Finding Common Ground

August 09, 1994|By JASON BERRY

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans.--Even before the shooting deaths of a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola clinic, abortion was the most explosive domestic issue of the century. More pro-life demonstrators have been arrested than all the 1960s' civil-rights protesters.

But where the premise of racial equality found empathy in whites taught to believe in democracy, society today is far from a consensus on abortion. According to sociologist James Davison Hunter's new book, ''Before the Shooting Begins,'' some 49 percent of Americans consider aborting a fetus to be a form of murder, while just about as many support choice, while harboring deep personal reservations.

How does a democratic culture absorb ideological strife laden with potential for violence? Such issues as abortion and homosexual rights reflect religious beliefs unswayed by court decisions.

''The normative ideals that democracy itself depends upon have been weakened,'' argues Mr. Hunter. ''The older faiths -- Judeo-Christian and Classical -- that once amid great diversity provided a set of common, if not always coherent, assumptions for the ordering of public life . . . no longer play.''

A democracy renews itself at the principled center. People who disagree learn to defuse conflict and find larger matters where they can agree. Bill Clinton's 1992 call to make abortions ''safe, legal and rare'' is all but forgotten. But at the principled center, efforts are being made by adversaries to reduce the number of abortions.

''I wish every [abortion] clinic in the country could set up an adoption agency,'' says Loretto Wagner, past president of Missouri Right to Life. ''Then they could really call themselves pro-choice.''

In 1989 Mr. Wagner, who volunteers at Our Lady's Inn, a place for unwed black mothers in St. Louis, joined a series of secret meetings with an abortion provider, B.J. Isaacson-Jones, and other activists on both sides. A choice advocate later said the ''stereotypes fell to pieces'' when an incest survivor spoke of abortion as another form of violence against a woman's body. ''I can't just look at this woman and degrade this woman's experience,'' the activist said.

Counselors at Dr. IsaacsonJones' clinic, which performs 8,000 abortions a year, referred women willing to carry, but not raise the child, to adoption agencies, but the women found it hard to break away from a trusted counselor. So the clinic opened its own adoption agency. Apparently it is the only abortion clinic to have done so. Each year since 1989, about 200 women have chosen to raise their babies, while another 35 have placed their infants for adoption.

The St. Louis dialogue is part of a broader movement. In the wake of Operation Rescue's wrenching protests in Buffalo in 1992, local ministers, trying to cool hostility, contacted a Washington, D.C., foundation, Search for Common Ground, which specializes in conflict resolution.

''The real issue,'' says Mary Jacksteit, who heads the off-shoot -- Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, ''was how do you maintain your community in the face of disagreement? Whether or not you agree that abortion is murder, . . . in a democracy you just can't push away people who disagree. People wanted to get beyond strident attacks that assumed there was not a human being on the other side.''

As Common Ground spread from Buffalo to Cleveland, Denver and Baltimore, two issues emerged: reforming adoption laws to make child-bearing more of a choice, and addressing root causes of unwanted pregnancy.

''One myth Common Ground is helping to destroy is that pro-life people only care about fetuses until they're born,'' says Dr. Isaacson-Jones. ''The philosophy will be translated into policy when pro-choice and pro-life people stop screaming at each other and see that we are adversaries, not enemies. The enemy is poverty, racism, ignorance and unwanted pregnancies.''

But the adoption agency is closing after $400,000 in losses, mainly for social workers' salaries. Most babies offered for adoption are African-American, and difficult to place. The extended-family culture is dying in the crack plague. ''There are also myths,'' says Dr. Isaacson-Jones, ''that paying for a baby is equal to slavery.''

''There is more hostility on the adoption issue than from abortion,'' she says. ''Adoption is cloaked in secrecy. . . . We dwell on the victim -- the poor birth mother, how could she give her baby away? But that woman is making a difficult, mature decision in the child's best interest.

''People actually involved in the abortion issue are dealing with the care of women,'' says Mr. Hunter, ''and they'll talk to anyone interested in helping out'' -- including people who don't share their position. ''For all the rhetoric of choice, a lot of women have been coerced [into having abortions] by boyfriends.''

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