BoundaryI know that this will be heard, by some at least, as a show about abortion. Frances Kissling, after all, is a name synonymous with “pro-choice.” And of course this show touches on the ins and outs of the issue of abortion, for this is the sphere in which she has distinguished herself for over a quarter century. But the revelation of this conversation is how much Frances Kissling has learned, precisely in one of the most entrenched and contested moral values spaces in our public life, about grappling with difference.

Hers is a story of holding passionate convictions and of being open to change — a both/and, not an either/or. It is a story of unfolding wisdom about human and social change, wrested from inside the abortion debate.

Practical tools emerge from this conversation that could calm and enrich our public life on all kinds of fronts if we began to cultivate them right now. Like my former guest Richard Mouw — who grapples with difference on the conservative side of same-sex marriage and abortion, Frances Kissling is eloquent about the value of the “simple” act of listening to different others and gaining some sense of why they believe the way they do, how they came to that, where their hopes and fears lie, what they mean when they use the words they do. Echoing Richard Mouw, Frances Kissling insists that doing this is not an act of giving up the ground on which we stand. But, she insists, when we genuinely listen, “good things come of that.” New possibilities emerge that we couldn’t imagine or meet before.

And though Frances Kissling is more a politician and philosopher than a poet, she reminds me of Elizabeth Alexander when she describes the ground of these possibilities largely in terms of the questions she and others begin to be able to ask of themselves: What can I see that is good in the position of the other? What troubles me in my own position? She speaks of the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we passionately disagree.

As she and I discuss, being vulnerable before others holding different opinions than ourselves is exacting for human beings in the best of times. In the atmosphere of fear that pervades our political and social divides now, it can seem impossible — literally asking too much of us humans who are biologically hard-wired to find the open questions and conflict of a moment like this almost unbearably stressful. Frances Kissling and those she has encountered on the opposite “side” of this excruciatingly charged debate show us that there are ways out. They begin with human relationship, with new conversations that lead to new visions of life graciously shared and difference peaceably navigated even while we continue to disagree.

Before we finished producing this show, we reached out to David Gushee, a Christian ethicist on the “pro-life” end of the abortion debate whom Frances Kissling mentions in terms of this new relationship. Within two days, he wrote an essay for us titled “Sacred Conversations,” which we’ve posted online and offer as an immensely rich addition to the experience of this particular show.

As always, we welcome your perspectives, reactions, and your stories as we continue to widen and deepen our Civil Conversations project — mining fresh vocabulary, animating questions, and practical virtues towards edifying and healing our fractured civic spaces.

(photo: Joisey Showa/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Share Your Reflection



I'm very excited about your Civil Conversations project. And very hopeful.

It is refreshing to listen to intelligent view points about lightning rod issues. Francis Kissling can stay focused yet passionate, well rounded thinking yet chosen point of view. Listening to people who disagree with you is a challenge and she does it beautifully. Her compassion for others, her striving to help marginalized people in society is beautiful. Kudos to Ms. Kissling and others associated with these lightning rod issues.

I enjoyed the conversation on this mornings show. I have been grappling with my feelings about abortion for years. At the risk of being vulnerable, I had two abortions one year apart in my early twenties. It was very difficult for me and caused me great pain and suffering over the ensuing years mainly becaue I was raised Catholic and could not come to grips with what I had done. I believe in choice and espouse more liberal views. Coupled with my feminist take on issues I had to reach deep inside to understand how it was effecting me and my life personally. So here I am some 30 years later, still grappling. But the fact that I had the choice and did what I really needed to do and that others have that choice is so important. How we deal with the aftermath is a true awakening of our soul as it was mine. Thank you for the open and frank coversation as we all try to deal with a deeply personal and political issue.

I found this blog entry and the interview with Frances Kissling thought provoking. I have always considered myself “pro-life” but find that term too constricting. I am not against choice as I am sure that those who consider themselves “pro-choice” are not against life. I am unable to convince myself that in the act of abortion, a life is not being taken therefore, it could never be right for me. I do not want to demonize those who participate in abortion and would very much like to understand their thoughts and feelings about it. After 38 years of Roe vs. Wade and legal abortion, I do not think it could be overturned and perhaps that is a good thing. I think to move forward on this divisive issue, the focus should be more on education, contraception, prevention of the root causes, and to support the women, children, and families with whatever choice they need to make.

I enjoy listening to onBeing regularly. I am concerned, though, whenever the show ventures into the political realm because both Ms. Tippett and her guests tend to allow the right wing to frame debate and discussion, thereby virtually entirely failing to present liberal and tolerant viewpoints. Today is a good example.

Assume you are listening to a debate. Both sides agree that one side is the "Pro-Life" side. What designation does that create, subconsciously, in the mind of the listener for the other side, regardless of what that side may choose to call itself? By agreeing that the other side is properly called "Pro-Life," you implicitly agree that you are "Anti-Life," which Pro-Choicers are not. We are also Pro-Life.

Further, if you agree that the other side is properly called "Anti-Abortion," then you implicitly tell listeners that you are "Pro-Abortion." But Pro-Choicers are not "pro-abortion," a phrase which implies a default inclination towards abortions.

We should refer to the "Anti-Choice" movement in precisely that manner. It is the only accurate appellation that doesn't cast us in the awful and immoral light that right-wingers seek for us. Why will you help them create that false illusion?

Another example: Ms. Kissling portrayed both sides as being too heavily absolutist. However, "choice" is inherently the opposite of absolutism, so how can Ms. Kissling legitimately cast ProChoicers as absolutists? She furnished no examples of Pro-Choicers being absolute. The best she could do was to imply that we haven't taken sex and pregnancy seriously enough. I beg her pardon, but we are the very same people who advocate, against fierce resistance from Anti-Choicers, for sex education, counseling and pregnancy prevention measures.

If onBeing is to venture into politics, may we please have spokespeople who are not from the large masochist wing of the liberal movement? In the abortion debate Ms. Kissling, who described herself as a devastating debater, this morning mostly only devastated her own side.

so if i understand you correctly (and i may not) you think that a person who is "anti-abortion" is "anti-choice"? if that is what you mean then it is very wrong-headed of you and narrow. if you really want to understand those who disagree with your viewpoint, be careful of the words you choose.

As commenter Mike Suarez so cogently writes in this blog thread, we need to be very careful about the "hidden" meanings and assumptions buried in the terms we use. I believe we can learn from observing the history of how the abortion question is framed.

Years ago, the central questions was "when is the human soul formed?" At what point does the tissue within a pregnant woman become a person?

Over the years, the issue has been re-framed as "when does life begin?" Which is an easier question on one level, but which avoids the essential uncertainty of the moral question.

I believe many, if not most, people base their views on abortion on biblical concepts. Most believe the Bible doesn't mention abortion, and thus argue from a "well, God likes life" position.

I urge them to consider the Old Testament's Numbers 5:11-31, in which God sets the procedure for what to do if a husband suspects his wife of infidelity. Obscurely written and even more obscurely translated, God tells us that the wife is to be given "bitter waters" and if she doesn't miscarry, she's innocent. In other words, God says "give her an abortificant."

Which pretty much flies in the face of the "life begins at conception and is sacred" position.

If, because of the terminology, you think that section isn't about abortion, try to determine what else it could possibly be about.

I don't think this bit of scripture ends the discussion, but I think that those who oppose abortion on Judeo-Christian beliefs should deal with it in their analysis.

As someone (Karen Armstrong?) once said on "Speaking of Faith" - if you are going to pursue truth, you have to be prepared to change your mind."

I listened to this show with great interest. I had never heard of Frances Kissling before. What a relief to hear from someone else that there are many sides of the abortion issue.
I had an abortion when I was 19. I was working hard in college, had a part-time job and a very dysfunctional homelife. I also had one boyfriend.
In looking back I believe that I, who had always been so careful about birth control, got pregnant because the directions I received with my diaphragm were incomplete. To be concrete, I had not been told to make sure my cervix was covered.
I never considered having the fetus for a moment, and yet I knew I was deeply ambivalent. At the beginning of the procedure I started to cry. The nurse held my hand very tightly. The doctor said,"What's the matter with her?" And the nurse just said, "It's her first."
I am now 54 and have never had a child. I was always ambivalent and undermotivated. Time passed; I developed a chronic illness; and in a way I was relieved because I thought it would be irresponsible and selfish to have a child while ill (I still believe that). However, that baby was in my dreams for many years and I am now able to acknowledge the sadness and sense of loss that has always been there. But I will emphasize that I still believe in all women's right to choose.