Abortion conference hosts "open minds"

"Open Hearts . . . and Fair-Minded Words"

President Barack Obama's words on abortion to a graduating class in 2009 at Notre Dame inspired Charles C. Camosy, PhD, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in Bronx, NY, to consider "What if . . .?"

The result, with three organizers in addition to Camosy, was an October event at Princeton University called "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate." The conference featured leading thinkers on all sides of the abortion discussion in the United States.

There have been other conferences on this topic — Common Ground at Georgetown University being one — which was organized last semester by two student group at the university, Reproductive Justice and Progressive Students for Life.

But while there have been other "common ground" kinds of events, "as far as I know, this has not trickled up — or down — to law schools, or to the Legal Academy," says Robin L. West, JD, JSM, Frederick J. Haas professor of law and philosophy, and associate dean at Georgetown Law.

"For example, I don't know of any law reviews that have identified common ground as a way to think about abortion, or had a symposium around it, or did a colloquial series, or something like that, which is what I would like to see happen," West tells Medical Ethics Advisor.

Margaret Little, B.Phil., PhD, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a member of the philosophy department at Georgetown University, suggested that the four-member conference organizing committee worked very hard "behind the scenes to identify a real balance of people . . . who, while they would disagree strongly, would still converse openly and sympathetically with one another."

And Little says the conference was "not just civil dialogue in the sense of being polite, [i.e.] 'Let's be nice and avoid confrontation."

But there were ground rules and structure that was set up in the first two hours of the conference.

One of the highlights of the conference for Little was when an individual who could be described as "progressive pro-life" at the end of a dinner asked aloud, "What is each person most afraid of?"

She said the question reflected "the premise of the conference," which was that "well-intentioned and good people disagree on abortion. So, if there is a very polarized and difficult debate, some of it is because it's just complicated and we really disagree. . . but some of it seems to be marked by a kind of mistrust. And I think that's right in the usual course of events. And, that's what they were working very hard to confront, and work with, and explore at the conference, while keeping the academic content very rigorous."

West was one of the speakers for the closing panel session, "Abortion in America: Should it be a Constitutional Question?"

"Part of the substance of my remarks was that . . . one of the unattractive consequences of constitutionalizing the entire issue of abortion has been that it has made ordinary politics around all sorts of issues involving reproduction . . . much more difficult," West notes. "It has made positions harden and crystallize. It takes a lot of issues just off the table completely, and it's made it harder for these groups to talk to each other."

In fact, it has stifled, rather than enabled, debate to a large extent, she says.

"I know that sounds paradoxical, because if you just watch MSNBC and Fox News, it looks like it's one of the five things we spend all of our time talking about," West explains. "But, in fact, we don't do it in very productive ways."

One thing she says she noticed at the conference was that many younger pro-life supporters in the audience were "neutral on the issue of birth control."

"It seems to me that that marks the difference between the younger pro-life people and much of the leadership of the pro-life movement, at least the Catholic [component] of the leadership of the pro-life movement," she says.

The issue of the responsible use of birth control is a possible area of common ground, she says.

"It seems to me that, if it's true demographically that many pro-life people . . . are open to the use of birth control . . . then that's something where pro-life and pro-choice groups should be working together," she says.

Little suggested, too, that, in her opinion, there was a "great deal of discussion about contraception."

"So, it really was separating out all of the issues from sex and contraception with their view about the sanctity of life," Little says.

West suggests that people mean different things when they say "common ground."

"What some people mean by the phrase 'common ground' is: let's try to identify values that we have in common, or let's try to identify pieces of the abortion debate where we might agree . . . [and] look for issues where we should be working together in a normal political way to bring about ends that both sides want to see happen. So, both sides want to see the number of abortions go down, so let's work toward that. Then, you're not redebating the abortion issue itself, but you're looking at both values and strategies that you can agree on for achieving a goal that you both might have," she says.

Another issue that received attention at the conference, West suggests, was that "both sides of the debate have a shared interest in bringing down the cost of mothering and bringing down the cost of parenting, particularly for poor people . . . if you look at the demographics of people that need abortions or that get abortions, it's overwhelmingly for financial reasons."


  • Margaret Little, B.Phil., PhD, Director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a member of the Philosophy Department at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
  • Robin L. West, Frederick J. Haas Professor of Law and Philosophy; Associate Dean, Georgetown Law, Washington, DC.