When I attended the helping pregnant women Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words conference last fall, pro-choice and pro-life attendees alike expressed frustration with politicians who talked a good game about protecting human life but then tried to cut funding to programs that help women choose life for their children.

We're told that the government doesn't need to help people, because that's what private charity is for. But private charity can't do the job alone. Crisis pregnancy centers rely not only on volunteers and donations, but on referring clients to government assistance programs such as Medicaid and WIC.  Medicaid pays for more than 40% of births in the United States. Ask a crisis pregnancy center volunteer how much harder their job will get if Medicaid is cut.

Please urge your members of Congress to reject Medicaid cuts.

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.

Unlike Jen, I did not attend the Open Hearts, Open Minds conference. But I did carefully look over the program materials beforehand, and was struck by how few people of color were involved in it. I was struck that while abortion of disabled fetuses was on the discussion agenda, there seemed to be little involvement of people with disabilities and disability rights advocates.

I am a person with disabilities, and though I am of European descent myself, am the very involved grandmother of a child of color. People with disabilities and people of color have in so many ways, including but not limited to abortion, been denied the rights to life and bodily integrity. So I am troubled by these apparent omissions of vital stakeholders from this conference. 

There is a disability rights movement slogan that occurs to me at this point: "Nothing about us, without us." Hopefully any future dialogue efforts will consider this at the planning stages, not after the fact.

Aimee Thorne-Thomsen of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project says that she registered for the "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference with "neither an open heart nor an open mind."

But that does not justify everything at the conference that Thorne-Thomsen finds problematic. Particularly prolife lawyer Helen Alvare's apparent statement that bodily integrity is not an important enough issue to discuss in the context of abortion.

What could be more central to the issue? Especially on a planet where one in three women experiences gender-based violence.

Abortion violates the bodily integrity of prenatal human beings. It often results from the denial of women's body-right: through inequality in our relationships with men, sexual coercion, the denial of our chosen family planning methods, the societal refusal to strive for 100% effective contraception, domestic violence, the utter withholding of necessary medical and social supports before, during, and ever after birth…

And it can be defined as a violation of women's bodily integrity in and of itself. NOT because women "by nature" must bear children, and as many as possible–hey, I would have been dead a long time ago if I believed THAT–but because it involves the lifetaking of a particular, irreplaceable, already existing human being inside of another particular, irreplaceable, already existing human being.

The question of bodily integrity is inseparable from the abortion issue.

Jen is indeed tweeting away from the Open Hearts, Open Minds conference.

I am at home taking courses from the US Agency for International Development's Global Health eLearning Center. So far, I have completed certificates in Child Survival, Family Planning & Reproductive Health, Gender & Health, HIV/AIDS, Maternal Health, Neonatal Health, and PEPFAR (the US international HIV/AIDS program). Both Jen and I are working to become more informed and effective advocates through All Our Lives.

I'm excited to be attending the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words conference that will be taking place at Princeton University this Friday and Saturday. The conference is for activists on all sides of the abortion debate to:

  1. Explore new ways to think and speak about abortion. Recognizing the divisive nature of the debate, and its larger effect on public discourse, we wish to explore new words, ideas, categories, arguments and approaches for engaging with each other
  2. Approach issues related to abortion with open hearts and open minds. We wish to make a concerted effort to engage with each other with the kind of humility and quiet necessary to really listen and absorb the ideas of someone who thinks differently.
  3. Define more precisely areas of disagreement and work together on areas of common ground. Some sessions are intended to cut through the confusion and fog of the public abortion debate, by clarifying more precisely areas of disagreement, potentially highlighting areas where we can move forward.
  4. Get to know those on multiple sides of the issues more personally. In part because it is often easier to take seriously and listen to those one knows personally, we will self-consciously promote social interaction at this conference through lunches, cocktail hours and breaks.

 

One of the first things on the conference web site is: "Do you find most public discourse on abortion painful?" That's what really drew me to it. Is there anyone who finds the way we talk about abortion satisfying? I don't mean useful — I think all sorts of people find it useful — but satisfying?  Like it's really bringing out the best in us, like we're really doing our best thinking and relating to each other when we fling "baby killer!" and "woman hater!" at each other for the thousandth time? I hope not. I want to have a richer, more constructive conversation and try to find a way out of the toxic swamp we've been mired in for the last few decades. I want to talk to people who won't dismiss ideas out of hand just because they come from one of Those People. I really hope to meet other reproductive peace advocates (even if they don't call themselves that)!

If you can't come to the conference, good news! All but one of the panels will be livestreamed on the web site, as well as archived for later viewing. I make no promises about liveblogging, but I'll have my phone and hope to be tweeting (within the rules, that is).