Common Ground Sink Hole at RH Reality Check
Like Chip Berlet and Fran Kissling among other allies, I am all for finding common ground where it is attainable. Unfortunately, much of what passes for discussion of common ground on abortion, as I wrote earlier this year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, "is really just an elaborate avoidance of the subject."
A few weeks later, I exposed the fact that the notion of "abortion reduction" promoted by many common grounders, has been at the core of the strategy of the antiabortion movement for nearly two decades, and that providing better access to abortion services (which are not even available in nearly 90% of the counties in the U.S) is not only not a part of common ground conversation, but is not anywhere on the agenda of official Washington. Nor is it discussed by either the prochoice or antiabortion common grounders.
Without reasonable access to abortion, the right to abortion is rendered meaningless.
It should be underscored here, that prochoice and wider progressive community have always favored the areas that have been recently promoted by common grounders like they invented them. But we supported them not because they necessarily had anything to do with abortion -- but because they were the right thing to do for many good reasons.
What's more, Debra Haffner, president of the Religious Institute for Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, points out -- the common ground discussion and agenda is nothing new. In fact the major areas of common ground were prominently identified by a group of prochoice and antiabortion leaders meeting at the Aspen Institute a decade ago.
* Promoting sexual responsibility
So if attainable common ground has already been identified, what is really going on here? While there are many aspects to this, I want to highlight the way that common ground discussion features efforts to narrow the legitimate terms of discussion and narrow the range of legitimate voices in the discussion -- to the disadvantage of the prochoice community and progressives in general.
Two of the ways this is accomplished is on vivid display in the RH Reality Check series "On Common Ground."
Limiting the Discussion
The effort to narrow the range of discussion is epitomized in an essay by Steve Waldman, editor of BeliefNet, and a featured writer at the "On Common Ground" section of RH Reality Check. He argues that common ground conversation should not include talk about late term abortions. His reason? Because, he says, some unnamed prochoice people think women's right to choose is "inviolable," whereas in his view, late term abortions are a legal exception. You can read Waldman for yourself and notice that he pits hearsay about prochoicers against his unsupported hypotheses about the law -- by selectively quoting from Harry Blackmun's 1973 opinion in Roe vs. Wade. And in an insulting kicker that underscores the disingenuousness of the exercise, Waldman headlines this piece: "Do Pro-Choicers Really Honor Roe?"
Among the many reasons this post is alarming is that it signals the depths to which acceptable standards of discourse on this subject have sunk. Consider the reality in which we are writing: The assassination of the most prominent late term abortion provider in the country, who died while serving as an usher during Sunday services at the Lutheran church of which he was a longtime member. Dr. George Tiller was providing legal and medically necessary abortions -- but you would never know that to read Steve Waldman who treats Harry Blackmun's words in Roe the way fundamentalists prooftext the Bible in support of their causes. Never mind that Tiller has been the target of massive, illegal clinic blockades,a previous assassination attempt, an arson at his clinic, repeatedly required the protection of federal marshals just to be able to safely continue his medical practice -- and much more. Let's just forget about all that.
Contrast the airy opinions of Steve Waldman with a report on the consequences of the loss of Dr. Tiller at Women's eNews:
Nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion services, reports the New York-based Guttmacher Institute. "Providers are daunted by the dramatic increase in state restrictions passed since 1992," says Louise Melling, director of the reproductive freedom project for the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union.
Indeed, appreciating the value of the skilled and dedicated services provided by Dr. Tiller, and appreciating the circumstances women find themselves in that led them to his clinic, is harder. Much harder for many of us, and of course, antiabortion proponents in particular. And that is one reason late term abortion must be a central part of any meaningful conversation about abortion, even if it is uncomfortable to do so. Superficial discussions denouncing calling Dr. Tiller "the killer" are meaningless now that he has been murdered, with many antiabortion activists saying he got what he deserved, and they mean it.
Calls to limit the conversation mean that essential matters will not be discussed, and the conversation led by people who know nothing about them. False equivalences regarding extreme rhetoric and its consequences are just plain dishonest and cast a cloud on the intentions, integrity and even the competence of people who make them.
And yet, there is a certain hegemony in the conversation being attained by the common grounders who are granted platforms with little regard to the civility or even the quality of their contributions, while knowledgeable and legitimate voices are crowded out.
Scott Swensen, the founder of RH Reality Check, writes in introducing the section:
In the middle, away from the passions of the right or left, most Americans are already building common ground around shared understanding, compassion and empathy for the journey their neighbors are on, hoping that when their family faces difficult life decisions, others will be similarly supportive. By listening to voices genuinely seeking common ground, RH Reality Check hopes to provide a platform for civil discussion.
Swensen engages in one of the false frames that defines the current approach to common ground. First he names the people who are his featured contributors as genuinely seeking common ground, without bothering to explain what constitutes genuineness, and setting up his contributors against the familiar old strawmen of "the passions of the left and right." As if the avatars of a self-proclaimed "middle" are necessarily endowed with a greater understanding, compassion, and empathy than those who might disagree with them.
I discussed a few days ago:
The claim on the part of the common grounders to occupy a less rancorous middle ground between left and right; prochoice and antiabortion camps, has proven to be false when one looks at the ground claimed to be in the middle -- and who in fact holds it in common. What's more, some of the most shrill invective in this discussion has come from the common grounders, whose views are becoming more obviously untenable by the day.
Chris Korzen, the executive director of Catholics United (formerly of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, one of two groups initiated by John Podesta to promote the "faith outreach" political and public policy objectives of the Democratic Party), offers-up a variation on Swensen's false framing via false equivalence.
Korzen casts his piece as non-violence being an area of agreement, and then engages in a profoundly distorting false equivalence between the language (and implicitly, the actions) of prochoice and antiabortion camps:
For his work, the late Dr. Tiller was known simply as "The Killer." But the rhetoric of violence is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. Abortion rights opponents are commonly called "enemies of choice" and "anti-woman" on the liberal blogs. Labels like these can do violence by dehumanizing and demonizing those who disagree. They extend a sword instead of an olive branch.
There are two main methods at work here:
1) Korzen's focus not withstanding, violent rhetoric has never been solely directed to Dr. Tiller; nor was it practiced solely by the supposed extreme elements of the antiabortion movement. We need look no further than the allegedly moderate evangelical Rick Warren's declaration that abortion is a "Holocaust" - stated during the candidate forum Warren hosted in the sanctuary of his church last year -- and which was broadcast live on national television. The mainstreaming of extreme language by antiabortion leaders is well exemplified by this episode, and the silence about it remains deafening.
2) We have seen three decades of bombings, arsons, assassinations, and an astonishing host of harassments against abortion providers and patients and their families and more. The extremity and the violence of the rhetoric of Catholic Bishops, religious right leaders like Rick Warren, and demagogic politicians -- is vastly different in scale, resonance, and consequence than comments of unnamed prochoice bloggers who think that prolifers are, as Korzen reports, "enemies of choice" or "anti-woman."
Like other strawman arguments and false equivalences proffered by common grounders, Korzen offers no examples: No names,no context, and most importantly, no discussion of what the consequences of these words are. There is nothing, nothing on the prochoice side to compare with the breadth, depth, violence, extremism, and physical, social, psychological, medical and legal consequences of the words and actions of the anti-abortion movement. The avoidance of the profound criminality -- and by common ground standards the greater sin, incivility -- directed against abortion providers is what Korzen and ilk would have us ignore.
When the darlings of common grounders -- like Rick Warren -- stop calling abortion a Holocaust (and prochoice advocates "holocaust deniers"), and apologize to majority of Americans, religious and non-religious, who consider abortion to be a moral choice, that may help. Particularly if these same religious leaders come before the families of murdered abortion providers and beg their forgiveness for helping to foment the climate of hatred, fear and violence that led to their deaths, and pledge their own lives to reducing the culture of violence they created, that would be a start. While they are at it, they might also agree to work for universal access to abortion services. That would be a good faith gesture. The prochoice community has always been about abortion reduction for all of the right reasons, and a comprehensive program aimed at empowering women economically, as well as in terms of their reproductive lives would certainly mean a reduction in the overall rate of abortion. Tell us something we don't already know.
Returning to Business As Usual
Denouncing violent and uncivil rhetoric is easy. Too easy. There is a pied piper quality to what happens afterward, as everyone returns to business as usual, protected by an air of perfect sanctimony. It is just not enough to respond to the assassination of Dr. Tiller by calling on all sides to be nice.
Unless and until the issue of access and the ongoing one-way culture of threats and violence are on the table, the entire common ground discussion is framed entirely around what is acceptable to abortion opponents. (Sex ed and contraception tend to be OK with the common ground evangelicals, but anathema to the Catholics who reflect the views of the hierarchy, who emphasize better adoption options and economic support for women and broader anti-poverty efforts.)
We may very well see advances in the agenda articulated by the conferees at the Aspen Institute a decade ago, while contemporary advocates of common ground take credit for them, and the arguments of the Religious Right regarding the need to reduce abortions will have gained greater mainstream legitimacy, while access to abortion actually recedes.
Common Ground Sink Hole at RH Reality Check | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)
Common Ground Sink Hole at RH Reality Check | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)