By Joy Franklin
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
With Judge Samuel Alito’s position on abortion a central question in his confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the debate over one of the most polarizing and divisive issues in American politics continues more than 30 years after the procedure was made legal by the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
Polls show that people believe no single issue before the court has greater importance.
It’s hard to imagine activists on opposite sides of the issue having a civil conversation about the subject, much less finding common ground.
But that’s just what a group about evenly divided among strongly pro-choice and strongly pro-life advocates, which has been quietly gathering in Asheville since November 2002, has accomplished.
The Blue Moon Group began meeting in an effort to reduce the chance of violence in our community around the issue of abortion. They took their name from the fact that they first met at the Blue Moon Café on Biltmore Avenue, which is now out of business. When one member of the group observed that the opportunity for the kind of discussion taking place within the group only comes around “once in a blue moon,” the name seemed an obvious choice. It reflects the uniqueness of the group’s accomplishment.
Three years later, their respect and affection for each other has grown into friendship despite their deeply held opposing views of abortion. That relationship of trust has helped them establish a list of jointly held principles, which describe the “common ground” they hold in approaching the issue of abortion. They regard the recently completed Common Ground Statement as a working document that may be modified as their discussions continue.
The concepts the statement advocates — talking together and forming relationships, decreasing abortions, relieving socioeconomic conditions that lead women to consider abortion, promoting adoption, providing accurate information and disavowing physical and verbal violence — are not revolutionary. But the fact that a group of people with such strongly divergent views could join together to advance them is.
It wasn’t that difficult to arrive at the seven areas of agreement that resulted from their discussions, but the group found it difficult to hone the concepts and to find the right words for expressing them.
“The process has taken us years,” Dr. Lorraine Cummings, M.D., owner of Femcare, said. “I think it’s remarkable how much discussion was necessary to get the wording exactly right.”
The Rev. Jeff Hutchinson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church made the first attempt at putting their areas of agreement in writing. It failed The Karen Test.
“One of the participants here, Chuck (Andrews), took the initial draft to his wife, Karen, who looked at what we had written and said ‘You’re going to be misunderstood by one side or the other side or both,’” explained Monroe Gilmour, a community organizer on racial discrimination and bigotry and a volunteer escort at Femcare. “So, the conclusion we came to was that maybe we had not honed the statement down to the nitty-gritty essence of what we agree on.”
Nonetheless, Gilmour joked, that draft had “the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson.”
“I was just cribbing big chunks from the Declaration of Independence,” Hutchinson responded, getting a laugh from other group members.
“The crux of this was in the semantics because we had to be sure that how each thing was worded didn’t imply something that we couldn’t all live with,” said Lynn von Unwerth, a nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood. “…I think that we spent the most time on not the actual concept itself. I think we didn’t have a problem with the concept when we got it down to what we wanted to put in it. It was how we wanted to word it so that it didn’t say something we didn’t want it to say.”
For example, there was a lot of discussion around the use of the word “lead” in the statement, “We agree that relieving the socio-economic and other conditions that lead women to consider abortion is a common goal.”
“Initially we considered using ‘force’ women to do it or ‘tempt’ or ‘drive,’ but we felt each of those words had more judgmental tones than we wanted to make,” Gilmour said. “We settled on ‘lead’ because, whatever we feel about the value of women’s reasons for considering an abortion, we did want to acknowledge the reality that socio-economic conditions do in fact often lead women to choose to have an abortion.”
“Exactly,” Hutchinson said, “I knew I needed to acknowledge that certain circumstances make abortion much harder to resist, while at the same time making sure we didn’t adopt a view of human nature as if we are just machines being acted upon by outside forces and thus ‘forced’ into making choices, like Pavlov’s dog. And so just that simple word ‘lead’ was a word that was in the middle.”’
Being able to work through such potential impediments to agreement was possible because of the relationships that exist within the group. Getting to know one another as individuals helped demolish stereotypes, but a willingness to listen and a sense of humility were important factors in the ability to find common ground, group members say.
At the beginning of each meeting, group members “check-in,” noting significant events in their lives over the past month. It’s an opportunity to learn about such milestones as the upcoming appearance of Hutchinson’s daughter and Cummings’ son in a dance recital and an Asheville Community Theater production, respectively, and Trinity Associate Pastor Donnie Williams’ trip to Pittsburgh to see the Steelers play, and about retired minister Bob Rhymer’s sad duty of attending the funeral of a friend who died of cancer.
Such connections build friendship, but Femcare nurse midwife Bonnie Frontino said it was the willingness of the members of the group who oppose abortion to truly listen that made the relationships work.
“I think that’s the issue here, that Jeff and Donnie and Ann and Chuck, they were willing to actually listen to what we had to say, rather than just dismiss us,” Frontino said.
Rhymer, who joined the group after it had already been meeting for some time and who is also a volunteer escort at Femcare, has another view of what makes it work.
“What enables any group or any two individuals to do what you’re doing is a sense of humility. … In this group, I’ve never sensed anything but a sense of humility in terms of your point of view. And I’m not saying that I don’t sense that you believe what you believe and you know what you believe… All of you, from the moment I walked in here, it felt like I had come home, from my point of view in terms of what Christianity is all about.”
Members on both sides of the abortion issue say they have had an opportunity to learn and grow thanks to their relationships within the group.
“I found that the theology that you all shared with us affected the wording (of the Common Ground Statement) in ways I wouldn’t have expected,” Gilmour said. “We learned a lot about theology and that was interesting and useful. I think this understanding ensured a more in-depth examination of our common ground.”
For Hutchinson, learning about women in crisis pregnancies was an eye-opener.
“…I have grown, thanks to you all and the actual experience with women in crisis pregnancies that you have had, in understanding better the weight of socioeconomic conditions that would lead a woman to consider abortion as a genuine option. On the front end, two or three years ago, coming from where I have come from as a suburban upper-middle class kid, I think I was too moralistic and even self-righteous, thinking, ‘more women just need to do what’s right,’ and I was not sensitive enough to know just how hard that can be… Because again, in my own experience, when I was at Duke or wherever, the women I have known who have had abortions were not being economically stressed. So I needed to be told about the real lives of other real women, so that I could better understand the stress that is so often present.
“The other thing that jumps out at me is the damage that verbal violence does in this whole debate. I have never been in favor of real violence to stop abortion, but I at least was ambivalent about the use of verbal violence… But all of our discussions together have forced me to center in on what the Bible actually says about such things, instead of what different sophists might say. For instance, I began to think more and more about how Christ Himself actually spoke, and whether he ever lied or was argumentative, and His purity convicted me. Or I began to think about how the Apostle Paul instructed a young pastor like me, Timothy, telling him ‘the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.’ And so all of this has been an area of growth for me too.”
Several members of the group reflected on how being part of the Blue Moon Group has affected their view of their own and others’ attitudes toward those with whom they have strong disagreements. For example, Gilmour said he’s become keenly aware of the difference between the atmosphere in the Blue Moon Group and other groups and situations he’s involved with.
“So it’s been a great mirror to see myself and to challenge myself,” he said. “Though I definitely have not lived up to it in other situations to the degree I feel comfortable in this group.”
Andrews said that even though he believes abortion is wrong, and even evil, being part of the group has made him more aware of the usefulness to a political agenda of demonizing the opposition.
“Being part of these discussions has helped me to recognize it when I see it happening,” he said. “And it’s grievous to me to see it when some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are convinced of a position which dehumanizes others and don’t recognize that their attitude toward ‘pro-aborts’ is really more of a useful political tool than representative of biblical truth.”
The problems associated with adoption came as a surprise to some members of the group and led to a major area of common ground – that adoption should be more encouraged and more accessible.
“The young women we see and do options counseling with, are from an era when abortion has always been legal,” said von Unwerth. “And I think adoption was more thought of say, in the early to mid-70s, because adoption was the only legal option. And I think that now they don’t have any reference to it at all or any experience with it. …And maybe some of the problem is that education and awareness aren’t happening. ….’”
Group member Ann Wingfield, a nurse and a member of Trinity, said she’d had a similar experience.
“I remember a young mom I had at the hospital that was giving her baby up for adoption and I told her…I knew people who themselves had been adopted or their kids had and the young woman was just floored, because she, I guess, had no exposure to adoption. She had chosen this route but still was wondering what she was sending her baby to, so I was glad I could encourage her, but still was taken aback that she was so unfamiliar with the concept herself.’’
In his circle of friends and acquaintances, Hutchinson said, adoption is seen as a genuine blessing, but Frontino said her experience has made her wonder whether there’s come to be more of a social stigma around placing a baby up for adoption than there is around having an abortion.
It’s one of the things Frontino said she would like the Blue Moon Group to pursue.
“I would … like to find some way to decrease the stigma around adoption,” she said. “I think that’s going to be an important thing to do. Somehow or other it’s been stigmatized and maybe there’s something that we can do….”
Von Unwerth agreed. “…International adoption is OK, it’s adoption of American children that’s not OK, especially when you’re talking about adoption of bi-racial children. That’s got to change.”
As the group continues to meet, its members will continue to work on ways to advance the goals they’ve agreed they have in common. “In a way, we went through the process and wrote it for ourselves so we would have a benchmark: this is what we as a group believe and agree on,” Gilmour said. “At the same time, I think it is our hope that others will pursue their own common ground actions on this issue.”
And on other subjects as well.
“I’m longing to see more dialogue like this take place around other issues, especially in Asheville,” Williams said.