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Pro-life And Pro-Choice Advocates Seek To Bridge The Great Divide

This article originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Consensus, a newspaper
published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.

Abortion has been called
the religious war of our time. It’s a war that
has been waged in courts, legislatures, religious
institutions, the media, and the streets. Public
discourse is characterized by dichotomous,
dramatic images of the conflict that limit
creative exchanges and portray those with
differing views as villains. The conflict is
continually framed as win-lose. Thus, both sides
keep fighting.

The abortion conflict poses a monumental
challenge to advocates of consensus building
processes. Even experienced conflict resolvers
shrug their shoulders when the topic is raised,
arguing that issues like abortion do not lend
themselves to consensus building. After all,
abortion is not a conflict in which proponents on
either side are likely to change their views. The
individuals involved are acting from deeply-held
beliefs, values, conscience, and the sense that
their views are, in fact, constitutionally
protected rights. Clearly, a consensus process
that aimed to “resolve” the abortion
issue would be doomed to fail.

But a growing number of citizens believe that
consensus building techniques can help pro-choice
and pro-life advocates find some common ground –
and they are proving it. In cities around the
United States and Canada, independent dialogue
groups have been working to forge consensus on
issues related to abortion – if not on the
abortion issue itself – and they have made some
remarkable progress. Their story is one of
courage, innovation, and continuing evolution.

Defying the naysayers

Many of these dialogues have been convened by
the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, a
project of the Washington DC-based nonprofit
Search for Common Ground. The Network for Life
and Choice articulated a philosophy and designed
a process framework for dialogue among pro-life
and pro-choice supporters. Initially responding
to abortion-related incidents in Buffalo in 1992,
the Network has since worked in at least 20
cities in the U.S. and Canada, convening one-day
dialogue workshops and, in a number of cases,
supporting ongoing consensus-building processes.

Just this May, the Network sponsored a
national conference on abortion dialogue – the
second of its kind – in Syracuse, NY.

The originators of the Network, Mary Jacksteit
and Adrianne Kaufmann, drew on their experience
as a labor arbitrator/attorney and a Benedictine
nun/educator respectively to design a dialogue
process focused on the common ground of
relationship, the shared need to build trust and
community, and a desire for fresh ideas about a
divisive issue. Initially setting aside the
question of whether common ground can be found on
the issue of abortion itself, they convened
processes in which a completely different
exchange took place.

“Common ground dialogues,” as they
are called, seek first to harness the passions
and energy of people involved in the abortion
conflict to prevent further intergroup
polarization and abortion-related violence, and
to search for areas where joint action is
possible. The dialogues are not designed to
change the views of participants about the issue
of abortion, not do they seek new
“objective” information that can help
participants reach a compromise. rather, trust is
built through sharing stories and examining
perceptions held by each side of the other. From
this base, relationships are built, leading to
mutual action and dialogue about the abortion
issue itself.

In the one-day dialogue workshops,
participants work in large and small facilitated
groups. They exchange personal stories of how
they came to hold their views on abortion,
identify their heroines and heroes, and fill out
a survey about their views and the views they
imagine are held by those on the other side about
abortion, sexuality, procreation, and birth

When the results of the survey are tabulated
and presented to the groups, participants see a
graphic representation of how close the actual
views of both sides are, contrasted with the
extreme views each attributed to the other.

The ongoing dialogue groups that have been
established have addressed a range of issues,
including the state and welfare of women and
children, the feminization of poverty, adoption
options, reduction of unwanted pregnancies,
community safety and harmony, and more.
Initiatives have included jointly authored papers
and a jointly developed set of principles for
sexuality education presented to a state
legislature. In several cities, pro-life and
pro-choice supporters have made joint public
appearances to reduce tensions and potential
violence in their communities and to show the
public that pro-choice and pro-life people can
work together.

Most importantly, members of these ongoing
groups have built caring relationships with each
other. Leaders on both sides have come to hold
their former adversaries in high regard. While
this has not meant giving up their views, it has
meant an end to personal attacks, and to
attaching the “enemy” label to those on
the other side. Public and private talk about the
abortion issue has become incrementally more
humanized and less destructive.

Starting an abortion dialogue

Dialogue groups have begun in diverse ways,
often led by grassroots activists, leaders of
both sides, clergy, or other community members.
Group initiators seek to bring others together in
response to actual or feared community violence,
to lessen the degree of tension in communities,
to broaden understanding of the issues, and to
cooperate on areas of shared concern – in other
words, to do something different. Staff from the
Network generally get involved only when invited
by community members.

Initiating a dialogue group is challenging, in
part, because advocates on either side of the
abortion issue rarely know each other personally
or call each other friends. Where there is no
relationship, little casual opportunity for
contact, and an image of those opposed as
‘misguided’ or even ‘enemies’, conflicts escalate
more easily. Dialogue is thus a conflict
prevention strategy as well as an opportunity to
work together.

Evaluating the process

In 1996 and 1997, we conducted an evaluation
of the Network’s abortion dialogue process,
interviewing over 50 participants in several
cities. Only one person reported a negative
experience in a dialogue. Most described their
dialogue experience as inspiring, carefully
orchestrated, authentic, transforming, and a
source of creative possibility. Dialogue was
celebrated as a good way to bring adversaries
together as human beings, sharing laughter,
meals, and personal trials, tears, concerns, and
hopes for the future.

“Any effort to bring people together who
are dealing with intense feelings and issues is
healthy at a fundamental human level,” said
one participant.

Another noted that “the dialogue puts the
issues and people into a more personal light,
which makes it harder to dismiss others as just
being lunatics.”

Criticisms of the dialogue process include
weak facilitation and moving to action too
quickly or too slowly. Facilitators are recruited
from the local community and are given a short
training session by the Network to orient them to
the process. However, uneven facilitation skills
and a lack of in-depth screening of facilitators
may lead to less positive experiences for some
dialogue participants.

In ongoing groups, there is often tension
between those who want to talk and those who are
anxious to engage in joint action. Dialogue
consumes time and energy, and does not always
lead to concrete, measurable results. Some
participants feel frustrated at a lack of
tangible progress. Others experience burnout. For
many, the satisfaction of building relationships
far outweighs the costs of investing time and
energy in ongoing dialogue.

Limits to progress?

Even where considerable joint action on shared
concerns can be identified as arising from common
ground dialogues, the question of whether the
abortion issues itself is a step closer to
resolution is legitimately raised. the abortion
issue may be transforming incrementally through
the way it is being talked about, felt, and acted
upon. One participant in an ongoing group
reported that, since his involvement, he feels
immediate concern for “the other side”
when he hears of a legislative or judicial
victory for his side. This empathy may lead to
advocacy with the humanity of the opposition in
mind, which may affect some of the tactics used
and reduce the likelihood of violence.

As trust deepens, dialogues allow for
discussion on issues more closely related to
abortion. Participants in ongoing processes have
dialogued about what pro-life advocates do for
women and children, what pro-choice supporters do
for women who have had traumatic experiences with
abortion, the limits of activism (e.g., the range
of acceptable tactics and approaches), sources of
moral authority, birth control, and abortion

These deeper dialogues are difficult,
sometimes involving new disappointments for
participants who have come to accept their
counterparts on the other side while clinging to
the unarticulated hope that there will be some
common ground on the abortion issues itself. For
example, pro-choice participants may nurse the
fond hope that pro-life advocates will recognize
the need for some abortions, while pro-life
activists may nurture the secret wish that
pro-choice advocates will acknowledge the
wrongness of abortion. When these hopes are not
realized, disappointment can lead to renewed
efforts to dialogue or to frustration. Even
frustration may not lead people to give up on the
dialogue process, however, once close
relationships have been formed.

Still, abortion-related violence and
incendiary rhetoric on both sides continue. Not
everyone is willing to come to the dialogue
table. While the abortion conflict is far from
solved, those involved in the common ground
movement hope that the momentum of dialogue will
eventually isolate extremists from mainstream
activists, making it possible to focus on
preventing unwanted pregnancy and other issues of
shared concern.


Michelle LeBaron

Michelle LeBaron is a tenured professor at the UBC law faculty and is Director of the UBC Program on Dispute Resolution. She joined the Faculty of Law in 2003 after twelve years teaching at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Women's Studies program at George Mason University in… MORE >


Nike Carstarphen

Nike Carstarphen, is a founding member of the Alliance for Conflict Transformation. She has a PhD form George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Her dissertation research, Shift Happens: Transformations During Small Group Interventions in Protracted Social Conflicts, focused on intergroup relationship building and the power of emotions… MORE >

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