Pop quiz: when was the last time you learned something or heard something new at an abortion debate? Yeah, me either—not for a very long time.
In recent weeks, several events in my professional and activist work have inspired me to think about the act of debating—what it can and cannot accomplish and, more to the point, whether we should be doing it at all.
In March, I received an invitation to be the “prochoice person” in an abortion debate at my graduate alma mater. The person who invited me was a minister with the local Catholic church and an advisor for a student organization positioned on the “pro-life side.” He wrote, “This is an issue which is often on the minds of many during an election year, but is too often not discussed in a civil manner – and that is our aim with the debate.”
I was not able to participate in the debate (in fact, I was uninvited after the students involved chose different representatives for their sides) nor to attend it, but my son was there. He called me immediately afterward with a report. His take away: the debate was about personhood—is abortion never OK because it kills a person or only OK before 20 weeks, when the fetus is more of a potential person than a person?
In other words, there were no surprises in this debate. No women’s voices, either. Both debaters were men, and apparently neither one brought women’s perspectives or stories of abortion to the stage.
Just a few weeks later, my department hosted a big-name literary scholar who spoke to us about the value of “argument” in advancing thinking and writing. In the discussion of his ideas, the concept of “argument” pretty quickly dissolved into “debate”—a binary (two-sided) model in which one proves one’s point by explaining how the other side is incorrect.
These two events solidified for me the problem with debate, most particularly with abortion debates.
First of all, debate imposes a binary structure onto a complex issue and assumes a single best answer. The debate at my alma mater, like every abortion debate I’ve ever witnessed, was “prochoice vs. prolife,” a “civil” discussion between two sides. The assumption is that one side will win the debate. But how many people really think in such simplified 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 experiences and into the realm of abstract (and important) 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 women and their loved ones. For the women who sought our care, abortion was not a question of “is this fetus a person or not?” nor of “do I have the right to have an abortion or not?” Most women’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. No debate has ever been able to address such complexities.
So what we need is decidedly not more debates about abortion, civil or otherwise; what we need are difficult dialogues. Difficult dialogues require us to communicate with people whose ideas and experiences are very different from our own. The idea is that this communication will move us all toward a more authentic, compassionate understanding of the issue at hand. According to the literary scholar Darcy Brandel, in her essay “Performing Invisibility,” difficult dialogues “perform a kind of ongoing dialectical process that never fully reaches a final synthesis.” What this means is that difficult dialogues do not seek common ground, nor do they resolve easily into satisfactory answers. The whole purpose of difficult dialogues is to keep the issue in conversation, always in question—to ensure that “as many contradictory voices as possible can be heard and considered.”
Obviously, difficult dialogues are not simple and never predictable. They can be very uncomfortable. Brandel says they reflect a “messy process of negotiation” among a wide variety of stories, fictional and real, complete and interrupted, public and private (pages 78-79). But, above all, 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 alongside 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 that debate, again—the one with the two men on stage at my alma mater, speaking civilly about the limits of women’s 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 show up for.