Common Ground Sink Hole at RH Reality Check
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Jun 20, 2009 at 03:36:29 PM EST
There is an odd new section to the prochoice site, RH Reality Check devoted to discussion of common ground on abortion, and featuring some of those who have staked their professional lives on the idea; some in close proximity to the Obama administration.

Unfortunately  the premise of this latest common ground platform is deeply flawed, and several posts epitomize what has been wrong with the wider contemporary appeals to common ground on abortion rather than learning from the egregious errors of the past few years.  In fact, the contemporary conversation on abortion is so badly framed, that it amounts to disguising anti-abortion agendas in the language of common ground.


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
    * Fostering equality and respect for women
    * Strengthening parent-child communication about sexuality
    * Working to reduce teenage pregnancies
    * Improving prenatal and maternal care
    * Supporting the choice of adoption
    * Working together to reduce the conditions that lead to unplanned pregnancies.  

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.

        Such restrictions include gestational time limits (enforced in 37 states); parental permission in for minors (34 states); waiting periods (24 states) and counseling mandates (17 states). Many restrictions, Melling says, wind up requiring patients to make multiple trips to he doctor.

    After Bush-supported legislation banned intact dilation and extraction--the procedure used in 85 percent of second-trimester abortions--in 2003, later-term providers such as Tiller became a vanishing breed.

    "Fewer than 50 providers in the U.S. now offer abortion at up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, or fetal viability," says Alison Edelman, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. "And Dr. Tiller was one of only three providers who offered abortion during the last trimester."

    Tiller offered abortions to women who learned only in the third trimester that their deformed fetuses had genetic abnormalities and would not survive outside the womb. He also served adolescent girls who were victims of rape or incest and who were not physically developed enough to carry pregnancies to term. [emphasis added]

    "Dr. Tiller was a physician of last resort," says Susan Yanow, a spokesperson for the Cambridge-based Second Trimester Access Initiative. "Now, the women he served have few resorts left."

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.

False Framing

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.

Let's not forget that one of the hallmarks of war is that people get hurt. Another is that it leaves us in a state of perpetual impasse, fighting bitter struggles over seemingly unimportant real estate. So while the greatest danger of rhetorical violence may be the physical violence that it easily begets, we can't lose sight of the fact that living in a state of constant conflict is profoundly unproductive. The Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded if it had been known as the Civil Rights War.

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.

part of the problem is common meanings for shared words or ideas.

From the time I spent in the Dominionist (and Dominionist-dominated) churches, I could come up with alternate definitions and usages for words that would be completely different than a more progressive or educated person would take.

For instance- "Fostering equality and respect for women".  Sounds very straight forward, doesn't it.  Well, I heard things very much like that- "women and men are equal before God, but must be subservient to their husbands as their husbands are to God", "Women are spiritually equal to men, but must be in submission to them in the world", "Women must be respected, but they must also reflect it by acting respectable".   Thus they could say those words and "mean" them- but have a completely different understanding of what is said.  I think you know what I'm getting at.

I've also heard "promoting sexual responsibility" before from dominionists - several times.  It turned out they meant "abstinence only education!"

Every one of those points could be twisted that way.  The only one that I think the people I knew might have problem with twisting is the prenatal and maternal care.  

From what I've heard, there has to be common meanings for words agreed upon, as well as an understanding of the differences in rhetoric between the two points of view before any "common ground" is achieved.   It all seems to be quite one-sided from where I am, but then at the same time I do live in an unusually conservative area.

Oh- and people aren't hearing the truth about Dr. Tiller and the fact that he specifically did medically and legally necessary late-term abortions.  All they hear is that he did late-term abortions- and then the rhetoric about convenience.  This may be a fairly widespread problem.  It also leads to a skewed viewpoint about common ground.

The statistic that 90% of the counties don't have a provider is also not "out there"- the impression left is that there is a provider in every town.  I don't even know if there are providers in this county- but the women's clinics I do know of regularly have protesters outside.   Again, this could create real problems for "common ground".

I know this is just my opinion, and it's not probably going to be too popular- but  I don't think we can come to an agreement or "common ground".  From the time I spent in the dominionist churches, I could say this is almost certain - any olive branch held out by progressives would be turned into a weapon to use against the ones making an offer (I've seen it happen - and experienced it myself a couple of times).  The word "compromise" was either considered foul language (and that was said in the sermons), or it took on the meaning "you've come to agree completely with me!"

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Jun 21, 2009 at 12:28:56 AM EST

* I could say this is almost certain - any olive branch held out by progressives would be turned into a weapon to use against the ones making an offer (I've seen it happen - and experienced it myself a couple of times). The word "compromise" was either considered foul language (and that was said in the sermons), or it took on the meaning "you've come to agree completely with me!" *

I, too, live in the Bible Belt, and I have to agree with your assessment, here. Give a fundamentalist an inch, and they grab the ruler and slap you with it. "Tolerance" and "compromise" are bad to them. There can be no tolerance for, nor compromise with "the enemy", which is everyone who does not agree with them completely - after all, they are under the rule of the supreme enemy: Satan. Any allowance for these people to get a foothold in government, and even within progressive circles will be utilized to the fullest extent. Seven Mountains, anyone???

by phatkhat on Sun Jun 21, 2009 at 02:05:33 PM EST

I love this title.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Jun 21, 2009 at 08:11:38 PM EST

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