Bridging the Pro-Life, Pro-Choice Divide

Interview With Bioethics International Executive Director

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By Genevieve Pollock

PRINCETON, New Jersey, SEPT. 13, 2010 ( People involved in the abortion debate for a long time need to know that there is still hope for dialogue between the pro-life and pro-choice sides, says Jennifer Miller.

Miller, executive director of Bioethics International, explained to ZENIT that this is one of the objectives of a conference she is co-chairing next month.

The conference organizers believe dialogue is possible, she said, because they themselves, who come from different, and sometimes opposing, viewpoints, have found a way to work together.

The Oct. 15-16 event, titled “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words: A conference on life and choice in the abortion debate,” will take place at Princeton University.

Along with Miller, the organizing committee includes: Charles Camosy of Fordham University, Frances Kissling of the University of Pennsylvania, and Peter Singer of Princeton University. Some of the speakers are: Helen Alvaré, John Finnis, Bill Hurlbut, Chris Kaczor, and Christian Brugger.

Miller told ZENIT about some of the signs of hope she sees in the abortion debate, and what the organizers are expecting of this conference.

ZENIT: The issue of abortion has polarized the nation since the 1970s. Do you think people are ready to be open-minded about the perspective of the other side?

Miller: We are aiming for both open-minded and open-hearted. I don’t think you can separate those two so easily.

I can’t speak for other people, whether everyone is ready yet, but there is a large group of us that are.

It is quite critical, because if you do not have open minds and open hearts you cannot have dialogue, and without dialogue you just have division.

With this division, this “me against you,” there is antagonism, and that is really not helpful in terms of outcome or solidarity. If you always think in terms of “me against you,” you cannot see the “we,” in other words, that we are all human members of the community; we all have a family, a city, a state, a country, or a global community.

ZENIT: For many, the issue is a matter of believing abortion is wrong in all situations, or abortion is justified in some cases. Is there room for debate on this issue when you believe abortion is always wrong in all cases?

Miller: Again, we are moving away from the idea of debate, the antagonistic approach, and toward the model where people can hear, listen and respond to each other, that dialogue approach. In this sense there is room.

There are some issues where there is a meeting of minds and hearts. For example, the issue of whether certain types of abortion would be discriminatory, such as when it is against the disabled, mentally or physically.

In certain circumstances there needs to be more dialogue, as there would be a lot of overlap of views and a greater depth of understanding.

ZENIT: Do you see people trying to cross the boundaries and understand or see the perspective of the other side?

Miller: It is about moving past the boundaries, not seeing the boundaries, but rather seeing the other person.

That is another goal of this conference, to develop personal relationships. If you look at the schedule you’ll see that we have structured a lot of time for breaks so that individual speakers and participants can interact with each other in a personal way.

So instead of being that “other,” that person who you would debate with, or that idea, you see the person first and then you hear their experiences, their thoughts and you respond.

I am sure you have experienced the opposite many times, if you have gone up to another person getting ready to fight with your position. As noble as your position might be, it is very hard to hear the other person if you are in this combative stage.

So we are really aiming at fostering personal relationships among people who would not normally interact with each other, or would not have opportunities or space to engage with each other.

ZENIT: In what ways are the organizers providing a neutral ground where everyone has a chance to express their beliefs?

Miller: I would say that all of us as organizers have come together wanting to give space for different people of different views to express their perspectives to each other.

We all have that common goal, otherwise we would not have spent so much time organizing the event.

ZENIT: It sounds like the organizers have already begun that process of dialogue?

Miller: We did learn to speak with each other. Hopefully we can build upon it and continue to foster this throughout the conference.

ZENIT: How will civil conversation be promoted? What will be done to keep it from degenerating into mudslinging or open conflict?

Miller: We have worked a lot on creating a conference that promotes dialogue. It is in the title; it is everywhere.

Now we cannot prevent everything, but we have taken great lengths in carefully selecting our speakers and our panel, and a choice of topics, so that we get as much nuance into the conversation as possible.

We have four different people from very different backgrounds coming together for the organization. And so we all had to give and take and do our best.

One of the things we are doing is passing out guidelines, almost like a training document for everyone who participates in the conference. It is a reminder: Seek to understand instead of persuade first and foremost; use respectful language; avoid stereotypes; if you know a word is going to raise someone’s defenses, try and find a different way of saying it; listen actively and attentively instead of, for example, trying to formulate your next thought or your next rebuttal.

We are including lots of time for developing personal relationships: breaks, dinners, lunches. And this document will encourage these types of open-heart, open-minded, helpful interactions.

We are also working with all the moderators so that they lead a fruitful discussion.

We will start off the conference both Friday and Saturday with reminders of why we are all here, with a little bit of a personal testimony from the four of us, so that we also start to develop personal relationships with everyone.

ZENIT: In ways can people participate? Can they come as spectators, or are they expected to give presentations?

Miller: We have our speakers and moderators now, and so we are asking people to join us in the conversation.

The speakers will talk with each other about the topic — led by a moderator — and then there will be a lot of Q and A time during which the dialogue will be expanded to the participants.

ZENIT: What are you hoping for as far as results? Where do you see this conference going? How do you see it touching the general public?

Miller: I speak personally, but I think we all hope that this conference begins and enables the conversation and that it will help for the development of personal relationships. It’s just critical.

If you do not have dialogue you have a division and antagonism, which is disruptive to unity and solidarity.

In working with this conference one of the positive things that came out was hope. Sometimes, if you have been involved in the debate for a very long time, you can get tired of talking about this topic, tired of engaging the other person. Or you can be very used to preaching to the choir.

This conference is about giving hope that it is still possible to dialogue with each other, still possible to further the discussion. We also really hope to reenergize the different groups that are participating.

ZENIT: What opportunities do you see for bridging the divide between the pro-life and pro-choice sides?

Miller: I think personal relationships are the key. It is often difficult to change a heart or a mind in a debate format or conference, but what you can do is enable perso
nal relationships. Then a person can understand why somebody else has that position, even if they do not agree with it.

We are not aiming necessarily at having agreement between everyone, but rather at a greater understanding.

If personal relationships are fostered, there can be opportunities for follow-up lunches, follow-up dinners, or long-term collaboration. Over a dinner, that is usually where you get some changes of hearts and minds, or you can have a more fruitful conversation.

Our main purpose is to allow those personal relationships, to clarify where disagreements are, enable dialogue on areas of disagreement, and provide hope that dialogue is possible and needed.  

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Conference information:

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