressure from other people in a sexist society, isn't addressed by the question.

The breakout session on helping pregnant women was the exception to the general pro-choice tilt, where the prolifers were in the majority (Sidney Callahan and David Gushee, both excellent). And the one pro-choicer addressed prolifers with the argument that support of crisis pregnancy centers must necessarily include support for all the public services they refer women to, and documenting that purportedly pro-life lawmakers had been terrible on this. She was apologetic if that offended, but of course what she said was actually in accord with the way many prolifers think, certainly ones within Consistent Life and its member groups.

I was invited to the speakers-and-invited-guests dinner, which with Peter Singer's influence was all vegetarian. Afterwards we finally had an opportunity to get up and say a short piece without restriction on topic, so I got up first and explained about Consistent Life, and my work with PTSD resulting from acts of violence such as being a combat veteran, and how I had studied abortion staff in this way.

This was immediately followed by a woman who was an abortion provider herself, who objected to abortion being called violence. There was another person there who also was an abortion doctor - both young women. Abortion doctors are a high-attrition field that is disproportionately old and male, so young women are fairly unusual. What brought them to a conference of this kind is still a question I'm mulling through.

Afterwards, I went up to Peter Singer to tell him that not only was I vegan, but that I had seen to it that the entire menu for our Board of Directors retreat was vegan. This of course impressed him, and he said words to the effect that if more prolifers would use the consistency argument with war and death penalty as we did, it would be much more effective. I asked him if I could quote him on that. He smiled and clarified "more effective" - in other words, he wasn't actually buying the argument. But of course I can't quote him, since I didn't have a tape recorder with me. Yet this attitude is one we commonly come across, and did so at this conference as well.

Kelly Vincent-Brunacini:

I didn't know quite what I expected as Hannah and I entered McCosh 50 at the beginning of the conference. I knew I liked the printed guidelines for participants that asked for civility in debate, listening, good faith and a refrain from using traditional negative language such as "pro-abortion" and "anti-choice." I thought that the titles of some of the panels looked promising. Topics on fetal pain, support for continuing pregnancy and preventing unintended pregnancies were topics that could lead to discovering common ground. I liked the opening statements of the conference organizers who said that the history of reactive dialogue between the two sides has led to closed hearts and that during the conference we would map our disagreements and find common ground by which pro-life and pro-choice women could move forward together. Sadly, as the day and panels wore on, I lowered my expectations.

I take issue with some of the panelists chosen to represent the pro-life perspective. One panelist at the first plenary was addled and at times incomprehensible and did not represent the pro-life perspective well. David Gushee, from the School of Theology at Mercer University was an intelligent, impressive and consistent voice on the panels which he participated in but spoke from a purely Evangelical point of view. Gushee truly came across as desiring common ground solutions to the problems facing women and families. But an unreligious pro-life feminist voice was noticeably absent. When this point was raised near the end of the conference, pro-choice planners of the conference acknowledged that the panels were full of religious pro-life voices and rationalized this by saying all qualified pro-life leaders of equal credentials of the pro-choice panelists were religious. Meanwhile, non-religious pro-life leader speaker, writer and peace activist Rachel M. Mac Nair, Ph.D. sat in the front row, uninvited. Serrin Foster, Suzanne Schittman, Carol Crossed and a host of others that come to mind were missing from the panels with the result that the stereotype of pro-life encompassing only moral concerns for the fetus and lack of true concern for women went unchallenged.

Likewise, many of the panel titles addressing typical topics of debates such as the moral status of the fetus, a women's obligation towards the fetus, public policy issues and the constitutional question of abortion fell short and other less typical topics such as abortion as a health risk to women, abortion as a violent blockade to peace and abortion as an industry were left undebated.

On a more encouraging note, pro-choice activist Rachel Laser, co-author of "Come Let us Reason Together," a panelist in the first plenary - "Bridging the Abortion Divide: Recurring Challenges, Emerging Opportunities" - showed a genuine agreement or at least concession with some pro-life concerns, has a history of working together with pro-life organizations and showed a willingness to open her heart and mind. Rachel Laser complimented pro-life organizations such as Feminists for Life of America for their concern for the well-being of women. During "Providing Support for Continuing Pregnancy," pro-choice author of "How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America" Cristina Page harshly criticized the traditional pro-life movement for historically voting against the very policies that enable women to carry their pregnancies to term (Medicaid, welfare, etc), but credited the "progressive pro-life" movement for their support of women in their efforts to continue pregnancies.

My conclusion is the intentions of the conference, being to chart common ground amongst both sides of the abortion debate, went unrealized - not because of a lack of good will and sincerity on the part of participants but because of the flawed structure of the conference itself and because of the genuine inability or unwillingness of key pro-choice panelists to relax into the premise of the conference. For example, one panel topic, "A Woman's Moral Duty to the Fetus?" asked panelists to assume for the sake of argument that the fetus does have moral status and answer the question as to what the moral responsibility is of the women is to carry to term. The pro-choicer gave a convoluted counter argument and near the end admitted that her supporting analogies were somewhat weak. But since she doesn't believe that the fetus has moral status anyway, the question posed was largely irrelevant.

The most embarrassing evidence of lack of authentic intention came from the former president of Catholics for Free Choice. During the final panel, "Abortion in America: should it be a Constitutional Question?," she readily confessed she was unqualified to address the legal question but gave an impassioned rant about how she didn't care who decided the question, only that it was decided in stone because it is "MY BODY, MY BODY,MY BODY"! She then went on dramatically to say that maybe now we'll smile at each other, or be nicer to each other, but doubted we'll be working together much in the future because truly there isn't any common ground. The fragile respect and thin veneer of tolerance that had been present all weekend fell away and the air itself became hostile.

I'm not sorry I attended, though many from the pro-life side wondered aloud why they were there. Each person will take away their own impressions and will use them in varying degrees in future work. Nothing will go to waste. For me, three important points emerged. The first is that inequalities traditionally experienced by women have yet to be resolved. Women are physically, intellectually, morally and emotionally compromised in our culture. No one on any of the panels, no matter how credentialed or intellectually lofty, was able to convince me that legalized abortion has made conditions better for women. In fact, the question went virtually untouched. Secondly, I learned that all but a small minority of people agree that abortion after roughly the first trimester is morally problematic. That's a start, I guess. Lastly, adoption is not the end-all solution for abortion. As Dorothy Roberts from the School of Law at Northwestern University pointed out, adoption laws and procedures need major overhaul. The process itself is fraught with racism, discrimination and elitism, thus making adoption itself a threat to children.

Each day will point the way to how we will go forward, together and separately.

Hannah MD Murphy:

I have needed much time to reflect on the recent common ground gathering at Princeton. As President Obama said at Notre Dame University, “We must find a way to live together as one human family . . . Open hearts. Open minds. Fair minded words”. Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, used these words as a platform from which to open this conference. She likened the conference to a wedding where the families do not get along - where they stand at opposite ends of the room, talking about one another in not-so-nice ways. The coldness ends when that one crazy, fun uncle decides enough is enough, crossing to the “other” side, and everyone begins to realize slowly that, despite past differences, they can engage civilly and even so enjoy one another's company. Her introduction, so eloquently extended her hand, so to speak, made me eager to listen further.

With the first panel, I started to feel some pessimism. A friend once suggested looking at the list of names on a panel and asking “Who's missing?” and then “Why?” Like others, I wondered about the absence of people of color, but I also must commend the organizers for providing panels somewhat diverse in age and gender.

For the sake of brevity, I will write the remainder of this reflection in bullets:
  • This conference, in my opinion, was sabotage. This may sound excessive, but if you were present, you might think my vocabulary quite gentle. Though the pro-life representatives were intelligent, passionate, and respectful, they were religious, Republican folks in suits. On the other hand, the pro-choice representatives were cool, down-to-earth liberals. I need not say more.
  • Rachel Laser, David Gushee, and some other presenters reflected the true essence of common ground. Ms. Laser, who seemed the truest crusader for common ground, said that both the fetus and the woman must be acknowledged and talked about in the abortion debate. Thank goodness the pro-choice voice is coming to this. Mr. Gushee said that every voice belongs to a person and that it is our moral obligation to talk with every person - even if s/he is our enemy. He, who I worried at first would be too religious, turned out to be awesome with his words, saying at one point that the way we direct our religiosity can be divisive or fruitful. I believe he held to and shared his pro-life beliefs in a very fruitful way. Another presenter, Eva Kittay, after having been verbally abused by a pro-choice panel member, genuinely complimented that same panel member by telling the audience to read the other person's work as a key change-maker in the Feminist movement. Ms. Kittay heeded the advice of Laura Chasin, moderator for the first panel, when she shared that the fertility of common ground depended on all of us.
  • Both the pro-choice and pro-life sides were poorly represented. There was much theoretical and hypothetical talk - a little can be helpful, but too much can be detrimental. One pro-life panelist told the hypothetical story of a firefighter running in to a burning building and met with the choice of saving one little girl or thousands of embryos. Her point, she said, was that the firefighter was trained to save the most lives possible and so, in that situation, was obligated to choose the embryos. As for the pro-choice voices, one stuck out as mocking, abusive, hurtful, arrogant, and deceptive. At one point, she turned to a pro-life panelist and said he and she were of two separate worlds. Instead of finding common ground, she asked us to alienate one another.
  • As pro-life folk, we must:
    • Be diverse in every sense of the word.
    • Be radical.
    • Be collective in our movement. Though we have differing backgrounds, approaches, and beliefs, we are one human family. Let us be like brothers and sisters - argue and disagree, take breaks from one another, but remain united in our bond for humanity.
    • Embrace David Gushee's words, “We, here today, just may be the third reality. There are the pro-choice, there are the pro-life, and then there are us, the common ground.”
David Gushee came closest to being the crazy, fun uncle at the wedding. Too bad Aunt Frances didn't want to dance with him.

Charles Camosy:

NOTE: Charles Camosy wwas a member of the planning committee for the conference

Several of us prolifers met the Sunday morning after the conference to share our thoughts and ask 'Where do we go from here?' questions. It was a nice, small group with lots of warm, insightful conversation. Here are some themes or trends that seemed to come from it:

Women. I think a big mistake I made as the driving force for the framing of the conference program was to not have this be more up front and center. We had two panels that specifically dealt with aiding women - but the plenaries especially could have reflected this better. In our conversations on Sunday this theme came up again, and in two ways as I saw it:
  1. Making good on the claim to support pregnant women. This would of course mean supporting legislation that does this, but it means far more than this-especially if we don't want to alienate pro-lifers that are uncomfortable with big government solutions to social problems. I mentioned during the meeting that it is a national embarrassment that the American Catholic Church says the things it does about abortion but doesn't more boldly step up (especially at the local level) to help pregnant women and new mothers. Every parish that can afford to should have a women's shelter designed to support mothers and their newly born children. Perhaps we could come up a 'starter kit' (or something) that we could circulate to parishes that would put them on their way to doing something like this? Perhaps we could have those already in existence (one each for a rural, urban and suburban setting) come up with drafts or models?
  2. Using 'happiness studies' to aid in the argument against abortion. Helen talked about this in her presentation and Sidney and Chris drove it home in our talk. It matches nicely over Rachel's work on post-traumatic stress disorder. I think this kind of academic discussion should be part of any other conferences/events that piggy-back off of this past one.
Making explicit efforts to form connections with disability groups. Many criticize pro-lifers for simply using the disabled to win arguments over abortion. Given that disability groups have such an uneasy and ill-formed relationship with pro-life groups, that point of view can gain some traction. I thought our discussion made it clear that there is room to bridge-build here and show that we don't just spout rhetoric on this topic. Perhaps Lisa or someone would have ideas about how strategies? I seem to remember her saying that we have a real opportunity to help challenge the 'autonomy ideal' as a response to disability.

Building on the young energy and a sense that the next generation is thinking about these issues differently. Perhaps we could send the video out with an e-mail to all the 'life' and 'choice' groups around various college campuses as one attempt to do something like this and encourage them to do it themselves. It would be a chance to reach them before they became hardened in their positions on these matters later in life.

Working on unification and cooperation within the pro-life community. Part of what got lost in the attention given to this conference, I think, was the diversity of pro-lifers who attended. There were people from all over the spectrum: from the bleeding heart social justice folks to the hardcore pray-the-rosary-outside-abortion-clinics people. If some suggest that this is a false dichotomy, I totally agree, which is why it was so refreshing to see that we were all (in some sense) supporting the goals of this conference. Perhaps this provides an opening to come together in other ways?

Next steps? We didn't formalize anything on this question. Perhaps something could develop over e-mail discussions? Down the road I'd like there to be another conference, but I think it needs to be smaller and more intentional about inviting the right kind of people. Do we want to keep the "brand name," so to speak?

Your ideas and feedback on any of the above ideas would be greatly appreciated! Almost all the feedback I've gotten on the conference itself (and especially on the pro-life panelists) has been very positive! Here's a just a few of the comments that have been directed my way: Feedback from the Princeton Conference/.

Other perspectives:
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