Room Exists for Discussion on Abortion


Few moral debates in our nation’s history have divided people of deep religious faith more than the abortion controversy.

Thursday was the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and the question now is whether there is any room for dialogue between abortion opponents and abortion rights advocates.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization of liberal Jewish, Protestant and Unitarian-Universalist clergy, declared this week, through Sunday, “A Week of Faith in Choice.” The goal is to publicize “the long partnership between clergy and the reproductive rights community,” according to a letter to members. It is also to emphasize that groups such as the Christian Coalition do not speak for the majority of clergy “who are, in fact, pro-choice, or for the millions of Americans who support reproductive health care,” according to the letter.


Meanwhile, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a November statement now being widely publicized in Catholic circles, calls Roe vs. Wade an “unimaginable tragedy.” It asserts that “claims of privacy and an ethic of unlimited individualism have been used to undermine government’s responsibility to protect life.” The bishops urge Catholics to assist women who are pregnant and in need of help and families struggling financially or emotionally.

Abortion is an issue so morally polarizing that finding any common ground is considered difficult if not impossible by many in leadership roles.

Yet, without a sincere attempt by people of faith on both sides to seek detente, this religious and cultural war is doomed to continue. That carries the danger of more violence by antiabortion extremists and increasing conviction by abortion rights proponents that the entire antiabortion movement is extreme and beyond the reach of dialogue and cooperation.

Consequently, abortion rights advocates consider any compromise (for example, restrictions on late-term abortions) as the first step toward re-criminalizing all abortions.

Antiabortion extremists, aided by uncompromising rhetoric from some ultraconservative religious leaders, betray the cause of life by killing abortion providers and bombing clinics.

Despite the difficulties, however, at least two national organizations are making efforts to find a common terrain.


Evangelical Christian leader Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal movement sponsors town hall meetings across the country to find solutions to the problems of poverty, racism and family disintegration and to “affirm life.” Although he is clearly in the antiabortion camp, Wallis says the common agenda should include combating teenage pregnancies, adoption reform, offering assistance to women trapped in poverty and hopelessness and “a public policy that discourages but does not criminalize abortion.”

When Wallis speaks to a mixed audience, he said, he finds a “lot of agreement.” On one hand, many abortion rights advocates, he contends, consider 1.2 million to 1.5 million abortions a year “far too high.” On the other, some antiabortion advocates, including former Education Secretary William Bennett and former Vice President Dan Quayle, oppose the criminalizing of abortion and call, instead, for a change in the culture, especially regarding the importance of children.

The other group seeking to heal the wounds of the abortion wars is the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice (which has no connection to organized religion). It facilitates dialogue between the two sides through town meetings. The network also tries to identify shared concerns for which the two sides can seek solutions without asking anyone to compromise beliefs and values.

In 1996, for example, the Buffalo, N.Y., Common Ground affiliate took up the problem of teenage pregnancy. At a forum, 50 community leaders representing both sides, 10 teenagers and 10 facilitators were able to agree on the need for better communication between agencies working with teenagers and the creation of more safe places for them. It was only a start but certainly a sea change from scenes of antiabortion and abortion rights demonstrators screaming at one another over police barriers.

The Rev. Stephen Mather, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Anaheim and a former president of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate, has felt the wrath of the antiabortion movement. Its members picketed his church a few years back and tried to disrupt services. Mather talked to the pickets and found that some were more troubled by the number of abortions than the procedure per se. He said he also senses a softening in the opposition by some conservative Christians to comprehensive sexuality education for teenagers, and he respects the work of Wallis’ Call to Renewal and the Common Ground Network. His voice of moderation should be heeded.

It is time for local clergy and lay leaders, whatever their positions on abortion, to come to the table for dialogue and the kind of cooperative efforts happening elsewhere in the country. Anything less simply confirms the view of skeptics that religion promotes war, not peace.



Benjamin J. Hubbard is a professor and chairman of the department of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. He recently co-wrote “America’s Religions: An Educator’s Guide to Beliefs and Practices.” He can be reached by e-mail at