Ceasing fire in the abortion war Weary fighters seek common ground

November 15, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

After 20 years of shouting at each other across barricades some leaders in local abortion battles are trying something revolutionary: They're talking, away from the heat of politics, in an effort to find common ground.

The movement, still tiny and tentative, is growing in a country that finds itself exhausted by two decades of ceaseless conflict over abortion. Common-ground efforts are embraced by people wearied by the name-calling and frustrated by a political process unlikely to yield a clear victory to either side.

"I'm tired of the fight," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, a devoted abortion opponent who worked this summer on the campaign to defeat an abortion-rights law on the Maryland ballot. "This whole field is dominated by people who like a good fight. Searching for common ground means letting go of our enjoyment of a good fight."

In most of the groups, people who disagree profoundly about abortion agree simply to put the argument aside. That done, they find much to agree on. They care about women and children, about preventing unwanted pregnancies, about child support, day-care programs and health.

"Pro-life and pro-choice people were putting vast amounts of resources, passion and money into fighting each other, when we should be putting our money and our resources into other causes," says B. J. Isaacson-Jones, whose St. Louis clinic includes abortion services.

"We have been guilty of demonizing our opposition, and they us," says the Rev. David Kunselman, who objects to abortion, in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's high time we give our opponents dignity."

The common-ground efforts have no formal structure. They are whatever the organizers decide will work in their community. No one is asked to compromise on abortion. But everyone is urged to try to see beyond the stereotypes, the labels that deem one side baby-killers and the other oppressors of women.

The idea is delicate, its supporters say. But it can work.

In St. Louis, abortion opponents and abortion-rights activists agreed to support legislation that helps crack-addicted pregnant women. In Austin, Texas, Roman Catholics who differ on abortion have joined to discuss women's issues. In Buffalo, leaders are working to bring together a community rent by last spring's protracted abortion protests.

Such cooperation by people so divided is rare, says Craig McEwen, chairman of the sociology and anthropology department at Bowdoin College.

"These really are contending social movements that are colliding with each other and have defined themselves as having opposite agendas," says Dr. McEwen, who also is affiliated with the Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation. "What this movement suggests is that this appearance of opposite agendas is not altogether accurate. I think that's fairly unusual and promising."

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, says the movement has emerged because "the general public has come to see the ugliness of the debate as unacceptable."

Both sides, she says, know the public's tolerance for intractable positions has waned. In response, the groups have subtly softened their positions in recent years. Abortion-rights groups now talk about reducing the numbers of abortions. Some anti-abortion groups talk about restricting abortion instead of outlawing it entirely.

But the common-ground movement is not for everyone.

Roger Stenson, head of Maryland Right to Life, sees little reason to talk with abortion-rights advocates. "I'd feel like taking a shower every time I left those people," he says. "Right to Life's job is to be for the right to life."

But for others deeply involved with the issue, the time for discussion has come.

In St. Louis, where the common-ground movement began, the time came after the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that allowed the state to restrict abortions in public hospitals and clinics.

Six months later, Andrew Puzder, the lawyer who helped write the Missouri law, wrote a newspaper commentary that called for cooperation. "If we can put aside for a moment our simple win-lose attitudes and approach this issue sensibly and calmly, perhaps we can jointly accomplish some good for those we all seek to protect," he wrote.

Ms. Isaacson-Jones, the director of Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis, read the column and decided to call her legal adversary.

"It was a gutsy move on her part," says Mr. Puzder, now an Orange County, Calif., attorney.

A veteran of clinic invasions, a firebombing, death threats and picket lines, Ms. Isaacson-Jones invited Mr. Puzder to come to the clinic. He agreed -- but only to an after-hours meeting, when he was sure no abortions were being performed.

They met in her office. "I was so nervous," she says, "but he was so gracious and warm."

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