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Peaceful abortion dialogue is shaky but real

With Obama’s support, it’s time to revive a conversation between opposing sides.

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Searching for common ground on abortion isn't new. What is new is that the president of the United States is talking about it and calling for it. That kind of support has the potential to help change the tone of the entire debate.

Fourteen years ago a group of abortion rights activists and antiabortionists participated in the first national meeting of the Network For Life And Choice. The Network – active between 1993 and 2000 – endeavored to transform the dynamic of the abortion debate in the US by establishing a platform where the opposing sides could listen to each other's positions and beliefs, and look for overlapping values, goals, beliefs, and interests.

I was a dialogue facilitator at the national meeting in 1995. The weekend began with high tension and anxiety. Neither group was comfortable and it seemed that no one was at ease being there. Yet people came perhaps because they realized there was an opportunity before them.

The network had developed a highly structured dialogue process that kept abortion rights and antiabortion participants engaged in a series of increasingly difficult and emotional questions. It began with simple "getting to know you" questions that were designed to build trust slowly, and then progressed to deeper levels of dialogue that went to the core of why people believed and felt as they did.

It worked.

Over the weekend, distrust and resentment begin to melt. I heard people tell each other that they had never understood the "other" side until then.

At the end of one session, I saw a well-known antiabortion advocate emotionally embrace a physician from rural Alaska, who had just told about her experiences as the only ob-gyn doctor for miles around. On occasion her practice was called upon to provide abortion services. She tearfully explained that she endured threats to her life and to the lives of her husband and children. Her young daughters were picked on and called names at school.

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