Getting Beyond Polarization #4—The Abortion Dilemma

This is the forth in a series of articles that draw on particular issues I address in my most recent book Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Such Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About It. I wrote the book because of deep concern I feel about how, with issues of most every sort today, people are dividing almost immediately into polar camps. The Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity makes clear that this can’t continue to be the case if we are going to advance in any meaningful way. 

After addressing causes, with each chapter in the book I illustrate how we might bring culturally mature perspective to one issue where divisiveness too often prevails. I chose the concerns I did because each has something particular to teach about addressing issues more systemically. The abortion question brings us back to an essential recognition that I highlighted with regard to bringing culturally mature perspective to moral concerns more generally—the importance of thinking in terms of competing goods. It also highlights the need to confront limits—and here, in the end, quite ultimate limits. 

I’ve noted that a basic observation provides the architecture for the book: In times past, when we encountered polarized positions and partisan advocacy, our task was obvious and unquestioned. We assumed that there were only two options and that our job was to figure out which one was right and fight for it. As we look to the future, polarization has very different implications. We recognize that what we are seeing is left and right hands of a larger systemic picture. We also see that neither side has yet to ask the larger question that ultimately needs to be addressed. 

Abortion is an issue that we commonly associate with irreconcilable differences. But we also today find polarization becoming even more extreme. Certainly opinion has come to more clearly divide along party lines. For example, in the 1970s Republican President Gerald Ford opposed Roe v. Wade, while both First Lady Betty Ford and Ford’s vice president Nelson Rockefeller were abortion-rights supporters. It is an issue where people today rarely succeed in finding common ground. But precisely because the abortion question so quickly splits people into opposing camps, it has a lot to teach us. 

We encountered what is likely the main reason behind such extreme disparity of belief in a previous piece I did on health care reform. There I proposed that the health care delivery debate in the end becomes so deeply contentious because it brings us face to face with life’s ultimate limit—the fact of death. More specifically, it requires that we make conscious choices in the face of death. Abortion in a related way confronts us with questions of life and death. And whatever our position, in the end, it similarly requires that we make life-and-death–related choices. 

Applying a “Parts Work” Approach

Consulting work I did a few years back with a social services organization provides a way in. Abortion had become a hot-button issue in the organization, and contentious feelings were getting in the way of people working together effectively. I introduced the method I call Parts Work in an earlier article (and I examine it in depth in my book Creative Systems Theory). I often use the same general kind of approach with groups. I am particularly likely to do so with groups that are experiencing internal conflicts or where a group is dealing with controversial issues. 

When working in this way, I start by having individuals or small subgroups represent the competing voices. A second group, sitting separate from them, assumes the role of the Whole-Person/Whole-Systems (culturally mature perspective) chair. People in this second group are given a sequence of tasks. First they engage the advocate groups in conversation to clarify the divergent positions. They then converse among themselves and seek to find larger ways of thinking. And finally, they attempt to articulate conclusions and describe how these larger ways of understanding might translate into right and timely action. 

In working with the organization, I began by separating out two small groups to speak for the pro-life and pro-choice positions. (To make things more interesting, I switched the groups so that people in each group had to argue for a position opposite to what they actually believed. I then had people who actually held those positions be consultants to help the advocates effectively make their arguments.) The rest of the participants—those tasked with finding larger perspective—sat in a circle outside the advocate groups. 

To start the process, the two small groups spoke in turn (with the consultants coaching so the advocates didn’t miss important points). The main arguments were those we commonly hear. The pro-life group argued that abortion was murder. The pro-choice group countered that the decision should be in the hands of the woman (or the woman and her doctor). 

Next I invited people in the outer circle to ask curiosity questions. Initially, their task was simply to clarify positions (the process allows no debate at this point). While this helped fill out understanding, it failed to provide much that altered the conversation. The positions of the two groups continued to appear mutually exclusive. 

The people in the outer circle then took on the further task of attempting to engage the issue of abortion more systemically. Initially I had them discuss quietly in pairs. And with time I had them share together and do their best to articulate their conclusions. While the outer group’s efforts didn’t provide final answers, their reflections did gradually move the conversation from a debate about right and wrong to interactions that acknowledged legitimate feelings on both sides. 

Beginning Insight

Several contributions proved particularly useful in this regard. A man who leaned more pro-choice offered that he found it impossible to escape that abortion was in fact a kind of killing—that at the least it was the ending of a potential life. He briefly apologized to his prochoice colleagues that they might not be happy with his conclusion. But he quickly went on to suggest that denying this reality was only hiding from the real question and made real conversation impossible. And in the end, it simply left out what he felt was an essential fact. 

A woman who leaned more pro-life at first also apologized, observing that while what she had to offer had helped her, others might find it too philosophical. She described how she had found herself questioning whether death was the right way to think about the opposite of life. She struggled to find words that might express a better way of thinking about it. Eventually she proposed that maybe instead of being pro-life in a literal sense, people needed to think instead in terms of what most ultimately honored life. And while she wasn’t quite sure what she meant, she also offered that being sure that life endured might not be the only way to do so. Several of her colleagues countered that such semantics accomplished nothing—that death could not be consistent with life—but the observation did invite people to begin to stretch their assumptions. 

Conversations continued on for about an hour, going back and forth between the two advocacy groups and the people tasked with finding a larger picture. Rarely was there full agreement, but the stated goal—of generating greater mutual respect—was gradually achieved. People were able to get to the place where productive conversation at least became possible. 

I’ve noted that the abortion question provides a prime example of the need to think in terms of competing goods. It pits the sanctity of life against a woman’s right to choose. Each is clearly a good—and an important kind of good. People aren’t used to thinking in terms of competing goods. And the task is compounded by a further circumstance that we commonly find with thorny issues. Each position advocates for a very different kind of good. Caught with such apples-and-oranges considerations, we confront major difficulties not just because different people may value one good as opposed to the other. Because we are dealing with wholly different concerns, there is no way we can meet half-way even if we were inclined to do so. But the concept of Cultural Maturity suggests that if we can get at the larger, more systemic question that underlies the polar debate, we can at least make a start.

Asking the More Systemic Question

What might that be with the abortion debate? Traditionally, the defining question with abortion concerns when life begins. Those of more conservative bent will claim it begins at conception—or at least at the time of a first fetal heartbeat. Those of more liberal inclination will tend to answer the question in terms of viability. But the “when does life begin” question proves much less helpful than we might imagine. Because each answer is in its own way legitimate, there is no clear justification for choosing one over the other. The viability answer also confronts the fact that as medical science has improved, this measure has become a moving target. 

There is in fact a larger question that can at least begin to take us forward, one we hear hints of in the responses of each of the outer-circle contributors in the group Parts Work example. The better question asks what choices are most ultimately life-affirming, in the sense specifically of supporting life as something we experience as meaningful. This is the question that all moral concerns come back to when viewed systemically. This kind of determination is less objective. It is not something that we can discern at a safe arm’s length. And people can continue to disagree in how they answer it. But arguably it gets more directly at what is important. 

Framing the question in this way at least begins to provide a basis for conversation. Note that at the same time it supports and also challenges the positions of both the Right and Left (it presents yeses and nos to each side). For the Right it affirms that the fact of life is a good (the yes). But at once it requires acknowledging both that when life begins is open for debate and that existence is not the only variable when it comes to a meaningful life (the no). For the Left it supports the importance of a woman’s right to choose (the yes in doing Parts Work). But at the same time it requires the Left to acknowledge that abortion does in fact end a possible life (the complementary Parts Work no). 

Needed New Skills and Capacities 

Just identifying a more systemic way of thinking doesn’t provide an answer that will be acceptable for everyone. Few people will find this way of framing the abortion question wholly satisfying. The main reason is the explanation that I offered earlier for why the abortion issue is so fraught. Abortion brings us face to face with death. But we can also think of the reason in terms of any of the needed new skills and capacities I’ve noted in other articles. Certainly framing the abortion question more systemically confers new responsibility, and of the ultimate sort I’ve pointed toward. It makes us newly responsible not just for choosing correctly, but for the truths on which we base our choices. With culturally mature perspective, we see that accepting this greater responsibility becomes part of what it means to be moral in our time. But taking this level of responsibility in the truths we draw on is not something we are used to doing. 

It is also the case that we can’t really approach the abortion question more systemically without confronting the need for each of the more specific new skills and capacities I have noted. We need to accept the fact that choices are complex. And inevitably we need to acknowledge that the act of choosing involves real uncertainty. Like it or not, too, we find real limits, at least with regard to the usefulness of more ideological ways of thinking, but also ultimately to what anyone can know for sure. We also again confront the fact of truth’s contextual relativity. How we might answer the abortion question is going to be influenced by the degree to which we can tolerate a more systemic picture and manifest these new skills and capacities. It can also be influenced by personality style. And how abortion is viewed can also be very different depending on life circumstances, such as religious background.

We again encounter the essential paradox that we find with other issues. Addressing a question like abortion with the needed apples and oranges sophistication requires thinking in ways that are more demanding and detailed than we are used to. Yet at the same time, there are ways it is ultimately straightforward. Nothing more defines us than the fact that we are alive, and alive in the particularly choiceful and creative way that makes us human. In the end, reconciling the abortion debate is about making life in that sense our measure.