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David S. ToolanMay 07, 2001

Back in December of 1994, when John Salvi opened fire at two abortion clinics in the Boston area, killing two and wounding five others, both Gov. William F. Weld and Cardinal Bernard Law called for talks between the two sides of the abortion debate in order to deescalate the rhetoric. But given the ideological heat of both camps, it is very likely no one would have taken the initiative if it had not been for the intervention of my friend Laura Chasin, the director of the Public Conversation Project, a Cambridge-based outfit that conducts dialogues about polarizing public issues. In July of 1995, after feeling out leaders on both sides, Laura invited six women—Frances X. Hogan, president of Women Affirming Life; Madeline McComish, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life; Barbara Thorp, director of the Pro-Life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston; Nicki Nichols Gamble, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts; Melissa Kogut, executive director of that state’s chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League; and the Rev. Anne Fowler, an Episcopal priest and prochoice activist—to begin a series of strictly confidential meetings that continues to this day.

On Jan. 28 these six women went public for the first time, disclosing in a jointly written article in The Boston Globe what they had learned after six years of conversation. The ground rules had been critical. Laura Chasin had asked them to use terms acceptable to all participants (“prolife” rather than “anti-abortion,” “prochoice” rather than “pro-abortion”); to avoid interrupting, grandstanding or making personal attacks; to speak for themselves, not as representatives of organizations; and to shift the focus away from arguing for their causes. “Knowing that our ideas would be challenged, but not attacked,” the six wrote, “we have been able to listen openly and speak candidly.” By the time of the first anniversary of the Salvi shooting, “each one of us had come to think differently about those on the other side.” In 1996 a letter from the prolife leaders succeeded in preventing a Virginia cleric who had praised Salvi’s “righteous deed” from coming to Boston. The prolife women also opened a “hot line,” alerting Gamble when they learned she was in danger (“It lowered my anxiety,” says Gamble, “and moved me deeply”).

No one’s position was changed by these talks (“We saw that our differences on abortion reflect two worldviews that are irreconcilable”). But stereotypes and inflammatory language were dropped (“baby-killer, murderer, Nazi” for prochoicers, and charges that prolifers are religious fanatics, uneducated, prudish or indifferent to women in crisis and to children after they are born). As Barbara Thorp, the diocesan advocate, said, “I’m more mindful now than I’ve ever been of speaking in love, speaking in peace, and speaking in respect to anyone, no matter how wide the differences are.” Said Frances Hogan, “Toning down the rhetoric...is also better politics.”

In my own experience dealing with women who have had abortions, I must say I have almost never encountered one who was not in some way forced to that choice by a sense of abandonment or lack of social support. I was therefore very moved to see the last paragraph the Catholic participants appended to their statement of position: “We understand, all too well, the often desperate and overwhelming circumstances that some pregnant women face. We remain committed to creating an environment in which no pregnant woman feels that she must choose between her own well-being and the life of her child. It is an utter failure of love and community for a pregnant woman to feel that abortion is her only choice.” In other words, the decision to abort cannot be taken in isolation. It usually means that some man is being irresponsible, that families and parishes are not doing their job, that education, health care and decent wages are not available—in short, that society is failing women.

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