On attending the Open Hearts, Open Minds meeting in Princeton

2010 Open Hearts, Open Minds conference, Princeton, New JerseyI resonate with Aimée Thorne-Thomsen’s appraisal of her own state of being prior to the Open Hearts, Open Minds conference in Princeton, New Jersey. I did not sign up with an open heart or an open mind. I received the conference flyer several times and did not find any of the panel descriptions compelling. Like Aimée, I was very discouraged that the word “woman” was not on the agenda without making reference to “her responsibility to the fetus.” I only decided to go to the meeting after receiving encouragement from the directors of my organization, ANSIRH. They encouraged me to go because of what the meeting lacked: voices of real women who have abortions. And I haven’t even had one.

However, in my current research and my previous direct service work I have spoken to countless women about their abortion experiences. I’ve helped women find funding for abortions that they could not afford through the network of nonprofit funds. I’ve “breathed with” and held the hands of women having abortions in the first and second trimester of their pregnancies. I’ve listened to women tell stories of abortions they had years ago, some still grieving, some relieved, some indifferent, but all unique. I carry these stories with me and they guide my interest in this field.

I share Aimée’s “conviction that women (must) retain their agency, dignity and self-determination, regardless of whether they are pregnant or could become pregnant.” I also believe that realistically, women are the only ones who ever can determine the outcomes of their pregnancies. Even where abortions are illegal, women find a way to end their pregnancies. The only question is: are they risking their lives and well-being to do so?

So what lessons can we possibly take from this conference? Where can these discussions take us in promoting the health and well-being of women? Where can these discussions take us in reducing the tensions that exist around the abortion issue? Drawing on the conference’s excellent communications guidelines I will share from my own experience and hopefully my observations will shed light on some positive future paths.

1. Where are the women?

So, where were the women? This is a question that has been plaguing our side for a very long time. If 1.3 million women have an abortion every year, then why is it that so few women speak publicly or even privately about their abortions? What would happen if women began to speak up? How would it change the debate?

I think that it is safe to say that the prochoice movement is a movement for women who are considering abortions or need abortions. It is a legal movement oriented toward preserving the right to abortion. The ideal spokeswomen for the prochoice movement are usually too busy raising money for their abortion to be raising their voices about abortion rights. Once a woman has had an abortion, the “need” for an abortion may, understandably, cease to be her main priority. She probably has a family, a job, and a list of other things that demand her attention.

Women commenting at the 2010 Open Hearts, Open Minds conference in Princeton, NJ

Women commenting at the 2010 Open Hearts, Open Minds conference in Princeton, NJ

Obviously, there are large numbers of women who have abortions who consider themselves “prochoice” and continue to advocate for the right to abortion. But when I think of movement voices, I think of directors of organizations, lawyers, researchers, doctors, and advocates. I can only think of a few women who regularly speak from their own experience. To illustrate this point, at all of the panels I attended and in all of the conversations I had with other attendees, I did not hear one woman at the OHOM conference speak from her own experience about abortion. Not. One. Woman.

Stigma is clearly a major culprit in women’s public silence about their abortions. To talk about one’s abortion publicly is to risk losing credibility on a variety of levels. But there are many other reasons that women don’t talk publicly about their abortions. Maybe the reason for their own abortion is not the reason they are attempting to highlight in their advocacy. Maybe they don’t want to upset a family member or ex-partner who might be sensitive to their decision. Maybe it feels like a private experience that they don’t want to explore publicly at that moment. Maybe it still feels raw. Maybe it just doesn’t feel salient anymore.

No matter the reason, speaking about a personal abortion experience publicly means taking on personal risk. Instead of asking where the voices are, we could work harder to reduce the risk that women incur when they speak from their own experience. We can and should be demonstrating and demanding nonjudgmental listening. We should encourage honesty and should support a range of experiences. We should not discriminate against some experiences while highlighting others. We should support private spaces for women to discuss their experiences with those who can listen and understand, better yet, people who have also “been there.” We should demand that all women have access to emotional care at the time of their abortion and after. In fact, I would argue that when these demands are absent from our advocacy, we aren’t really advocating for women who have had abortions.

Women who have abortions do not live in a world of nonjudgmental support. When their own abortion is at issue they can expect judgment, criticism and rejection.  So many women are very careful about who they share their experience with or who they seek support from. In fact if you do not personally know someone who has had an abortion, it’s most likely because you are not considered a safe person to tell. While politically-motivated public and private disclosure is encouraged by both sides of the debate, the real stories of real women are not adequately supported by either side of the public debate.  So, when women don’t come forward with their stories…we have to wonder if we’re partly to blame.

2. Where does our own authority come from?

Since no one shared from personal experience, it is impossible to know how many of the OHOM panelists had personal experience with abortion or to what extent such experience contributed to their point of view.  Instead the panelists seemed to be drawing on other sorts of expertise. The meeting brought together ethicists, advocates, clergy, academics and others who study or engage with the socio-medical phenomenon that is abortion. I did not get the impression that anyone in the panels (aside from the one abortion-providing physician) had regular contact with women who have abortions. In fact, I would argue that the one commonality among the panelists of the OHOM meeting (and probably most of the attendees) was that they were mostly observers rather than practitioners or consumers of abortion care. I’m not denying the importance of the skill set that was represented in the panels. However, I didn’t hear any panelists discuss the limitations of their own knowledge or discuss how such limits may shape their point of view.

The privileging of attitudes, opinions or positions over experience is a mistake that is made far too often on the issue of abortion. Consider the way we poll people’s opinions of abortion in this country. Most questions hinge on the legality of abortion: Should she or shouldn’t she have an abortion? What about in these three situations? Likewise, questions at the meeting hinged on the morality of the fetus and the responsibility of women to carry a pregnancy to term. Questions like these force us to make generalizations about an experience which is anything but general. At the same time, such questions create among the answerers an illusion of control over the outcome of women’s pregnancies. Finally these questions obscure important factors such as: Is morality is a primary determinant of behavior? Is abortion is easy to regulate? Does regulation of abortion effectively reduce abortion incidence?

Dr. David P. Gushee, Mercer University

Dr. David P. Gushee

Early in the meeting, David Gushee, a theologian from Mercer University, stated that “abortion existed before Roe, it exists now, and it will exist if Roe is overturned.” I appreciated hearing this sentiment from someone on the “other side” of the abortion issue. The legality of abortion does not determine whether abortion exists. Nevertheless, we argue about legality as though it is the absolute determinant of abortion behavior. It is true that criminalizing abortion can make it difficult, impossible and unsafe for some women to have abortions. But criminalization has not effectively eliminated abortion in any part of the world.

In the abortion debate, we can all practice humility. We should be willing to acknowledge the origin and the limits of our own knowledge and experience. We should be open to fluidity and revision in our own knowledge since all knowledge is only partial. We should acknowledge that we are also limited in determining the outcome of pregnancy for others. As observers, the only real choice we have is whether we approach the issue of abortion with judgment or empathy.

3. Was it worth it?

If you have known me for more than five minutes, then you probably have heard me say that I’m the child of a prolife, evangelical minister. The rift in my relationship with my father is deep, mostly due to our differing opinions on what he would call the “life issues.” To be honest, I don’t know much about how he formed his opinions on abortion or why these opinions are so meaningful to him. I do know that, when I expressed sorrow on my personal blog about the assassination of Dr. Tiller, my father wrote a comment comparing the recently deceased man to the infamous Nazi, Josef Mengele.

Despite our differences, I have always fostered hope for my father and me. When I worked at an abortion clinic in Atlanta, I would daydream about sharing coffee and donuts with my father outside the clinic, after which he could return to protesting while I entered the clinic for another day at work. I dreamed that we could share our own Christmas truce, like the German and British soldiers in WWII, but these periods of peacefulness have never seemed to come to fruition.

I share this to explain why it is that I believe in and long for more dignified dialogue on the issue of abortion. Entrenched opinion, expressed at the expense of relationships, has had a profoundly negative impact on my life. I have heard other advocates and many women who have had abortions express similar frustrations and sorrow about relationships with people in their families and communities.

I’m not suggesting that my father and I would ever agree about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, or about who should determine the outcome of any pregnancy. We also disagree on about a thousand other issues that are connected to the abortion debate. However, I believe that we can find better ways to communicate with one another.

Dr. Eyal Rabinovitch, Baruch College, CUNY

Dr. Eyal Rabinovitch

I draw a lot of inspiration from Eyal Rabinovitch’s piece “Can Listening to Women Who Have Had Abortions Bring Peace to the Abortion Wars?” He argues that we should move toward conflict transformation rather than “common ground.” In his essay he describes conflict transformation in this way:

The goal of conflict transformation is to challenge and disassemble this destructive infrastructure and replace it with a restorative, rehumanizing system that allows us to respond to conflict and crisis productively through open and direct communication. Sustained critique and vigorous questioning remain, existing alongside open, curious dialogue. Both critique and dialogue stay grounded in mutual respect and oriented toward collaborative exploration. Conflict transformation posits that such constructive engagement leads to wiser answers to common struggles and to the creation of stronger societies able to maintain integrity in public life even through profound differences.

Did the OHOM meeting meet the goals associated with the conflict transformation approach? (Follow this link for Rabinovich’s own assessment of this question) Not exactly. First there was the pesky absence of the voices of women who have abortions. In addition, the meeting seemed far from an “open, curious dialogue” as panelist after panelist read from their prepared remarks. Occasionally, audience questions opened up a dialogue, but for the most part panelists just protected their own point of view.

Nevertheless, as an attendee I found myself drawn to those on the “other side” who I thought were capable of open and curious dialogue. Most often, my calculations were correct, and my discussions with prolife attendees felt civil and even congenial.  I discovered ways that my own work could be better informed if I was talking regularly to those who do NOT share my perspective on abortion. For instance, I feel certain I will reach for the business cards I collected from a few of the prolife attendees to inform an upcoming abortion attitudes research study. After these discussions, I also felt like it was no longer possible to lump all of the “Anti’s” together in one group since I found their opinions and orientations to be so diverse. Conversations like the ones I had at OHOM may not bring us any closer to common ground on the abortion issue; however, I think they do promote a common culture based on values that can be shared by either side. Curiosity. Dignity. Respect. Peace.

For more reports from the OHOM conference see:

Photos courtesy of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University (conference logo and commenters); WeNews (Aimée Thorne-Thomsen); Mercer University (David Gushee); and Exhale ProChoice (Eyal Rabinovitch).

  • Kate, I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your advocacy for private spaces as a strategy to reduce the experience of stigma. I hope your post will take us one step closer to understanding that a woman who uses a private space isn’t a woman with “problems” but is a woman who is taking courageous steps, often alone, out of stigma, fueled by her own belief that she deserves something better than judgment and who will do what she needs to experience emotional wellbeing.

  • Sophia Yen:

    Kate, a great piece discussing an interesting gathering. It is sad that the voices of women who had abortions were not prominent at this gathering.

    Also, I would not call the other side “pro-life,” because that leaves us/we with “pro-death” which I am not. I am pro-choice because I am pro-life. I know that women will die and hurt themselves and their fertility if abortion becomes illegal. The other side is “anti-abortion” or “anti-freedom of religion” because they want to push their religious view on me or “anti-woman” because they don’t trust women to make this decision in conjunction with their morals and religion.

  • Thanks for your comments Aspen and Sophia!

    I think you are correct that the labels used by the prolife and prochoice movements are not always adequate nor accurate. People on each side have pointed this out over the years and offered alternatives: antichoice, proabortion. There was an agreement at the meeting to not use the latter terms out of respect for the individuals who braved the meeting.

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