The first thing I want to say about the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words conference is this: it is remarkable to be able to discuss abortion at all without people simply retreating into (metaphorically (mostly)) armed camps. That seldom happens in the normal course of things, and the conference was valuable for bringing us all together, even if the spirit of listening was sometimes forgotten — especially near the end, when I think we were all a bit worn.
One of the conference's stated goals was to "Explore new ways to think and speak about abortion." However, much of the discussion would not have seemed out of place twenty years ago. For my part, I was intensely frustrated – to the point of anger – that the same old anti-contraception official stance of the Catholic Church was the only pro-life opinion heard on the pregnancy prevention panel. Whoever chose the speakers for that panel missed an opportunity to do something really different – bring the other 80% of pro-lifers into the conversation for a change! How can we talk about pro-life and pro-choice people working together to prevent unintended pregnancies when that many voices are shut out right from the start? We also needed to hear much more from young people, people of color, working-class people, and people with disabilities. Those voices are often not a part of the "same old" debate.
One of the most productive panels I attended was the session on supporting pregnant women. The participants were able to come to a remarkable accord both on the types of social and economic support that pregnant women need, and on many of the barriers to providing it. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike vocally agreed that it's hypocritical for politicians to praise the work of crisis pregnancy centers while cutting funding for the social welfare programs they rely on. Several participants also wished aloud that people who object to war could do as well as people who object to abortion have done in preventing the government from paying for it! I would have preferred for more panels to have a real-life, practical emphasis like this one. Abortion is a fascinating topic for philosophical discussion, but it's also a real issue of flesh and blood and life and death, and we must always remember that.
Next, I want to discuss the comments Marysia referred to in this post. I was finally able to watch the recording of the "From Morality to Public Policy" panel last night, and I didn't hear Helen Alvare say that bodily integrity wasn't important. I genuinely can't figure out how Ms. Thorne-Thomsen got that from her words. In fact, at about 15:00 into the video, Alvare specifically mentioned the centrality of the body to women's rights. I also appreciated Cathleen Kaveny's acknowledgment that the abortion issue isn’t just a simple matter of “It’s killing; ban it,” but involves two very legitimate interests – the mother’s bodily autonomy and the child’s life – that both need to be considered.
Unfortunately, that same panel was severely marred by David Garrow's sweeping and factually incorrect generalizations about pro-lifers in general being motivated not by desire to protect human life, but by opposition to non-procreative sex. Garrow started his presentation by admitting that he had erred in agreeing to speak at this conference, and I have to agree. He was a totally inappropriate and disrespectful panelist – at one point he even silently mocked Helen Alvare while she was speaking. The other pro-choice panelist, Dorothy Roberts, was as good as Garrow was bad. She did a wonderful job of putting abortion in the context of the intersecting oppressions faced by so many women on the basis of gender, race, class, and disability. Although I disagree with Dr. Roberts in that I think abortion itself is another form of discrimination against human beings, I wholeheartedly agree that it simply can't be understood in isolation from the social conditions that contribute to it. I would dearly love to see Dorothy Roberts and Mary Krane Derr on a panel together some day!
Was the conference a success? We probably won't know for some time. It wasn't much more than a baby step – there was still too much "talking at" and too little "listening to", and I heard a disheartening amount of prejudiced and thoughtless remarks both on panels and in casual conversation. Still, five hundred people thought it was worth their time and expense to come and talk to people they oppose on one of the most bitter subjects of the day. Personally, I got contact information from both pro-lifers and pro-choicers who want to work together on practical proposals of importance to all of us. There was talk of putting together a coalition of pro-life and pro-choice groups to oppose budget cuts for social services that help pregnant women and their children. If we can start taking steps like that together, that at least must count as a success.