on the theme

The pro-life, pro-choice debate
Confronting real differences with respect -- and hope
by Marianne Arbogast


I am not pro-choice. But neither am I the person Marge Piercy is addressing in her "Right To Life" poem [see p. 7]. In fact, I've never met anyone who really fits the image the poem suggests -- a male hypocrite hiding behind a right-to-life banner, who cares nothing for women, children or other living beings, except as they impact his own self-interest.
The pro-life people I've known are more like my mother, who used to volunteer at a Birthright office at our church, offering moral and material support to women facing difficult pregnancies. She also sat up countless nights rocking and comforting foster babies she took in as newborns, sometimes drug-addicted at birth, loving them as her own until they were placed with adoptive families. Although she would be inclined to support economic justice programs, oppose exorbitant military spending and want a compassionate criminal justice system, she could never bring herself to vote for a pro-choice candidate.
Or they are like Catholic Worker friends who, one year, held quiet, prayerful vigils outside a clinic where abortions were performed. Some have gone to jail for nuclear weapons protests, and are part of a community that, for the past 24 years, has opened its doors to homeless women and children.
Or they can be like some of our soup kitchen volunteers -- religious and political conservatives whose perspective on many issues appalls me. Still, they put in hours of hard work to help feed hungry people.
Undoubtedly, there are pro-life advocates who are deserving of Piercy's indictment. But a great many of us are not.
From talking with pro-choice friends, I know that they, too, take exception to the stereotypes promulgated about them. Witness co-editor Julie Wortman -- who, with her partner Anne Cox, once offered to adopt a child whose mother was considering abortion -- finds herself explaining, over and over, that "pro-choice" does not mean "pro-abortion." She would never deny that there are important moral and ethical questions involved in the choice.
Julie and I would both hope for a world in which no woman would feel compelled to have an abortion. Our differences, as I understand them, center around how we believe we can best move toward that world, and what to do in the meantime. In practice, I think it's likely that we would respond to a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy in much the same way.
At times, the differences of conscience on abortion among Witness staff members have been difficult. But they have forced us to struggle to communicate in ways that don't just evoke the same old stereotypes. None of us can fall back into language that unfairly demonizes the other, or rest in untested assumptions about one another's convictions.
For the most part, we have steered clear of the issue in the magazine, unsure as to whether we are practicing an unconscionable avoidance or a commendable silence in a debate that has grown too shrill and too self-righteous. When we have broached the topic, we have tried to do so in a way that respects our differing views, such as the dialogue on abortion rights between Carter Heyward and Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann [6/93] and a story on the Common Ground approach, through which people who disagree on abortion have been able to work together on concerns they share, like nutrition programs for women and children [4/94].
It was sad to hear of the rupture this past year within the Fellowship of Reconciliation over the abortion issue. In June of 1999, Jim Forest -- one of the F.O.R.'s most long-term and active members -- resigned from the F.O.R., with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship following in his wake, after the F.O.R. National Council issued a statement on abortion that he perceived as shutting the door on a request he and others had made for a dialogue which would take the pacifist pro-life position seriously.
Dan Ebener, another pro-life F.O.R. member who had joined in the request, has chosen to remain in the F.O.R., but continues to call for better communication. Since the F.O.R. includes both pro-choice and pro-life members, he sees it as offering the chance to model a nonviolent approach to conflict.
"Because diversity like this often leads toward violence in our world, it is an opportunity for the F.O.R. to deal with something emotional that divides us," Ebener says. "We can reflect to society how healing can begin to occur. Because we value others in the Fellowship, we value diversity of opinion in the Fellowship."
I think the effort to communicate honestly and fairly with each other has been worthwhile for all of us at The Witness. Julie has said that, because of our conversations, she is unable to completely dismiss the pro-life stance. I would say the same, in reverse. Our differences are real, but we've also found large areas of common ground. That gives me hope that there could be a way through this impasse that splits even people who are seriously committed to a just and peaceful world.l

Marianne Arobgast is assistant editor of The Witness, <marianne@thewitness.org>.