The Endless Knot of Abortion Dialogue

October 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Endless Knot is representative of many things : the unity of wisdom and method, the intertwining of wisdom and compassion, emptiness, the mutual dependence of religious doctrine and secular affairs, the endless cycle of suffering or birth, death and rebirth, and (of course) endlessness itself. But in all of these symbolic interpretations (and particularly when they are all assumed together) I find that the Endless Knot is also representative of our modern debate on abortion.1

In a recent panel, On Being broached this topic in hopes of finding common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice poles. Although, as one panelist pointed out, there is no ‘safe place’ for such a discussion, On Being at least fostered a respectful ambiance for listening and questioning.  Everyone, be they religious, secular, political, radical or hither-to-uninterested in the topic, would likely find the discussion thought-provoking.2 David Gushee and Frances Kissling were the discussants, with with Krista Tippett moderating. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, and Kissling is president of the Center for Health and Social Policy (previoiusly long-time President of Catholics for Choice).

In an election year, when many voters will decide on their candidate based partially, if not completely, on this one topic, such an honest and articulate investigation as the one depicted above is very welcome. After all, most Americans lay scattered between poles of pro-life and pro-choice, but can rarely find a nuanced debate in their mainstream rhetoric.  To this extent, I agree with Gushee that the topic has become a bit of a political shibboleth; candidates merely adopt the relevant stance to gain votes, while simultaneously betraying the inherent complexity of the truth. As Gushee describes it, such a situation is “very crass for something so profround as this. Something so human as this.”

And so, in climate this stale and bifurcated, Gushee and Kissling presents something fresh. Here is a highlight:

Although both panelists represent an ‘incrementalist’ perspective (i.e. neither clings to either pole of pro-life or pro-choice), the moderator at one point asks them to articulate a concern that they have with the pole they most associate with. Gushee (pro-life) expresses his concern that “what the main activists in pro-life/anti-abortion community want is an overturn of Roe v Wade,” but that he is “not at all convinced that, if [this] were to happen, they would at all like the world that they would see on the other side… especially if there was a shredding of the social safety net at the same time.” (Such concern is particularly interesting if applied [beyond Roe v Wade] to a global perspective that includes HIV/AIDS epidemics, entrenched poverty and rampant food shortages).

On the other side, Kissling (pro-life) expresses her discomfort with the “one value” approach of the fundamentalist pro-life activists. In short summary, Kissling is not comfortable with the argument that “the only value that needs to be considered in both moral decision making and in legality is what the woman wants…and whatever the woman wants… no matter what difficult situation comes up” (emphasis added). For her, abortion for sex selection, abortion very late in pregnancy, and abortion of disabled fetuses are all “very very complicated questions.”

I encourage you to listen to the discussion in its entirety, and to pose questions about your own stance on abortion, and on sexuality as it is inherently tied to it.

In the end, you may likely hold your same belief, but you will have (vicariously and internally at least) engaged in a dialogue with the other side. And as Kissling points out, such a willingness to engage in dialogue is also a willingness to change….not because you must in order to make compromises, but because you will in order to honestly acquire new information and perspectives.

1 The methods, of course, have always been a firing point on this issue; the debate can depict at least two perspectives on when and to whom compassion should be extended–so that the wisdom is ambiguous; it is a topic, of course, inherently about life and death..and some could argue rebirth; there is no doubt that religion and secular policy must converge in the public domain for solutions to be made (one way or the other); to negate the feeling of emptiness that a woman may feel is absurd, but inordinately common; there is also the possibility (a strong possibility) that our conversations have become empty…and endless

2Random footnote commentary : the panelists suggest that there is a mutual mistrust between the pro-life and pro-choice parties, and that this mistrust incubates a fear in each side that if one concession is made, than another will be requested, and another, and another, until the slippery slope causes all to be lost. This fear, they intimate, makes it so that neither side is willing to give even a single concession.

Although I commiserate with the point, I’m not sure that it depicts the entire, or even the correct, picture. It could be (as is often the case with sacred values–such as abortion can be on both sides of the spectrum) that individuals believe that any equivocation or concession on their part would negate their stance completely. Such a boldness and unweaveringness of belief and standard has at many times and in many contexts throughout history been rightfully praised—but it doesn’t make for good compromises.


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