Some points of agreement across the great divide

January 28, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

THIS MONTH'S 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was marked by a torrent of words and the sound of sharpening knives.

Editorials, such as the lengthy one in the Jan. 12 New York Times, listed what they termed President Bush's skillfully cloaked but insidious steps to undermine a woman's access to birth control, let alone her right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

"... some women will needlessly die," concluded the Times.

On the other side of the breach, columnist Maggie Gallagher talked about "targeting the unborn for extinction."

If the Roe vs. Wade anniversary observations had gone on much longer, there is no telling where the rhetoric would have taken us all.

Above the shrill voices in this rancorous debate came the calm, collegial words of Cristina Page and Amanda Peterman. Though they are on opposite sides of the abortion issue, they were writing in unison for the editorial pages of the Times.

Page works for the New York office of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Peterman is media director of Right to Life of Michigan.

It is hard to imagine these two women sharing a cab ride, let alone hammering out the language of a joint statement.

But their essay may be the only one worth the paper and ink it took to print it. Certainly, no other new ideas on the subject of abortion were put forward last week.

The two women introduced themselves by saying they were born in the 1970s, after abortion became legal.

Theirs is a generation which has never had to sneak around for birth control nor face the terrible risk of an illegal abortion, as their mothers' and aunts' may have. But theirs is also a generation which has witnessed all the anger and all the violence of the abortion wars.

The two women wrote that both camps should take a moment to celebrate the fact that - through the efforts of one side or the other, or both - the number of abortions is declining.

And they made a more important point: If brought together by their common concern for the welfare of women and children, the two sides could be a powerful advocate for American families.

"We accept that we will never find a solution to the most fundamental disagreements we hold on abortion," the two women wrote. "And we should never compromise our strongly held beliefs."

But they concluded with, significantly, a denunciation of violence and extremism and a call to "merge the power of both movements to serve Americans in a meaningful way."

"Cristina was the one who first extended the olive branch," says Peterman. "She had an idea to do some writing with someone from the opposite side. She'd seen an article I had written, and she felt I might be someone she could work with."

Page remembers the perfect timing of their first conversation: "It was November 2000, when we didn't know who was president yet. It was great, because neither of us knew which of us was going to have the upper hand over the next four years."

The two women met and traveled together to an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh where Peterman, seven months pregnant with her second child, endured the abuse of protesters to spend a day listening in as women were counseled.

"It was an amazing gesture on her part," says Page. "Many women from her movement would not have been able to do that."

Over the next year, the women talked - and argued - carving out the areas outside of abortion on which they agreed: easier adoption; quality, affordable child care; and health insurance coverage for birth control, especially for poor women.

"Hey," says Peterman, "it might be that those are the only areas on which we can agree. We are just at the beginning of this journey.

"We have a cordial friendship now. We take to heart what the other says. We don't want to change the other's mind. We want to use the power of both sides."

"There is still a battle," says Page. "But Amanda and I are on a different path. We have seen all the time spent feeding a conflict, and we wonder what work could get done if we just put down our swords."

"Our relationships is a testament to what we can do together," says Peterman. "We are offering a possibility. A glimmer of hope."

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