Abortion Foes Find Common Ground

Frustrated, battle weary and shocked by five killings in two years at clinics offering abortion services, pro-choice and pro-life adversaries are conducting peace talks of sorts. More than that, they are even learning to work together."I was tired of the continuing battle and ready for positive action," said Jayne Flowers, a longtime worker in the pro-choice movement in Virginia Beach, Va., who was appalled when a man fired shots last year at a women's clinic in nearby Norfolk where she had once worked.So Flowers volunteered to participate in a local workshop facilitated by the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, a national organization that brings abortion activists together.About 20 pro-choice and pro-life activists emerged from the workshop committed to working together to attack the root causes of abortion. The group is actively urging state officials to launch a multimedia campaign and to distribute a new school curriculum promoting abstinence among young teens. The group has offered to lend a hand in distribution.This is the opportunity Flowers had been waiting for. "So much time, money and human resources have been wasted fighting each other for the last 20 years," she said. "If we had spent that time fighting unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, we would be so much better off now."Her group also hopes to convince condom companies to warn users that abstinence, not condoms, is the safest form of contraception."It's difficult to get folks on the extreme right and left to participate," said Sharon McDonald, president of the Mediation Center of Hampton Roads, Va., that organized the initial dialogues. "But folks in the middle are tired of this battle and want to do something productive."Not everyone is willing to participate. "Basically I think the Common Ground movement is just a ruse by the pro-abortion side to waste a lot of time and energy," said Jim Vittitow, program director at Pro-Life Action Ministries in St. Paul, Minn.And some activists fear the purpose of Common Ground is to seek compromise, or a watering down of views.Not so, says Mary Jacksteit, co-director of Common Ground. The organization's goal is not to reach compromise on abortion, she explained, but to humanize those on the opposing side and to find other areas of consensus -- like reducing domestic violence and teen pregnancies, making adoption a more viable alternative, providing affordable quality daycare and addressing male sexual responsibility.Pro-life activist Loxi Hopkins of Davenport, Iowa -- whose own teen pregnancy prompted her to volunteer for 20 years as a teen pregnancy counselor -- was hesitant at first to participate in Common Ground activities."I got a lot of pressure the first few months from other pro-life activists who thought I was selling out," Hopkins said.Hopkins was finally swayed by Dan Ebener, social action director for the Catholic Diocese of Davenport, who had started abortion activists talking to one another. He worried that violence might follow the announcement that two women's clinics providing abortion services would locate in the Quad Cities -- Davenport, Moline, Rockport and Bettendorf -- of Iowa and Illinois. So he invited the national network to conduct a workshop with both sides.Because participants gained new understanding of their opponents, testimony at city council hearings about the new clinics has been generally respectful, according to Ebener. "It was time to call a halt to the weapons of words used in the abortion debate -- before they incited violence here," he said.Hopkins, who now lunches with several of her former "enemies," was surprised to discover that her pro-choice adversaries really don't like abortion -- though they advocate a woman's right to have one."And we all feel that strong family values and holding families together are very important," said Hopkins. "I was surprised by that, too."The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice is the first domestic effort of Search for Common Ground, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that uses the same dialogue techniques to bring opposing sides together in conflicts as far away as the Middle East and Africa.The seed of the network was planted in 1989 when pro-life attorney Andrew Puzder wrote a guest column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch urging both sides to focus more on how to help women and children and less on how to hurt each other.B. J. Isaacson-Jones, head of a clinic Puzder repeatedly sued on behalf of abortion protesters, took him up on his challenge.Out of these early conversations grew a group in St. Louis and, in 1994, the national network. With both Puzder and Isaacson-Jones on the network's steering committee, it has worked with abortion activists in 20 cities throughout the United States."For some communities, dialogue alone produces positive results and is an end in itself," explained Jacksteit. "For other communities, it is the starting point. Action is the next step."During the last year, the steering committee has produced two working papers providing a pro-life/pro-choice rationale for wider availability and acceptance of adoption and promoting abstinence as a way to reduce teen pregnancies. These topics and others are designed as "a starting point, a stimulus for ideas for action," said Jacksteit. They will be discussed during the network's first convention to be held May 30 to June 2 in Madison, Wis.Pro-life activists suspicious of the network argue that it is diverting energy from "what the pro-life movement is already doing," said Vittitow, adding: "We're already busy working on reducing barriers to adoption, helping women in crisis pregnancies, and finding safe houses for those in abusive relationships."But pro-life activist Karen Swallow-Prior, who serves on the board of The Buffalo Coalition for Common Ground, sees a need for organizations bridging both sides. Her coalition helped defuse tensions between abortion activists when Operation Rescue targeted Buffalo for protests in the spring of 1992.More recently, it agreed to participate in a project initiated by the national network to increase male sexual responsibility. "If men became more responsible, fewer girls would become pregnant and there would be less need for abortions," said Swallow-Prior.Not every network project has been so successful.Pensacola pro-choice activist Jody Manale had high hopes for cooperation between bitterly divided abortion foes there when she arranged for Common Ground staff to conduct a workshop in Pensacola, Fla. in the fall of 1994.The city was a hothouse following the shootings that summer of a doctor who performs abortions and his escort -- a member of Manale's church.But after spearheading Common Ground work through most of 1995, Manale dropped out. She was discouraged because so few pro-life activists participated."I haven't given up on the process in general," Manale explained. "But I'm just not sure it can work here -- things are so tough. There didn't seem to be much point in holding workshops with 20 pro-choice people and five pro-life people."Other community members, though, are continuing the abortion dialogue group.Puzder, the pro-life attorney who now practices in California, is amazed by the impact of his initial discussions with Isaacson-Jones, the clinic operator."I'm really not much of a dialogue person," Puzder said. "As a trial lawyer, I prefer action. But I have seen this dialogue process have a profound effect on people. New groups keep popping up in other cities and even President Clinton is using the words 'common ground'. It's amazing to me. It's an idea that works."

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