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.
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.