An Exceedingly Civil Conversation About An Incredibly Divisive Topic

Earlier today, I did something that I’d been thinking about doing for months: I paused on the sidewalk outside of my local Planned Parenthood clinic and struck up a conversation with the protestor that stood just inside the gated entrance.

I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous. I’ve had plenty of conversations with anti-choice folks before – after spending two years researching and writing a book about abortion rights, it was impossible not to – but never with someone that was standing silently outside a clinic, head bowed, clutching a rosary. And even though I’d been thinking about just such an encounter for months, I still wasn’t sure where to begin after I actually had her attention.

The protestor was a neatly dressed woman, with a gentle accent that was hard to place. She was soft-spoken and I automatically matched my tone and demeanor to hers as I wondered aloud just what she was looking to accomplish by standing there.

Her response was both broad and vague: to shut down Planned Parenthood. When I asked if she thought that it might be better to assist women by working with them directly, like supporting social services and other supports, she replied that others did that work. My observation that she was standing on private property was met with a smile. And honestly, in the placid face of such complete certainty, I fumbled. Part of it was that she was around my mother’s age, and apparently I have an ingrained politeness towards my elders that’s really hard to shake. But it was more than that – it was trying to reconcile the very ordinariness of this woman with the very extraordinary act of standing for hours on private property because you disagree with someone’s personal decision.

I’ve been a part of the pro-choice community long enough to have heard the arguments for and against finding common ground with those that are anti-choice. My preference for talking with those that feel differently about abortion rights than I do is driven both by curiosity, and by pragmatism. Nearly forty years after Roe v. Wade was supposed to settle the issue for once and for all, abortion still polarizes the public like few other subjects. Perhaps more importantly, it feels as though the pro-choice movement is too often playing defense to the relentless onslaughts by anti-choice politicians and activists on both the state and federal levels.

Searching for common ground is not a magic solution; for one thing, just getting each side to agree on what constitutes common ground can be a challenge. But personally, after listening to all the rhetoric from both sides, and witnessing far too many political compromises, I’d much rather have a one-on-one conversation with someone that feels differently than me, and see if maybe we can’t at least try to understand where the other is coming from.

Did I accomplish that today? No, I didn’t. But after years of rolling my eyes and muttering curses under my breath whenever I passed clinic protestors, I’m glad that I finally stopped and had a conversation – and I look forward to doing it again.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.

Comments

  1. Sarah, kudos for your approach. I have a very hard time maintaining any level of politeness, even when I agree with someone – so I’m not sure that I would be the best person to try this methodology. I have no trouble talking to members of my family who are anti-abortion, because I know where our common ground is – birth control and sex education. I also know that no one in my family would harass someone going into a clinic. I think you’re pretty fabulous for taking the harder road and approaching a stranger.

    • Thanks, Serena! And good on you for fostering conversation within your family – that almost seems more daunting to me, for some reason. I love that we all have our own approaches, and if you ever want to share how those family discussions play out, I’d be really interested to hear about it.

  2. I admire your courage, too. And I’m heartened to hear that this particular woman was willing to talk and when she did, did more than rattle off robotic platitudes. I wish I knew how to convince women like her to use her power for good–and I like to think that *maybe* she’s somehow contributing something positive for women in need through her church. Because really, to think that simply standing in front of a Planned Parenthood and (I presume) praying is actually doing good … well, that borders on pride in my book.

  3. Well Sarah,

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with someone you disagree with…I don’t really understand why folks on your side are so against doing that kind of thing…How can you
    ever get your beliefs out in the open and debated unless you actually have a civil conversation…Jodi, we do believe we are using our power for good…Hundreds of thousands of volunteers fill Crisis Pregnancy Centers every day as well…Working for nothing but the satisfaction of helping women in Crisis…We really believe that! I had an abortion and would not have had one if anyone in my life could have helped me…That is why I stand in front of abortion clinics, to offer a “choice” to women…I thought that was what you all stand for…Choice, but don’t seem to want to allow women to hear an alternative voice ever…

    What are pro-choice people so afraid of? Why won’t you let women see their ultrasound? Why won’t you let them have full informed consent? What is wrong with abortion clinics having the same regulations as a veterinary clinic? Why is your side working day and night to stop CPC’S from existing?

    These are a few things I would love to discuss if you ever want to chat with me…I am not so scary…

    My blog is heartheircries.blogspot.com

    • Thank you for your comment, Lucy. However, I must disagree with several of your points. While I am always hesitant to make broad generalizations, from personal experience I have to say that very few people on my “side” are against civil conversations with anti-choice people. Your experience may be different, but again, these are just our individual experiences.

      Being pro-choice does mean that we stand for choice. But I’m curious as to what kind of choice you feel you are offering by standing in front of clinics. Are you and your fellow protesters equipped to provide the resources that a woman might need to continue a pregnancy? Women seek abortions for many reasons, and have already thought through their options pretty thoroughly before entering a clinic. Again, individual experiences are just that, and I won’t say that no woman has mixed emotions before choosing abortion. However, I still fail to see what tangible support is offered simply by standing in front of a clinic, as opposed to working with social service agencies or supporting other community resources that support women and families.

      There is nothing wrong with abortion clinics being held to high standards of care – and the vast majority of clinics in this country are. If you are referring to a specific clinic, I’d be curious to learn more about that. Likewise, most clinics give women the option of seeing their ultrasound, and make sure that they have women’s full, informed consent before they will perform an abortion. Women are required to undergo a counseling session before the procedure, and many clinics go to great lengths to ensure that a woman is comfortable with her decision.

      Too often, crisis pregnancy clinics disseminate medically unsound information, are not staffed by actual medical personnel, and use deceptive tactics to encourage women to continue their pregnancies. I know that not every CPC is like this, but enough are to concern those of us that want to make sure women really are getting all the choices and information they deserve.

  4. Thanks for this post. I escort outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic every Saturday morning, and it has been a very interesting experience. It is very strange to share a parking lot with the same five people for weeks and never address them. Many of the other escorts talk about them as if they can’t hear us, and will sometimes refer to them as crazy. I asked them to stop, as I believe attitudes like that are counter-productive and suggesting that someone who is religious is therefore crazy is ignorant at best.

    Over time, while escorting, I have come to better understand what it means to be pro choice, for me. I am pro whatever choice you want to make. If you want to pray every day, please do. If speaking to God gets you through the day then I respect your faith. If you don’t believe in abortions, please do not get one. However, it’s when anti-choicers impede others’ ability to get one that I get upset. So I am civil and polite to the protestors. I have started to smile at them every once and a while. I might say good morning. But when a woman starts walking to the clinic, I will beat the protestor to her, and calmly tell her that this man approaching her is a protestor, and will try to talk to her and give her literature. She is free to listen, or I can walk with her to the clinic. And that, is a choice.

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