By Brigid Shulte
KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Karen Swallow Prior and Karalyn Schmidtare the unlikeliest of allies. When they met, they were mortal enemiesin the pitched battle over abortion.
The two women faced off at a local radio station as the streets seethedin their native Buffalo, N.Y. Angry protesters screamde "babykillers"and blockaded abortion clinics. Defiant abortion-rights activists yelled"religious lunatics," and burst through them.
"The hostility in the room permeated everyone's pores," saidPrior, an abortion opponent and president of Feminists for Life. "Karalynembodied my own personal stereotype of the strident, pro-choice misanthrope."
"I could easily have smacked her," said Schmidt, then directorof the local Planned Parenthood clinic. "I perceived her as, at best,kind of stupid. I could not comprehend how a woman could hold the positionshe did."
What is stunning is that Schmidt did learn to understand. And both womenfound that once they stopped hurling emotional epithets across a chasm-- the typical public exchange in the abortion debate -- and listened toeach other, they shared common ground.
"Prevention," Schmidt said. "We both want to live ina world where no woman, ever, feels she must make this decision. No onethat I know of in the pro-choice camp is in support of abortion."
The two women are part of a larger, quiet movement springing up aroundthe country, from Philadelphia to St. Louis to Denver, the Common GroundNetwork for Life and Choice. The groups consist of both anti-abortion andabortion-rights activists who are weary of the poisoned air between them.They aim not to compromise or change the each other's deeply held position,but to shift the dynamic of the debate. To calm it down.
They're not sure where the effort will lead, but they hope that they'llbe able to work together on such issues as adoption, teenage pregnancy,contraception, and sex education to reduce the cause of abortion: unintendedpregnancies.
Tellingly, the discussion is being assisted by Search for Common Ground,a nonprofit conflict-resolution organization in Washington that fostersdialogue in explosive areas like the Middle East, the former Soviet Union,and Burundi. Abortion is the group's only domestic issue.
"Understanding each other is the key to understanding the problem,"Prior said. "And understanding the problem is the key to solving theproblem. Both sides have to break out of the orthodox mindset and get thingsdone together piece by piece. That's a lot better than nothing."
The movement was begun in large part because the rising level of vitrioland the clinic shootings and stalkings shocked people on both sides ofthe debate.
"Members of the same family, the same church, couldn't even talkabout it," said Betty Hutcheson of the Common Ground Network in Buffalo."We thought, 'We have to find a way to talk about something so divisive.'It was ripping communities apart."
But many men and women seek out the Common Ground workshops for onereason: Despite all the attacks on each other, the legal battles, the marchesand demonstrations, there are still about 1.5 million abortions every year.Although the total has gone down in recent years, the rate of abortionsper pregnancy has remained constant. And neither side claims that as success.
Many activists who seek common ground don't see politicians workingto reduce the number of abortions. The polarized political debate remainsstuck, and abortions continue.
The issue threatens to rip apart the Republican Party as moderate governorsand lawmakers push against Christian groups to change the strict platformlanguage calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions. Strategistsfor GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole are urging him to use PresidentClinton's veto of a ban on a late-term abortion procedure as a ``wedgeissue'' to further divide voters.
"Our platform is based on a constitutional amendment that willnever pass, that they'll never bring up for a vote, and that wouldn't workif it did pass," said Ann Stone, a leading Republican abortion-rightssupporter who is becoming active in Common Ground. "That's not a platformto reduce abortion. That's a platform for panderers."
Last fall, Colin Powell said the focus of the abortion debate is allwrong, that politicians should not play one group against the other, butshould concentrate on reducing abortion itself.
He was blasted by some Christian groups for advocating abortion rightsand for being too pragmatic. But many Americans, the majority of whom areuncomfortable with and ambivalent about abortion, breathed a collectivesigh of relief.
William Kristol, GOP strategist and editor of the Weekly Standard magazine,and former Education Secretary William Bennett have been urging Dole privatelyto take such a position. But they don't think it's likely.
"The problem is, politicians are so scared of the issue of abortion,they don't want to discuss it," Kristol said. "When you talkabout reducing the number of abortions, that gets you into a much morecomplicated argument. And the last thing politicians want is a long, complicatedargument about abortion. But I do think that's what most Americans want."
And that is what those seeking common ground want.
In a workshop, one of the first things they find is how complicatedpeople's positions are, how much more nuanced the debate is than the stridentsound bites that are so common. Stereotypes are blown apart. The enemyhas a human face and a human story to tell.
"A pro-choice activist will say, 'I think there are too many abortions.I don't like repeat abortions or when it's used as birth control,' "saidMary Jacksteit, a codirector of the Common Ground Network in Washington."On the other side, a pro-life person will say, 'I worry about childrenwho are not wanted. I hate it when I read about child abuse.' When peoplestart talking, they see they have an overlapping goal that abortion shouldbe reduced."
In an effort to move beyond their entrenched positions, Prior and Schmidtbegan talking, warily at first, about how to reduce teen pregnancy, andthus, abortion. Although Schmidt has since moved to New Mexico, that efforthelped lead to plans for a gathering this fall of representatives of allthe various clinics, agencies, services and programs from both sides inBuffalo to talk about how they can work together.
Several Common Ground activists planned to meet in Wisconsin at theend of this month to figure out where they can agree on adoption, and onthe underlying problem of unintended pregnancy. No one knows what the answersare, or even whether people with such divergent views can find solutionstogether. But they know they have to try.
"People are not asked to give up their position, because theirposition is really who they are, what they believe. It goes to the coreof one's being," said the Rev. Stan Bratton of the Common Ground Networkin Buffalo. "But this becomes, in a microcosm, how we have to livein this world with so many kinds of difference and diversity. We have tofind ways to live together in this world and maintain our own integrity."
The protests and sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics continuein Buffalo. But now, after three years of long, painful and sometimes enlighteningCommon Ground discussions, some people notice a difference.
They don't feel as inclined to give the "evil eye." And oneday this spring, a man on a bicycle whizzed past a group of abortion protestersand shouted: "I'm pro-choice, but I respect your right to believewhat you believe."
And that, said Karen Prior, is a huge change.
Philadelphia Online -- The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lifestyle-- Copyright Wednesday, May 29, 1996
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