The ideological divide between Catholic teaching on human life and the stance of abortion rights advocates has long been a battleground for heated conflict. But when leading thinkers on both sides attempt to engage in serious debate, can they find areas of agreement in spite of their opposing beliefs? 

A conference held at Princeton University Oct. 15-16 attempted to answer this question by bringing together a host of experts, ranging from philosophers and ethicists to lawyers and policy advocates, and spanning a wide range of views on abortion. The conference, titled “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words,” created conversations among panels on such issues as the moral status of a fetus, the duty of a pregnant woman to her child and how the law should handle concerns relating to abortion, all with an eye toward finding areas of common ground. 

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University and one of the conference’s organizers, told Our Sunday Visitor that the abortion discourse in the United States is too often filled with hostility and polarizing language, making it difficult for either side to truly understand the other’s reasoning. In particular, he said, the Catholic position is often dismissed without being given fair consideration. 

“Very few people take the Church’s teaching on abortion seriously in a public forum, and a lot of people don’t understand what the Church teaching on abortion actually is,” said Camosy, a pro-life Catholic. But he added that while the conference did give a platform to Catholic and other pro-life speakers, it was also an opportunity for pro-choice enthusiasts such as Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer and former Catholics for Choice president Frances Kissling, both conference co-organizers, to argue their positions as well. 

“There is so much confusion about precisely what it is we disagree on because we don’t engage with each other,” Camosy said. “So, it is just as important to better map where we disagree as it is to try to find common ground.” 

Shared values 

Among the emerging points of agreement was a desire to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the many underlying issues that contribute to the high abortion rate. Pro-life Baptist David Gushee and Jewish pro-choice advocate Rachel Laser were among the panelists who found shared views on working toward that goal. 

Gushee, an ethics professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, said that the demand for abortion is caused by such factors as instability of relationships, sex outside marriage and economic hardship, none of which can be reversed simply by changing abortion laws. 

“If Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, there would still be a significant number of women who found themselves in those situations and would face the same choice,” Gushee told OSV. “And I have found good working relationships with people on the pro-choice side who are willing to work with those issues, and who are happy to work with people who don’t share their same basic approach to the legal issue.” 

Promoting family 

But even with consensus on the need to address the underlying causes of abortion, there is disagreement on the potential solutions to achieve that end. 

Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University and former spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, presented the argument that policy surrounding abortion should be viewed in the context of family law, promoting healthy, stable relationships. The current treatment of abortion, she said, is contradictory to the goals of family law because it creates a separation between marriage, procreation and sexual relationships. 

“We really want to put sex, marriage and babies back together,” Alvaré told OSV. “We need to have a cultural change in that direction.” 

To do so, she said, requires a shift toward laws that are pro-marriage and that discourage out-of-wedlock birth. There was disagreement, however, over whether state aid to single women can be just as effective in discouraging abortion. 

“The compendium of Catholic social teaching uses the language that families’ responsibility toward children, their upbringing and their education is absolutely irreplaceable,” Alvaré said. “Others think that if the state just gave enough benefits (to mothers) then the outcomes between marital and other kinds of childrearing situations would be equal. They wouldn’t.” 

Divisive issue 

Another initiative that seemingly would provide common ground in the abortion debate is the effort to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. But as a panel discussion on this topic illustrated, there also exists a sharp divide on how to approach this goal. 

The solution, according to the majority of panelists, is through increased education about and access to contraception, a position that is decidedly at odds with Church teaching. A presentation of data on unintended pregnancies and the effectiveness of birth control made no mention of natural family planning methods, nor did it address the successes of abstinence education. 

Legion of Christ Father Joseph Tham, a bioethics professor at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome and the lone Catholic voice on the panel, told OSV that he was disappointed with the lack of discussion on abstinence education statistics. He added that with so much attention given to artificial contraception, the Church needs to increase efforts to promote natural family planning by having not only priests explain the moral dimension, but through doctors giving medical information and married couples providing personal witness. 

But even though many may be dismissive of the Church’s teaching on the subject, he said it is critical to continue moving the discussion forward. 

“It is a great challenge because the differences are really extreme,” Father Tham said. “But for us to really have charity in truth, true charity means going out of your comfort zone and trying to engage those who have different opinions.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Constitutional Question? (sidebar)

A panel discussion at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words” conference took on the question of whether the legality of abortion is a matter best left to the courts or the legislature. Although the panel failed to come to a consensus on the topic, their discussion did provide some surprising insight for pro-life advocates — not all on the pro-choice side agree with the Roe v. Wade decision. 

Putting aside personal moral beliefs, experts on both sides argued that the Supreme Court overstepped its boundaries in making abortion a constitutional issue. Even Princeton University professor Peter Singer, while noting his belief in abortion rights, proposed that the issue should be dealt with legislatively. 

Conference co-organizer Charles Camosy said that the debate helped to emphasize the conference’s goal of bringing out new ways to debate the abortion issue. 

“Here you have some really serious pro-choice people wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade and calling for a real public debate on abortion that will involve a legislative process,” he said. “And that’s something we really haven’t talked about before.”