After yesterday's protests against Roe v. Wade in Washington, DC, I am replaying this piece, written 7 years ago but sadly still up-to-date.
Last week marked 33 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe V. Wade decision on abortion. And every year about this time, I get to thinking about our complex path on abortion over the last 40 years.
Over the years, I have always considered myself pro-life, but I have discovered that I do not always share the views of other “pro life” advocates. Most public discussion of abortion quickly reduces itself to an ugly conflict between people who have no interest in understanding one another, in finding a common ground, or in working together to solve the challenge that abortion poses.
That is why my best memory concerns the conversation group I belong to.
For 11 years we’ve been gathering monthly to discuss a single topic for entire evening, but we did not choose “abortion” for nearly five years.
It turned out that we had been avoiding the issue, both as individuals and as a group. Some of us assumed there was no point in such a discussion, since most of us were Catholics and would all agree anyway. Others assumed just the opposite: that entrenched differences would surface immediately, so there would be no basis for dialogue. One way or another, we were all assuming that we would suffer the same kind of paralyzing stalemate we saw in the public forum.
But we were happily surprised by what actually happened. In fact, when the evening was over, we all agreed on two things: First, we had avoided the issue needlessly and for too long. Second, we had just engaged in the best discussion of abortion any of us had ever heard.
What surprised us most about the discussion, I think, was that though we had differences, none were so far apart that we could not even communicate. In fact, we quickly found that we had a great deal of common ground bridging our differences.
First, we acknowledged torn feelings. For all of us, the era of legal abortion has raised difficult challenges, manifested many tragic stories, and left us feeling helpless to resolve a conflict that has divided our country for 30 years.
Second, we shared a common frustration with both sides of the abortion debate. We agreed that most pro life advocates let self righteousness impede real communication and progress—but we also agreed us that most “pro choice” advocates let their militancy stop communication too. The result was that, no matter what our opinions about abortion itself, we did not feel comfortable allying with such people.
Third, we discovered that we shared a common negative attitude toward abortion itself. None of us thought of abortion as something good—though some of us believed it should remain legal. We all wished there were less need for it, less recourse to it. For all of us, in fact, the ideal seemed to be a world in which no one would seek an abortion, even if they had the legal right to do so.
Fourth, we agreed that resolving the conflict in our country would probably NOT come from the victory of one side over the other. Instead, we guessed there would be no peace on the abortion issue until both sides uncovered some common ground upon which to build a consensus.
Fifth, we identified a key question: how does one change the behavior of an entire nation? In other words, how does real social change occur when values are in conflict?
We found ourselves using the example of a behavior where dramatic change has occurred within the last generation: cigarette smoking. We all knew that the percentage of American smokers has been shrinking for more than 30 years. We wondered how this had been accomplished, and whether the secret to that success could offer some clues as to what to do about abortion.
What seemed obvious to us, on reflection, was that over the years smoking has gone from something that people took for granted (in their homes, in public places, in advertising, in the movies) to something that can only be qualified as “socially unacceptable behavior.”
We all remembered smoke-filled parties, Marlboro ads on TV, white clouds of cigarette smoke hanging over every hockey game, the regular ritual of emptying ashtrays as part of housecleaning or car-cleaning. Now the main image is different: smokers huddled shivering like refugees in the doorways of office buildings catching a quick cold smoke during wintertime coffee breaks. And we all knew that any sign of smoking among us would bring swift scolding from our own children, who had been raised (if not brainwashed) to see our smoking as dangerous for them.
We all agreed that this was a dramatic and positive shift in public values and behavior. We wondered how it happened, and whether the same thing could happen on abortion.
At the time, the Massachusetts state government was sponsoring anti-smoking ads on television using the slogan “Let’s Make Smoking History!” As we discussed the success of that PR campaign, we came to two conclusions.
The first was: those of us who wanted abortion to be illegal admitted that, as a matter of history, legal prohibition has not proved an effective way to change people’s behavior. The obvious example to contrast with cigarette smoking was the example of alcohol: the Prohibition Era had not ended drinking in America but had only driven it underground and into the hands of criminals. The unhappy truth is, the same was largely true of the history of the legal prohibition of abortion. We admitted that no law has ever eliminated abortion, but has only driven it underground.
The second conclusion was: it is possible to reduce or even eliminate unwanted behavior once it becomes generally regarded as “socially unacceptable behavior.” Once the social norm shifts, people feel pressured to find alternatives to such socially unacceptable behavior--even if it remains legal.
We found ourselves wondering why no one had ever tried a campaign to “Make Abortion History!” It seemed to us that here was real potential for common ground. Many people who consider themselves “pro choice” will insist that they are not pro abortion, and would support efforts to reduce or eliminate abortion as long as “choice” remained legal. In fact, many of us believed that large numbers of “pro choice” Americans would embrace any social movement that would relieve them of the unwelcome dilemma of defending abortion itself.
For this point of view, the main obstacle to dialogue appeared to be the insistence on arguing over legal prohibition vs. protection as the key element in debating the abortion question. We had found that discussing abortion itself (why we did not like it and how our society could end it) produced a much more constructive dialogue and a lot more common ground upon which to build a consensus for action.
For Catholics, this raises a crucial point. While Catholics are obliged to oppose abortion and seek its elimination, nothing in our faith tradition requires us to believe that legal prohibition is the only tool that can accomplish this goal—or it even to believe that it is an effective tool. Prohibition’s effectiveness is not a matter of faith or morals; it is simply a matter of historical fact.
One can hold that prohibition failed in the past, and would fail again in the future, and still be a good Catholic who believes we should find better ways to protect the unborn and build a culture of life.
For our little, private conversation group, the sad thing was that this: we had found common ground among ourselves, and we even felt the clear opportunity for further constructive dialogue—but as we adjourned for the evening we knew the progress we had made among ourselves still seemed totally absent in the public forum.
Thirty-three years after Roe V. Wade, I am afraid that is still the truth.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2006