If any issue cries out for a more civil dialogue in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, it is legal abortion, 38 years old this week. In all that time, there has been almost no dialogue whatsoever. Both sides are locked in ideological trench warfare, digging in and demonizing the other.

But a few people are beginning to see that both sides of the argument have value and both sides suffer from shortcomings.

One of those, Frances Kissling, visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, was interviewed last Sunday morning on Krista Tippet’s excellent NPR program, On Being (7 a.m., 91.5 FM, onbeing.org). Kissling, the president of Catholics for Choice from 1982 to 2007, has spent the last three years working on changing the nature of the debate.

“You have to approach differences with the notion that there is good in the other,” she says. “If there isn’t a crack in the middle where there are some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this [battle] is going to continue.”

But the issue is being fought on legal/political turf, which works against resolution. Kissling says there needs to be “a recognition that what we have been doing for the past 30 [plus] years has gotten us nowhere. Trying to make abortions illegal is not going to happen … so we have to concentrate on getting the number of abortions down by other methods than illegality. From the choice side, it’s also true that the political/legal strategy hasn’t really worked for us. Yes, abortion is still legal, but it is so much more restricted, particularly for women at the margins.”

Even if the increasingly conservative Supreme Court were to throw out Roe v. Wade, any subsequent anti-abortion laws would not be “received” by the general population, the majority of whom, polls show, favor legal abortion with restrictions.

As canon law expert Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a Jesuit at Georgetown University, point out, laws are society’s attempt to actualize ideals and values. Simply passing a law, however, even with enforcement, won’t work unless the population understands and accepts (i.e. “receives”) the value the law aims to achieve. The most obvious example is Prohibition, which was passed with the best of intentions. Alcohol was ruining many, many lives. Outlawing it might save many lives. But the law was never accepted and led to widespread criminal activity.

The same is true for abortion. The ideal aimed at by opponents of legal abortion is greater respect for life. But simply outlawing abortion would not increase respect for life, no matter how strict the enforcement. And the population would resist such a law because a competing value carries equal force: the right of women to control what happens to their own bodies.

So for 38 years, we have been stuck in our respective trenches, hurling epithets.

“There is a twin absolutism,” Kissling says, “those who think there is only one value at stake – the value of women’s identity and rights or the value of the fetus. For most people, including me, both of those values exist.”

The key is for both sides to recognize there is a genuine value behind the other’s arguments.

“In the case of abortion,” she observes, “you are always dealing with the destruction of life. … We are all striving to create a world in which life, in all its forms, is fostered and nurtured.”

She doesn’t believe it’s possible to find “common ground” on an issue this polarizing, “but I do think that when people who disagree come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. … The [opponent] becomes a real person, not an extremist, not evilly motivated.”

Thanks partly to her experiences with a pro-dialogue group called the Public Conversations Project, “I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last 10 years, based on having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. As a result,” she says, “I have an interest in trying to find a way to honor some of their values without giving up mine.”

Civil debates, Kissling says, occur “when you acknowledge that which is good in the position of the person you disagree with.”

The courage to be open-hearted with an opponent will happen when both sides realize we’re getting nowhere with this 38-year-old argument.

“The need to approach others positively and with enthusiasm for difference,” Kissling says, “is absolutely critical to any change.”

Only then can we begin to move forward on this paralyzing issue.

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