Freedom and Responsibility
The front page of today’s (6/25/22) Seattle Times newspaper features a large photo of two people in classic poses of heated argument over abortion - bent over, jaws tight, simultaneously yelling at each other, clearly not able to hear each other or recognize the humanity and heart felt motivations of the person in front of them. So that’s pretty much where too many Americans now are following the Supreme Court Decision to essentially abandon the right to access to abortion. It feels as though the Supreme Court no longer wants to responsibly encourage ongoing dialogue thus assures a seemingly intractable situation of competing rights and “freedoms" and politicized animosity. Each side of the debate demands freedom without an equally important discussion about responsibility, and that is a big loss.
Under the best of circumstances, the courts, most notably the Supreme Court, would be one of the primary ways such an intractable situation would warrant a carefully reasoned, nuanced examination of the topic with profound respect for the complexity of such a fundamental issue of personal and societal responsibility for life and death, but now the ability of the court to offer such a nuanced process is at least temporarily forfeited with yesterday’s divisive 6-3 decision. Now it is up to us to find another way to begin a healing resolution of the problem of the competing freedoms claimed in the abortion arguments. But this is clearly not going to happen if we don’t find another way to proceed other than yelling at each other at every level of society and government. No one wants another overwhelming challenge to add to our existing, soul-heavy list of existential threats, but neither can we afford to deny the abortion issue will continue to be a menacing and volatile issue that demands our attention if we are to maintain community and national cohesion.
So I want to humbly offer my clear (if overly idealistic) vision for how we might proceed on the issue of abortion which could also be applied to other provocative societal problems.
In the late 1990’s I was the E.D. of the Maine Council of Churches, and we launched a multi-year program of community dialogue called Study Circles. We organized a means of providing balanced information on a variety of current, often controversial topics as a means of providing civil, small group discussions led by trained facilitators. At the peak of program we were able to convince a whole local high school, including all students, faculty, support staff, custodial and cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, to devote an entire morning of student facilitated small group discussion about how we could best address drug use. In other words, we were able to provide a comprehensive community engagement on a challenging problem that impacted us all. And people were appreciative and empowered by the process as it opened up ongoing conversations and proposals for solutions over the coming months.
Now back to abortion. Before we began to open the Study Circle the program up to other groups we decided to pilot the program with a discussion on the tough topic of abortion which I agreed to facilitate. We invited a dozen people from a small town, half pro- and half con-, to engage in a discussion on the abortion debate. In preparation we provided them with the best available information we could find on both sides of the issue and asked them to carefully read the information before we met.
The afternoon before we were to meet I realized I had committed to facilitate a topic that could well go out of control. I couldn’t eat my dinner I was so worried. After personal introductions and stories of personal experiences with abortion - a man who had never told anyone previously about taking a woman he had irresponsibly impregnated for an abortion; a college nurse who drove young women two New York for abortions before they were legal; two people on both sides of acceptance and regret for their own abortions; and family members who had been involved in decisions related to abortions, among others. As we each listened to one another I felt a kind of hush over the group as they considered the personal complexity of each story and decision. I don’t believe anyone expressed a decision to change their mind, but It was clear they now had a much more nuanced appreciation for what it means to have an abortion and thus a greater appreciation for the need for an expanded version of the conversation we shared that evening. And as I reflect back on our discussion, what bound us together was our agreement that with our freedom to choose wherever our conscience and experience guides us, with or without government mandate, we also must reckon with the responsibilities each of decisions entails.
I would like to encourage each of you to consider arranging for a similar current conversations on abortion (or other topics) as an antidote to the fearsome, politically motivated, impasse we are now facing in our communities on many levels. You will likely share my trepidation about facilitating a balanced discussion on controversial issues, but also, like me, you will very likely come to appreciate how surprisingly capable people are to be empathetic with those of opposite and deeply held convictions when given the opportunity to do so.
P.S. To help understand how two engage in difficult conversations, please check out "Civility First…So We Can Work Together” www.civilityfirst.org. Our local organization is devoted to learning how to create the foundational listening skills that make substantive conversation and common efforts possible.