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In the Room with David Gushee and Frances Kissling

Watch the entire public discussion between Krista and her two guests at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And see what people were seeing in our interactive chat as the event unfolded.

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The Civil Conversations Project (CCP) ~ Season 2

This show is part of The Civil Conversations Project, a series of four public discussions offering ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces. Listen to our other CCP dialogues:

» The Future of Marriage
» Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue
» The Next Christians
» Political Bridge People

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David Gushee and Frances Kissling in dialogue at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

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Posing this as a legal thing is unhelpful and posing it as related to women's bodily autonomy is unhelpful. I have to do things with my body that I don't want to do, and I luckily don't have to struggle with killing a being or prebeing. Why does absolute autonomy have to be maintained in this question but exists in no other sphere? I can't drive through red lights because it endangers others. I can't kill other people if i thought it'd be in my best interest for the rest of my life, like killing abusive partners. Why is abortion different? Let's say we agree 12 weeks is the cutoff. Why would abortion prohibited after this point be any more threatening to women's autonomy than prohibiting homicide in general would be to either gender's autonomy?

It's a moral and social question. The legality is transient, like the voting rights act ruling.

I've had an awful illegal abortion pre Roe V Wade.. No one should go through that. Why haven't you even spoken on the harm to women's bodies by illegal abortion? I agree with David Foster Wallace. I'm pro life and pro choice. It's wrong and I'm for it 100%. In the seventies, when feminism began, women would angry with me for telling them i felt guilt. I'd do it again. The man proposed to me, not really wanting to. I turned him down, not wanting to marry or have a child. Frankly, I wouldn't want a child to grow up in a fundamentalist family. Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. I was raised a third generation atheist, though I prefer my grandfather's term, "free thinker". I'm also a mystic. not only should contraception be taught but condoms should be free in boy's and girl's restrooms, where no one can see them pick them up. Often people have a hard time imagining their daughters having sex. Once I sent a box of condoms to a friend's child was to be visited by her Facebook boyfriend. With illustrations on how to double bag and leave room at the front of the penis. A week later the girl's mother called to say they'd asked for another box. My mother, a liberal, taught me how to have children, but not how not to. She was jealous of my freedom as a good looking young woman. When my brother left for college, she fiiled his closet with Kotex, saying, "That will last until you get pregnant and married." A curse I overcame with an abortion. There's a correlation between alcoholic mothers and pregnant teen daughter. Among other impacts of alcoholism on children of alcoholic. If I described my abortion you'd throw up. (And I'd already met his Catholic family with eight children, one having had two kids out of marriage, given away.) Pro Life people, especially men it seems, don't realize how cruel they are. Some "pro life" women and men would say, "She deserved her suffering." Interview someone who has had an illegal abortion. I've written a piece on mine. Am trying to decide where to send it. If you have any ideas please email me.

I am a pro-life democrat (there are many of us but we are largely quiet about it). I am also a Christian. I would like to see this discussion material made available to more college campuses, perhaps in critical thinking classes or reading materials. There is so much political correctness, polarizing debate without the openness we saw here. The discussion could be expanded to include support for women after they've had an abortion, and not minimizing the traumatic effects it has for a great many women. The discussion could also include the expanded adoption world now, with more choices and supports offered. I think both sides were presented in an open way and I would like to see this continue. To those who are bothered by the notion that a pro-abortion person could have doubts about her side's black and white view of it, or that the pro-life voice here is calling for more sex education and contraception: only respectful dialogue, validating some of the views of the other side (without necessarily agreeing to them) will lead to less abortions and better lives for women and their unborn or born children. Lighten up, people!
The people who feel as I do may be getting their kids ready for church, and perhaps do not usually listen to NPR talk shows. I do not represent the typical demographic of an NPR devotee. If my comments upset anyone, consider listening to the show again. It is an example of effective dialogue. but I would like to see more coverage of the atmosphere on university campuses (what could be done to help students see the gray areas). And what about parental notification? I have to give permission for my teenager's school to administer cough syrup or tylenol for cramps, but not for something as life-altering as an abortion? "A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still...." I live in an area where the most vocal, default position is staunchly, unequivocally pro-abortion. Thanks for giving us all things to think about, and for showing me that NPR does not assume that ALL of their listeners are of the same mindset.

David Gushee's belief that abortion is more a societal issue than a legislative (or political) one is completely on target. You can't legislate a profound appreciation for life - it has to be ingrained in our moral consciousness. It's something we have to teach our children from the start. The day a pregnant woman and those around her believe that finding a means to accommodate the yet to be born child is more important than finding a means to eliminate it we will finally see an end to "expedient" abortions. That will take not only a personal commitment to the preservation of life but a societal willingness and capability to care for the life brought forth. It really will take a village to solve this particular problem - and what a marvelous village that will be.

Sometimes the sides in a debate are not as opposite as they assume. Sometimes, working together, sides find a better and more profound solution to their dilemma than either could have uncovered alone. Go to this link: Then click on the words in the box: "July 2009 Anchor newsletter." Read "The Sureness of Heaven." What do you think?

There is a third term that was not used but was what this conversation ended up being about and there was much middle ground of agreement. The term is PRO Birth. The definition in my understanding is this group believes there will not be any abortions but they also don't provide any support for the child except legal before or after the birth.

Will someone please tell me how the anti-abortion folks managed to become labeled "pro-life"? This is the greatest public relations coup ever. People who oppose a woman's access to abortion are anti-abortion, not necessarily pro-life. In the discussion of abortion, the term used is inevitably "pro-life" , which sounds so much more positive than what is really is, which is anti-abortion. Many of the so-called pro-life group support the death penalty, own guns, hunt animals, eat meat, and are themselves, or support, the armed forces. There isn't much "pro-life" about any of these things. In the discussion of the complex subject of abortion, much greater clarity is obtained by using the correct term of "anti-abortion" or "anti-choice" instead of the emotionally charged term "pro-life".

Dear Cynthia, I really hope you're joking. Sorry I can’t resist. Come on Cynthia, you have to admit, it’s one sandwich short of a lunchbox, logically speaking :) Umm....BECAUSE ABORTION TAKES AWAY LIFE might be the simplest answer. Out of almost 7 billion people on this planet, please tell me of one that was not at one time a fetus. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between fetuses and people ;) Therefore if you 'terminate' a fetus you are ending a life. Even a child can work this out. According to your one side 'logic' of challenging positive spin, one would have to also term the 'Pro-Choice' lobby: 'Anti-Life'. That would be fair, and more accurate. Especially since the 'Pro-Choice’ cause is dependent on preventing women from receiving the information they need to make informed choices such as sonograms (note the opposition to the kind of legislation that would provide more information like this to mothers). Let’s try ‘Pro- Abortion’ to keep with the positive spin. Everyone likes that one. You bring in irrelevant arguments about the death penalty / guns / animal rights because you simplistically lump people in the same box because of narrow-minded party politics. We’re not talking about those issues. This cold & soulless bluster about emotionally charged arguments is the quintessence of human self deception.
Please think with me for a minute along the lines of worst case scenarios. Imagine with me that the 'Pro-life' position is shown to be terribly mistaken, beyond a shadow of doubt, actually completely groundless and yet they have their way and repeal on-demand abortion. The result: we have tragically restricted women in their reproductive rights and they will have to raise children that they did not wish to have or give them away for adoption. That’s a painful and often bitter scenario (but life can always surprise us) and not one enfranchised women, or the multi billion dollar abortion industry are likely to opt for. Now imagine with me that the 'Pro-Choice' position is actually mistaken. Instead of ‘blobs of cells’ fetuses are shown in reality to actually be children (over half of which will be women) with precious potential and 'the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ like all other members of society, and yet are the most vulnerable sector of society and unprotected by the very parent who is supposed to provide that protection and who is actually the cause of their dismemberment and brutal murder. What do we have? We have the violation of the rights of the weakest of human lives, but much more than that, we have the silent massacre of 40 million children (7 times the size of the Jewish Holocaust). Judge for yourself which is the worst. Please don’t talk about emotional charge. Human beings are masters of self deception where guilt is concerned, because we don't want to even open our minds to the possibility that we are guilty of such despicable barbarity being committed in the name of 'civilization'. This is the real emotional charge in this debate: guilt. Hopefully one day society will look on this evil stench in it's cold light of reality as we now do the Slave Trade, but I believe that day will never come, because our society might be very smart but it’s morally dumber than a box of rocks, just like your posting.

this show was such a delight! At last a thoughtful and humane discussion of this issue. Having worked in maternal-child health all my life the complexities and the realities of life for mothers and their children are critical to our future and yet they get hijacked by arguments that take us nowhere. At last a chance to think about them in all their soul searing reality. thank you

Until there is science to support where the line of viability is, I think the decision is that of the woman. Any other view is an imposition of morality on another person. I doubt that there is a person in the world that "likes" abortion; but, there are a lot of people that think they should be allowed to make decisions about other persons ability to decide what should be done.

David Gushee's,"We are becoming dumber as a society...civilizational significance" didn't say what I have been feeling since I listened this morning. I think what I have been feeling is not less intelligence but less virtue, less striving for wisdom, less appreciation for wisdom, happiness and virtue. When were these given as the real reason for spending money on an education? Money has become our god. We need to ponder the fate of Midas.
It seems we have more abused children, more abused women, more economic slavery, more suicides, more mental illness, more abuse of natural resources than ever before, more expensive but poorer health care, poorer education and the Ogllala aquifer on its last twenty years. Making abortion illegal will only compound the problems.
I had a very wise and loving old uncle who never seemed to have a bad day or thought, who in his very alert ninties almost knocked me off my chair when he declared, "Only after half the people starve to death will the rest come to their senses." That sentence has been haunting me ever since. We are in desperate times. When will virile mean virtuous? When will virtue become valued? When will we become aware that happiness takes its life from virtue?

What about the mentally ill who become pregnant? How do we deal with those that want abortion? Can we force them to have children? We have a large number and am not sure they would be adopted.

Still love the episode. About my 3rd listening.
I appreciate your find of David.G (he was new to me) he's a great thinker.
How about building an entire show around that gem at the end - that modern media is making us dumber. Aim high - I don't want to remember your enterprise as all just TED talks on the radio.

I found this program to be very profound. Having been part of the debate for many years I found it refreshing to listen to the topic discussed open and honestly. I appreciated both Gushee’s and Kissling’s views and their thought provoking questions they had for the other.
I believe there is no clear answer to the issue, nevertheless I think David brought up the fact that we need to honestly address the taboo topic of “sex” with young people and help them to become aware of the consequences of their actions.
I also agreed with David when he mentioned that if Row v Wade is overturned and we haven’t dealt with the underlining issues, the fallout will be great.
Since you were willing to address the topic of abortion in an open an honest forum, maybe it’s time to deal honestly with the topic of how our society is the most sexualized and conversely the most puritanical. This issue impacts our society; morally, ethically and religiously.
Thank you again for a truly stimulating program
Leslie Dixon, Executive Director/Founder Birds & Bees Connection

What a breath of fresh air as far as a conversation, Both parties displayed abundant respect, intelligence, curiosity.. I was also struck by the civil, nuanced, and meaningful conversation, usually in very short supply when there are disputes on this kind of magnitude. With these kinds of seemingly unresolvable differences, with people firmly entrenched on their respective polarized sides, the best that can be hoped for may be this type of compassionate dialog, where people really try to listen to and hear each other, and try to empathize with each other's perspectives. And to acknowledge there may be some validity to what the other side is saying. It's an interesting mental exercise to pose a hypothetical thought problem, as if your life depended on you standing up and defending one aspect of the other side, which you respect and admire

If some kind of creator exists, I imagine that he/she/it created men and women so that they could procreate. I believe in the biological imperative. However, I feel it also takes an extraordinary act of courage, to bring a measure of thought and free will into the picture and recognize that one may be an exception to the rule. Perhaps one does not feel that one has the instincts or the capacity to be a good nurturing mother, or perhaps one has not met the person one feels would be a good father and husband. Or perhaps the whole world is just such a rotten place that one wonders why anyone in their right mind would want to subject a new being to the torture that is life on this earth, filled with so much pain and suffering. It then is a act of responsibility and courage, even kindness, on a woman's part, to recognize and accept that the biological imperative is not destined to be her experience. I respect a person's decision to choose not to procreate if they choose not to. In this dialogue, I was really struck by Ms. Kissling's life story, and her pointing out that the other side would seem to want and expect her be a virgin all her life, if indeed the sex act is, or should be, so intrinsically linked to the act of procreation. Dr. Gushee totally avoided answering this one, as if it really was too hot to field. There is no answer that I see as workable here, coming from his perspective. But on the other extreme, one can see all around us in this society promiscuity raised to an art form, people indulging their physical urges with no self-restraint or self-control, like dogs, just for pure physical pleasure and fleeting gratification, with no thought to the possible consequences of creating a life, bringing a baby into the world, and having to care for it long-term. It is the loss of personal responsibility in all this that I bemoan and find most dreadful. Actions have consequences - period. Any such simple and natural cause-and-effect relationship like this should offer up teaching moments. To engineer, manipulate and alter this with contraception and other modern technology may be doing a grave disservice to the long-term common decency and integrity of human beings. It's almost like some universal of fundamental law may be being tampered with and broken. Sex just feels so good. If there is a creator I imagine he/she/it would have wanted us to feel such soaring heights of pleasure in physical intercourse, uniting as one in love-making, and making babies as the ultimately beautiful result of this expression of combined passion. But looking at the animal kingdom and extrapolating to man from that, if men's and women's physical needs would really be met, it seems like women would be popping out a baby every year they are fertile. The big question is, what is the "morality" of contraception? If having sex is what some creator intended to combine pleasure with making babies happen, can one simply undo this by some creative means, to eliminate the "danger" of making a baby, so that the sex act can be used ONLY for pleasure when one wants, without fear of any such "grave consequences", i.e. exactly those same consequences as some all-knowing creator had intended. Sound a bit similar to pick-and-choose cafeteria Catholicism. I'm generally more sympathetically "pro-choice" if we are talking about an individual who is basically a fairly responsible person and puts sex in some greater context, where there is some greater emotional depth to the relationship. I get increasingly less sympathetic with people who have no sense of the risk they are taking, have no respect for the sanctity of the potential life they are creating, who don't recognize any "sacredness" in the fundamental linkage of sex with making babies, and who use abortion merely as a routine procedure to reverse any unintended and unwanted "accidents". It seems that what separates us from the other "beasts" in the animal kingdom is that only we humans have the "higher" consciousness to understand the emotional component of the sex act, whether or not you specifically call it "love".

All this completely changes after menopause, which is a creator's natural contraceptive technique, which neatly resolves all these nasty and tricky dilemmas. Then people can be free to have ecstatic glorious carnal pleasure all the time with no risk of any "bad" consequences. Hoorah.

I enjoyed your interview on public radio. We need more open dialogue on
polarized issues such as abortion. I'm a physician who has intimate contact
with life and death daily. Raised in a morgue, I examined miscarriage specimens
as a child alongside my father, a hospital pathologist. With the wonder of young
girl and the wisdom of a woman physician, I've investigated the destiny of these
discarded embryos and fetuses. My philosophy is apolitical and offers a fresh
angle on a topic that deserves public discourse. I have been pro-choice in the past
though have been considering the sanctity of life and wondering why we consider
miscarriages medical waste. While pro-choice and pro-life groups remain polarized on elective
abortions, there are far more spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) in America.
What happens to all of these miscarriages? I answer this question in my essay,
The Life of a Miscarriage:

No man can understand how it would feel to have his body and his future co-opted by someone else's desires. If an easy modification of a man's body were available, would David always choose to take inside his body, nourish and support the lives of each unplanned pregnancy? At fifteen, I was betrayed by my mother who invited the man who had just attempted to rape me to live in my home. He raped me in my home. I was forced to marry him because otherwise my child would be a bastard. 54 years later my son has suffered because he never had a father. David, how many children would you carry and support? That is a real question for every woman.

An interesting and refreshingly un-polarized discussion. While David Gushee seemed generous and conciliatory, I couldn't help feeling that any minute Frances Kissling was going to burst out of her rather contrived tone of generosity and burst forth with "Let me tell you somethin' ! ", like she knows the absolute truth of the matter and anyone who dissents from her viewpoint is automatically misinformed.

The picture seen here demonstrates this difference in attitude wonderfully.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This conversation is excellent on so many levels. Most especially as a model of Dialogue. I was thrilled to be able to listen to civil conversation on the abortion issue after a lifetime of having had to listen to propaganda and invective in shouted volleys. Very encouraging.

I am not a regular listener, and seldom write comments on any radio or TV program, but I enjoyed this program so much I am doing so now. It was good to set aside the stock arguments, and the sense of alienation, and have two thoughtful persons with different points of view have a civil dialogue. There was no meeting of the minds but I learned a great deal about perspectives in this brief program. Maybe there is a place - a small spot of common ground - where we can meet.

David Gushee and Frances Kissling interview was such a great discussion,I found this discussion very timely and well thought out, hitting hard on a very passionate issue. I can see both sides of the issue and have open discussion like this could bridge the gap of what people believe; I have very strong beliefs about this subject , but was able to see both sides of this discussion. Really thought provoking. “Making babies is serious business and sex is a pleasurable and meaningful activity with social consequences.” Heavy so on point.


Voices on the Radio

is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. His books include A New Evangelical Manifesto and The Sacredness of Human Life.

is president of the Center for Health and Social Policy. She was President of Catholics for Choice from 1982 until 2007.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Coordinating Producer: Stefni Bell

Episode Sponsor

The Civil Conversations Project is sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, and the Lilly Endowment.