Fordam University bioethicist Charles Camosy introduced Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate at Princeton University on October 15, 2010 by saying that it wasn’t the conference any of its organizers wanted or envisioned. Instead many compromises were made between him and his colleagues Peter Singer (Princeton), Frances Kissling (University of Pennsylvania) and Jennifer Miller (Bioethics International) as they thought about how to find common ground amidst the debate.
In his introduction, Camosy, who is pro-life, outlined three goals: 1. better map disagreements; 2. find common ground across divides; 3. have open hearts and open minds. Kissling, who is pro-choice, compared her pre-event anxiety to preparing for a wedding that both families believe is a horrible mistake. (Perhaps such fears were eased as the conference unfolded because there were security guards at the doors on the first day but not the second.)
After the conference, Camosy described it as largely successful in meeting these goals despite pockets of incivility, while Evangelical participant David Gushee (MacAfee School of Theology, Mercer University) described it as an audacious attempt that largely failed to find common ground.
Gushee was on the first panel, “Bridging the Abortion Divide: Recurring Challenges, Emerging Opportunities,” with his Common Ground colleague Rachel Laser, Mary Jacksteit of the Public Conversations Project (which initially attempted to bridge the abortion divide in the 1990s) and both Kissling and Miller. While I learned a lot from each discussion, theirs was the only one I attended that didn’t devolve into a remix of worn-out debates. Perhaps this is because all five speakers were already committed to the goal of exploring shared values.
Laser (who is pro-choice) and Gushee (who is pro-life) became friends through their work on an abortion governing document that was submitted to President Obama’s transition team. They described themselves as comrades in arms who bonded as they fended off friendly fire from their respective sides.
In his opening remarks, Gushee described abortion as a tragedy. Kissling objected to this definition. She said the moral right of women to make decisions about reproduction is essential for them to be recognized as human beings and while she respects the “category of fetal life,” she doesn’t “have a sense of individual fetuses as possessing high value.” Even so, she’s troubled by what she sees as a coarsening of discourse over the issue.
Gushee’s use of the term tragedy initially struck me as emotionally loaded too. I did not choose abortion when I had an unplanned pregnancy, but several members of my social circle did in similar circumstances and only one of them seems to have experienced it as a tragedy. The rest have occasionally communicated feelings of guilt about their abortions, but not regret.
I have written for Christianity Today from a strongly pro-life perspective and yet I’m not sure I ever thought of abortion as tragedy either. Instead, I’ve thought of it and continue to think of it as morally wrong. When I think of tragedy now-a-days, I tend to think of my son Gabriel’s suicide. The issues are related in that he didn’t have the right to take his own life any more than I had the right to take it and yet they are different because he was mentally impaired by Depression when he did so. (Despite notions to the contrary, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says suicide is overwhelmingly a function of mental illness rather than free will.)
Because Gabriel’s death left his brother with no siblings in this world, I’ve become increasingly grateful for his cousins, several of whom were conceived outside of marriage and whose biological parents either never married or married and later divorced. That is a different kind of heartbreak, and yet all these young people are flourishing as are our bonds with one another despite the complications and pain common to all blended and broken families.
My gratitude for them has gotten me thinking about those other children who are missing from my social network because of abortion. I experience Gabriel’s death as tragic because I had the opportunity to know and love him, while I experience those children as mere absences because I never got the chance to know them. I’ve subjectified them as thoroughly as Kissling has.
This is an oft-cited problem with discussions about abortion that pit the life of the unborn child against the welfare of the mother. Women can speak for themselves while unborn children can’t and we are incapable of fully comprehending what we are missing, even if we can glimpse it from the joy other children bring us.
I talked to Gushee about his use of the word tragedy. He said it may not have been the most philosophically precise description, but he was trying to communicate that abortion reflects a deep brokenness in the human condition. This sounds exactly right.
When I think about how tragic my son’s death is, I’m reminded that I would much rather live with the anguish it causes me than envision a life in which I never knew him. Abortion is a tragedy in and of itself, regardless of whether or not we as individuals or we as a society feel that it is so.
1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see things imperfectly in our finite understanding, but one day we will see with perfect clarity. Only then will our perception of abortion match reality.