Karen Swallow Prior and Karalyn Schmidt are the unlikeliest of allies. When they met, they were mortal enemies in the pitched battle over abortion.
The two women faced off at a local radio station as the streets seethed in their native Buffalo, N.Y. Angry protesters screamed “baby killers” and blockaded abortion clinics. Defiant abortion-rights activists yelled “religious lunatics” and burst through the barriers.
“The hostility in the room permeated everyone’s pores,” said Prior, an abortion opponent and president of Feminists for Life. “Karalyn embodied my own personal stereotype of the strident, pro-choice misanthrope.”
“I could easily have smacked her,” said Schmidt, then director of the local Planned Parenthood clinic. “I perceived her as, at best, kind of stupid. I could not comprehend how a woman could hold the position she did.”
What is stunning is that Schmidt did learn to understand. And both women found that once they stopped hurling emotional epithets across a chasm - the typical public exchange in the abortion debate - and listened to each other, they shared common ground.
“Prevention,” Schmidt said. “We both want to live in a world where no woman, ever, feels she must make this decision. No one that I know of in the pro-choice camp is in support of abortion.”
The two women are part of a larger, quiet movement springing up around the country from Philadelphia to St. Louis to Denver - the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. The groups consist of both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” activists who are weary of the poisoned air between them. They aim not to compromise nor change the other side’s deeply held position but to shift the dynamic of the debate. To calm it down.
They’re not sure where the effort will lead, but they hope they’ll be able to work together on issues such as adoption, teen pregnancy, contraception and sex education to reduce the root cause of abortion: unintended pregnancies.
Tellingly, the discussion is being assisted by Search for Common Ground, a non-profit conflict-resolution organization in Washington which fosters dialogue in explosive areas such as the Middle East.
“Understanding each other is the key to understanding the problem,” Prior said. “And understanding the problem is the key to solving the problem.”
The movement was sparked in large part because the rising level of vitriol, the clinic shootings and the stalkings shocked people on both sides of the debate.
“Members of the same family, the same church, couldn’t even talk about it,” said Betty Hutcheson, of the Common Ground Network in Buffalo. “We thought, ‘We have to find a way to talk about something so divisive.’ It was ripping communities apart.”
But many men and women seek out the Common Ground workshops because of one simple fact: Despite all the attacks on each other, the legal battles, the marches and demonstrations, there still are about 1.5 million abortions every year. While the total number has gone down in recent years, the rate of abortions per pregnancy has remained constant.
And neither side claims that as a success.
Many activists who seek common ground don’t see politicians working to reduce the number of abortions. The polarized political debate remains stuck, and abortions continue.
The issue threatens to rip apart the Republican Party as moderate governors and lawmakers push against Christian groups to change the strict national platform language calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. And some strategists for presidential candidate Bob Dole are urging him to use President Clinton’s veto of a ban on a late-term abortion procedure as a “wedge issue” to further divide voters.
“Our platform is based on a constitutional amendment that will never pass, that they’ll never bring up for a vote and that wouldn’t work if it did pass,” said Ann Stone, a leading Republican abortion-rights supporter who is becoming active in Common Ground. “That’s not a platform to reduce abortion. That’s a platform for panderers.”
Last fall, Gen. Colin Powell said the focus of the abortion debate is all wrong, that politicians should not play one group against the other, but should concentrate on reducing abortion itself.
He was blasted by some Christian groups for being “pro-choice” and too pragmatic. But many Americans - the majority who are uncomfortable and ambivalent about abortion - breathed a collective sigh of relief.
William Kristol, GOP strategist and editor of The Weekly Standard magazine, and former Education Secretary William Bennett privately have been urging Dole to take such a position. But they don’t think it’s likely.
“The problem is: Politicians are so scared of the issue of abortion, they don’t want to discuss it,” Kristol said. “When you talk about reducing the number of abortions, that gets you into a much more complicated argument. And the last thing politicians want is a long, complicated argument about abortion. But I do think that’s what most Americans want.”
And that is what those seeking common ground want.
In a workshop, one of the first things they find is how complicated people’s positions are, how much more nuanced the debate is than the strident sound bites which are so common. Stereotypes are blown apart. The enemy has a human face and a human story to tell.
“A ‘pro-choice’ activist will say, ‘I think there are too many abortions. I don’t like repeat abortions or when it’s used as birth control,”’ said Mary Jacksteit, a co-director of the Common Ground Network in Washington. “On the other side, a ‘pro-life’ person will say, ‘I worry about children who are not wanted. I hate it when I read about child abuse.’
“When people start talking, they see they have an overlapping goal that abortion should be reduced.”
In an effort to move beyond their entrenched positions, Prior and Schmidt began to talk, warily at first, about how to reduce teen pregnancy and, thus, abortion.
Several Common Ground activists plan to meet in Wisconsin at the end of May to figure out where they can agree on adoption and on the underlying problem of unintended pregnancy. No one quite knows what the answers are or if people with such divergent views can find solutions together. But they know they have to try.
“People are not asked to give up their position, because their position is really who they are, what they believe. It goes to the core of one’s being,” said the Rev. Stan Bratton, of the Common Ground Network in Buffalo. “But this becomes, in a microcosm, how we have to live in this world with so many kinds of difference and diversity. We have to find ways to live together in this world and maintain our own integrity.”
xxxx U.S. ABORTIONS While the total number of abortions declined to 1,330,414 in 1993, according to the CDC, the rate of abortions per pregnancy has remained constant.