THEY Say, I Say...WHO Says? What We Need are Dialogues, Not More Debates, about Abortion

Jeannie Ludlow, Ph.D.  Associate Prof., English & Coordinator, Women's Studies & Women's Resource Center, Eastern Illinois Univ.; Board Member, Abortion Conversation Project

 As we move toward the election in the fall, we will certainly see more debates between candidates. This got me thinking about debating—what it can and cannot accomplish and, more to the point, whether we should be doing it at all. Here is a re-visited blog of mine from 2013....

When I picture a debate, I see people standing next to each other, looking in the same direction (toward winning), talking against one another. When I picture a dialogue, I see people looking at one another, talking and listening to each other.

Very often, in the U.S., we characterize conversations about abortion as “the abortion debate” (or, worse, “the abortion war”). What we mean by that, of course, is that there is a prochoice side that emphasizes the individual rights of pregnant people and a prolife side that emphasizes the personhood or potential personhood of developing fetuses. Every person or opinion is mapped onto one side or the other. And this shows exactly what is wrong with “debate” as a way to think about abortion.

First of all, debate imposes a binary (two-sided) structure onto a complex issue and assumes a single best answer. A typical abortion debate is prochoice vs. prolife, and a “good” debate provides a civil discussion between two opposing sides. The assumption is that one side will win the debate. But how many people really think in such simple terms?

More to the point, how many people live in such categories? This brings me to my second criticism of abortion debate: debate moves us out of the realm of life and into the realm of abstract ideas like rights and personhood.

In my work as an abortion clinic patient advocate, I learned from patients that abortion is almost never a yes-or-no (or rights-or-personhood) proposition. For the patients who sought our care, abortion was not a question of “is this fetus a person or not?” And only when politicians imposed limitations did patients focus on “do I have the right to have an abortion or not?” Most people’s abortion experiences are best charted along a path with many detours and cul-de-sacs. Abortion is a complex part of people’s complex lives.

I believe what we need are dialogues, not more debates, about abortion. Dialogues are about sharing—our ideas, our experiences, our principles. Difficult dialogues require us to communicate with people whose ideas, experiences, and principles are very different from our own, in order to move toward a more authentic, compassionate understanding of the issue at hand. According to literary scholar Darcy Brandel, in her essay “Performing Invisibility,” difficult dialogues do not seek common ground, nor do they resolve easily into satisfactory answers. The whole purpose of difficult dialogues is not to make them more simple but to honor and embrace their difficulty.

Obviously, difficult dialogues are not simple and never predictable. They can be very uncomfortable. Brandel says they are irresolvable—if we are going to engage in difficult dialogues about abortion, we must let go of the notion that we can figure out abortion, can come to some kind of knowledge or answer about it. We must be willing to stand in the middle of the messiness that is people’s real lives, to join one another in those life experiences that don’t always make sense.

One of the most important differences between debate and difficult dialogue is how we listen. In a debate, I listen in order to prove my opponent wrong. In difficult dialogues, I listen in order to learn, to complicate my understanding and challenge myself, to hear others’ perspectives, even when I do not agree with them—in short, I listen in order to have a more authentic understanding of humanity. When I picture a debate, I see people standing next to each other, looking in the same direction (toward winning), talking against one another. When I picture a dialogue, I see people looking at one another, talking and listening to each other.

What would a difficult dialogue about abortion look like? How can we find the courage to engage in difficult dialogues? More importantly, why would we even bother?

Picture an abortion debate, with two experts on stage, speaking civilly about the limits of the right to abortion and the limits of an unborn child’s personhood.

Now, imagine a woman joining them on the stage, looking at them both and saying, “I had an abortion so I could keep my job and be financially able to support my two children.” Suddenly, a woman’s life is real, her abortion is real, and the discussion could be real.

Now, that’s a “debate” I would like to hear.

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