Back when I was but 18 years old, I walked into the campus-ministry office of a northeastern Catholic college. One of the directors of the program there warmly welcomed me. She asked my major. It was politics at the time. Still warm and seemingly interested, she asked what the button on my bag was. I’m pretty sure it was some silly but relatively inoffensive political sentiment about the sitting president, at the time Bill Clinton. “Oh, you’re one of those politics majors.” She proceeded to talk about my lack of concern for social justice and welfare.
That president, of course, would ultimately vote for welfare reform, after one of those politicians—Rick Santorum—made it impossible for him not to. And indeed, it’s precisely out of concern for the poor that conservative social policy seeks to stop the victimization of the individual in an endless cycle of dependency on the government. That welfare-reform legislation helped change some lives, by offering just a little more freedom for some women and families who had been paternalistically assumed to not be able to handle inalienable rights.
I know I didn’t come close to articulating anything like that in the campus-ministry office that day. Nor did I wind up back at that campus-ministry office. And I’ve always regretted that: Presumably, if we both were truly Catholic and therefore believed some fundamental truths, we could work from there.
I thought of this undergraduate moment when Pope Benedict released his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. It opens: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.”
That openness and confidence in truth was part of the motivation behind pro-life participation in the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair Minded Words” conference held at Princeton University this fall. It was billed as “A Conference on Life & Choice in the Abortion Debate.” Instead of caricatures and slogans, there would be conversation, between people on polar-opposite sides of the abortion debate. The most ardent defenders of the sanctity of human life would sit down with abortionists, clinic workers, and other Roe v. Wade defenders.
I haven’t known Jennifer Miller long, but I admire her a lot. This young woman was among the organizers of the event at the New Jersey Ivy not long before Election Day. And it was largely because of her and her desire to be charitable in defense of a culture of life, in the face of a culture of death, that I paid attention to it—despite, frankly, some of the participants and some of the ground rules (no one could refer to “unborn child” or unborn baby” in conference materials; Oxford University’s John Finnis criticized this rule during the conference).
Her bio as executive director of Bioethics International describes Miller as “a leading expert in person-centered bioethics.” And the human person is the key to understanding her—specifically, to understanding why a young physicist would work in what is, essentially, a human-rights field, and why a pro-life Catholic would coordinate an event with some of the defenders and purveyors of a movement that had its roots in eugenics. In the end, it was an imperfect exercise, but a worthwhile one all the same.
On paper, the “Open Hearts” conference sought to “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.” It sought to “approach issues related to abortion with open hearts and open minds . . . 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 . . . [and to] define more precisely areas of disagreement and work together on areas of common ground.”
Did it fail? I’m not sure it did. Unless you’re determined to dismiss it outright, you almost have to look beyond the imbalance in the audience (and sometimes on stage) and outbursts like abortion-rights activist Frances Kissling’s declaration, “I don’t care how you accomplish [ensuring a woman’s right to an abortion], whether through a constitution, the U.N., state laws, or federal laws, or by the Taliban.”
“I think there was some good in the conference, but it ended badly,” is how one speaker summed it up. The main problem was that certain speakers had absolutely no interest in receiving—the presumed point of having open hearts and open minds walking into a conference. When Saturday morning pretty much starts with a rant on the sexual hangups of pro-lifers and ends with a woman’s declaration that she would have urged her mother to have aborted her, the takeaway action items aren’t entirely clear.
Except that they are. During the course of the conference, Peter Singer, proponent of infanticide, and Richard W. Garnett of Notre Dame had some adult conversations about the Constitution and human life and how things should be decided in a democracy. William Hurlbut—a pro-life researcher at Stanford who has been an important, often behind-the-scenes force in the stem-cell policy debate—spoke truth to Princeton, even making a subtle analogy to the well-recognized great evil of the 20th century and the eugenic roots it shared with much of the evil that pro-lifers are concerned about today. He was called on it by Peter Singer, but it got said—and not in a conversation-stopping way, but in a nod to truth during a somewhat compromised dialogue.
And maybe, just maybe, there was some renewed or newfound respect among adversaries. Though confessing to being exhausted and at times distressed by the exercise, Peter Wicks—a fellow at the James Madison Program, established by Robert P. George at Princeton—attests to light in the conference darkness. “I did see some real signs of people making good-faith attempts to understand viewpoints of those they were used to thinking of as enemies. . . . I don’t think those attempts always went especially well, but it’s a very difficult thing, so it would have been unreasonable to expect an especially high success rate.” He points to one session that modeled practical cooperation without compromise:
I think it helped a lot that in the first session on Friday there were two participants, David Gushee, a theologian from Mercer University, and Rachel Laser, a pro-choice activist, who had collaborated on a two-year dialogue project which was intended to, and did, produce a series of detailed legislative proposals that both pro-life and pro-choice people could endorse. They spoke, quite movingly I thought, about the difficulty of coming to understand each other’s viewpoint, but I was left with the impression that they really had come to understand and respect each other much better, and it was also extremely encouraging that they had managed to come up with practical legislative proposals. It did occur to me that their dialogue had two major advantages over that which took place at the conference. The first was time; deeply ingrained prejudices are slow to alter even amongst those who are making a genuine effort to overcome them. The second was a commitment to produce something more than mutual understanding, a practical legislative proposal. I expect that having that concrete goal helped to keep them going through difficult times.
“I think we need to help each other as we look for best ways forward in the abortion debate,” Jennifer Miller told me after the conference. “No single person has all of the answers. I also think policy and legislation alone are insufficient to bridge the abortion-debate divide, nor are they readily achieved without . . . open-hearted and open-minded dialogue.” She recognizes that this can be tough:
At the speakers dinner, my table consisted of a female physician who provides abortions (often on a boat in international waters), a person who pickets outside abortion clinics, a prolife and prochoice activist, the UNESCO bioethics chair, a college student, et al. While at first words of hurt and offense were expressed, most in the end expressed gratitude for the opportunity to put a face to the one they normally consider themselves against. A me-against-you attitude does not usually contribute to solidarity or social progress.
On the pro-life half of the conference’s organizing team was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who had been in the audience when Barack Obama urged Americans to “open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe” in pursuit of common ground. But—in that same speech—Obama also said that “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” One who truly believes an unborn child has a right to life can never forget that latter reality.
Shortly after that Notre Dame commencement speech, Princeton’s Robert George and Pepperdine’s Douglas Kmiec debated the issue of Obama and abortion at the National Press Club. Kmiec, a former dean of the Catholic University of America’s law school, had supported Obama’s presidential candidacy. During the debate, George said some things worth repeating, some things pro-lifers should probably always read before an “Open Hearts, Open Minds”-like dialogue:
What divides us as a nation . . . is not whether the being whose life is taken in abortion and in embryo-destructive research is a living individual of the human species—a human being; it is whether all human beings, or only some, possess fundamental dignity and a right to life. Professor Kmiec and I affirm, and the President denies, that every human being, even the youngest, the smallest, the weakest and most vulnerable at the very dawn of their lives, has a life which should be respected and protected by law. The President holds, and we deny, that those in the embryonic and fetal stages of human development may rightly and freely be killed because they are unwanted or potentially burdensome to others. . . . For the President, being human is not enough to qualify someone as the bearer of a right to life. . . . The President does not believe in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family.
When Notre Dame invited the most pro-abortion president in American history to its campus, it sent the signal that there is compromise on the inviolability of innocent human life. There is not. And pro-lifers needn’t and mustn’t ever suggest there is. But there is common ground in our humanity. There are people on both sides of the abortion debate who want to keep scared women from having abortions foisted upon them by fear. There are people on both sides of the abortion debate who only want to see mothers be able to raise their children in safety. They are motivated by a true love and compassion. And in our journey to Truth, we might be able to make baby steps together. In charity.
If nothing else, I’ve learned that since college.
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Kathryn Jean Lopez (
) is editor at large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.