Perspective: How to have a better conversation about abortion
The abortion debate is haunted by the ghosts of trauma, pain and children not born. To stop the vitriol, we have to let the ghosts in the room
It was the day of the abortion debate. My team was gathered in a room, and we were nervous. We’d chosen to take the issue head on, asking “Are the rights of women more important than the rights of a fetus?”
Our goal at the nonprofit Braver Angels is to enable people to hear each other in spite of their disagreements, but on this topic, it is so easy to misfire.
After some stern words reminding participants that we still need to be able to live with each other after this, the debate began.
Melanie gave the first speech, a warm, conversational talk based in her experience working in a community mental health clinic with poor women who found themselves in trouble, and how important it was for them to be able to access abortion. Good tone so far.
The second speaker, Tamara, told a story about her change from abortion supporter to abortion opponent, after she came to understand that a soul, and a human person, begins at conception.
Her argument was eloquent, but firm. My flags went up. I knew the abortion-rights supporters in the room were feeling unusually raw, and firmness on this issue could easily come across as condemnation.
I paused for a beat. Tamara is a woman with a very big heart. How do we show it?
I took a risk and asked her the hardest question of the nearly 100 submitted for the debate: “Already where I live in Texas, we are seeing girls as young as 9 years old, victims of rape and incest, who are being forced to go through pregnancy and childbirth. … Do the rights of a fetus take precedence over the rights of (girls) to be protected from the consequences of sexual assault?”
Tamara paused for a long moment. Then, voice cracking, she began, “Well, I live in Texas, and …”
Unable to hold back tears, she continued: “I … I have an 11-year-old daughter. And I don’t know what I would do in that situation. I am a very devout Catholic woman, and I have been raised a certain way, but … I’m sorry. I didn’t want to get emotional but that’s just real for me. I have a daughter and she’s … she’s that age and I don’t know how I’d react to that. I would want to protect her, and I don’t know what that means.”
In that moment, the room changed.
Over the next few minutes, several people asked to speak, saying they had personal stories to share. Tamara’s honest and emotional answer cracked an invisible dam that had been holding back something profound.
We heard from Aimee, a young woman with bright-green hair who believes that abortion is a tool of the patriarchy. She said she’d been raped by an ex-boyfriend at age 16, and when her rapist heard through the grapevine that she might be pregnant, he told her to have an abortion “or I’m thinking I might kill you.” She felt in that moment “a stunning and sharp solidarity” with her unborn child, feeling that no one had the right to violently kill another being. “I didn’t want to be like him,” she says, referring to her ex. “No one has the right to be like him.”
Laurie sat next to her husband as she told us how they received devastating news about the child she was pregnant with. There was an extra piece of a key chromosome, and when the doctors said it was very bad, Laurie went to her dad, an OB-GYN. He sat her down and gently explained that babies in this situation almost never survive, and the mothers often bleed to death. “We were so young,” she said, smiling sadly as she looked at Dan. “I think we were 28 and 29, maybe?” A shadow passed over her face and she looked down. “It was the most difficult decision we have ever had to make in our whole lives.” The room was quiet as tears rolled down her face. “Should government be making these decisions? Or do we trust women to make these decisions?”
Sharon spoke of the day in college when she found herself unhappily pregnant, went to a Planned Parenthood office and felt so pressured to have an abortion that she left with an appointment for one, even though she considered herself to be against abortion. “The counselor referred to the embryo growing inside of me as ‘a mass of cells’ and ‘a blob of tissue.’ … I had aced biology … but I was still allowing myself to think of the one growing inside me as a blastocyst the size of a pencil dot.”
When she finally saw pictures of gestational development, “He had all of his organs, his fingers and toes, a heart that was beating, and brain waves.” She canceled the appointment. “My wonderful son and two grandchildren are here because I stood up to those who felt that abortion was the best choice in my situation.”
One of the bravest speakers of the night was Tracy, a young woman with a kind face and long brown hair, who started her speech by saying in a choked voice, “I just want to speak from the perspective of that girl in high school getting the positive pregnancy test and choosing to have an abortion.”
She stopped and apologized as she began to cry. “I think bringing life into the world is one of the most enormous responsibilities anyone can accept, and … I didn’t even have the self-awareness to use protection,” she said. “I knew I could not take care of a child. I couldn’t even vote. ... I’m married now, I’m choosing to have children now. … I’m pregnant (and) it’s the most beautiful thing to want to create life … to be ready to guide a human in their development. I think that really means something.”
And the stories kept coming, right up until the final speaker who said her mother had confessed that she had tried to abort her three times, but the abortions had failed. The speaker’s life has been one of a staggering amount of healing work, and she says she sometimes wishes her mother had succeeded in preventing her life from beginning.
To say these stories complexified an oversimplified issue doesn’t begin to do justice to their impact. It is important to note that these women held very strong positions — several on both sides were asked whether they could accept a compromise position, and they all said no. And yet by the end, there was a spirit in the room, a feeling that was simultaneously quiet and raw, gentle and overwhelming, with the magnitude of what had been said.
The abortion debate is haunted — by the ghosts of traumatic events, the ghosts of potential children, the ghosts of women who made the best choice their soul knew how in moments of agony. That haunting goes unnoticed in most conversations about abortion — but that night we somehow let the ghosts come into the room.
And the ghosts took what is usually a gritty, gridlocked exchange and washed it with holy water. The sacred was present in that room, in the tears of grief, the naked vulnerability of the stories, the look in the eyes of the people who shared.
Perhaps the most striking change was in the listeners, who were made humble, open to being moved, aching to bless those in pain. We began to see the reality of this issue, what is underneath and behind and shot through it. And we sensed that in this realm, we have to take our shoes off and tread gently, for we walk on holy ground.
It may seem strange to call such a dark conversation beautiful, but it was. It felt like a shining glimpse of what the world could be. The contrast to the way we usually talk about abortion, with polemics and slogans and battle cries, was staggering.
If you listen carefully to political commentary these days, it sounds an awful lot like sportscasting. We treat politics as a sport, but this is a game we play with people’s lives. And the central sin of our political discourse, and of the commentariat (of which I am one), is that we forget that.
We could change it. It won’t be easy. But we could. This moment offers many issues where soulful engagement is needed — the shootings in Buffalo, the upswell around Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual assault reckoning, the massacre at Robb Elementary School.
We can’t look at these issues directly, perhaps. At least not all the time. But we can discipline ourselves to remember humility, to meet the gaze of those who are haunted and see what’s in their eyes. We can refuse to profane what we see there.
We can dissent from the slogans and the arrogance of righteous certainty. We can instead remember the taste of tears that wash these issues, and we can bend down to take off our shoes. And we can step gently onto that holy ground, eyes, ears and hearts completely open.
April Lawson Kornfield is director of debates for the nonprofit Braver Angels. The full debate, which was virtual and held May 19, can be watched here.