On Being with Krista Tippett

David Gushee + Frances Kissling

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue

Last Updated

July 25, 2013

Original Air Date

October 4, 2012

No issue is more intractable than abortion. Or is it? Most Americans fall somewhere between the absolute poles of “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” A Christian ethicist who advocates a “consistent ethic of life” and an abortion-rights activist reveal what they admire in the other side and discuss what’s really at stake in this debate.

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Image of David P. Gushee

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. His books include A New Evangelical Manifesto and The Sacredness of Human Life.

Image of Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is president of the Center for Health, Ethics and Social Policy. She was the president of Catholics for Choice from 1982 until 2007.


July 25, 2013

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Most of us — most Americans — don’t identify with the absolute positions of always for, or always against, abortion. We never start our public discussions in that nuanced moral center. But this hour we do. We delve into what we usually don’t talk about when we talk about abortion. And we experience two people who might help heal our fractured civic spaces. David Gushee is a Christian ethicist. Frances Kissling is a longtime reproductive rights activist.

FRANCES KISSLING: “Abortion very late in pregnancy, abortion of disabled fetuses, these to me are very, very complicated questions. Even though I don’t think fetuses have an absolute right to life, I think fetuses have value. And I don’t think you can make the fetus invisible.”

DAVID GUSHEE: “A concern I have about my own side is, what the main activists in the pro-life or anti-abortion community want is an overturn of Roe vs. Wade. I am not at all convinced that if that were to actually happen that they would like the world that they would see on the other side.”

MS. TIPPETT: “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue” — an event of the Civil Conversations Project.

MS. TIPPETT: This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media. I’m Krista Tippett.
I interviewed Frances Kissling and David Gushee before a live audience at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minnesota.


MS. TIPPETT: No issue is more a symbol of culture war than abortion. And it is also a symbol of how we have impoverished our approach to intimate, civilizational questions. One of the premises behind this Civil Conversation series is that we are not all going to arrive at a universal shared set of convictions on this kind of question any time soon, if ever. So can we continue to allow them to tear at our civic life and our political process? Can powerful activists in this debate let in the complexity and the nuance and the good old-fashioned confusion that many of us feel? And if they can do so, what can they teach the rest of us? So here, today, we are going to attempt such an adventure — in which we put legal arguing to one side and speak together in human terms.

And we are going to experience a politically countercultural relationship that Frances Kissling and David Gushee have begun to form across the years. They’ve been together in different settings, though I’m pleased to say that this is a first: the first time that they are together one on one in a discussion.

So David, I want to start with you.

DR. GUSHEE: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: You were raised Catholic and you have become a Baptist minister. Um …

DR. GUSHEE: I admit it. It’s true.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s true. So I wonder in your earliest life and also in the trajectory — clearly there’s a story there — where do you trace the seeds of your concern for these issues that collect around the subject of abortion?

DR. GUSHEE: It’s interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s because of my Catholic upbringing, at least not explicitly, because I don’t remember the kind of 1970s Catholicism that I was coming through in talking about abortion much. It was before John Paul II, and before abortion became a flashpoint issue. And it wasn’t really — once I became a Southern Baptist as a 16-year-old and learned how to drink sweet tea and you know stuff that Baptist …

MS. TIPPETT: As opposed to the other stuff you were drinking before?

DR. GUSHEE: That’s right. We’ll talk …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. The Catholic stuff, OK, yeah.

DR. GUSHEE: The Catholic stuff that’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, right, yeah.

DR. GUSHEE: But I would say when I entered the progressive evangelical world, I ended up working with Ron Sider at Evangelicals for Social Action in Philadelphia. Progressive evangelical, he was the first person I heard talk about a kind of holistic or a consistent ethic of life. I found that terribly attractive. But now that I look back, I realize there was one other factor that was playing a key role at that time, and that was I was writing my dissertation on the Holocaust and I had three little kids and I would work all day and I would go home at night and write about the mass murder of children and everyone else. And I think that the desire to live in a world where we stop killing each other so much dovetailed with my exposure to this ethic of a — a consistent ethic of life.

MS. TIPPETT: Could you just say — consistent ethic of life, could you just say in a few words what you mean by that, so not just abortion but what’s part of that larger picture?

DR. GUSHEE: The idea that if you are a Christian, which I am, that a primal moral imperative coming out of our faith is that every life matters, every life is sacred, every life must be protected, and we should seek the flourishing of every life across the life span.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve talked a lot about — in recent years you — you have agitated about torture being a Christian issue, war as a Christian issue, so that’s all part of that picture for you.

DR. GUSHEE: Yeah, it’s all there.

MS. TIPPETT: So Frances, you were raised Catholic too. You had a mother, who had been divorced twice and herself was estranged from the Church, but you became a nun, a very young nun. You left over disagreements with Church teaching. I want to ask you the same question in that way, you know, uh, in the earliest life, in this trajectory, where do you trace the seeds of this passion that brings you here today?

MS. KISSLING: Mm-hmm. For me, the — you know, as with many people, the roots of this really are in my own family experience. My mother became pregnant with me before she was married. She was from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, the last of seven Polish-American children, came to the big city at the age of 17 and got pregnant with a soldier, uh, chased him. The chaplain made him marry her and here I am. And she proceeded to do that three more times; those times she was married.

I saw in my mother a very bitter person, whose life was really damaged by parenthood and who in turn damaged her children by parenthood. And so, that was to me a very, very important influence in how I looked at questions around sexuality and around women and around what might be best to do in difficult situations.

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t think I’m wrong about this, but the two of you will know better that these categories that we’ve used to frame our discussion — pro-life, pro-choice —these cut-and-dried categories don’t describe, I think, most Americans.


MS. TIPPETT: I remember, I was very struck in that exit poll in 2004, which was such a heated election that same exit poll that gave us the God gap. A majority of people coming out of that — who had voted — who had voted Republican and Democrat, something over 60 percent, said that their position on abortion was abortion with some limits, which puts them in between the two poles that we usually take as the starting point for our discussion. And I know that the two of you have your own frustrations with the cut-and-dried absolutes. Could we just start talking right now about getting beyond that language those categories, those too-narrow categories, pro-life, pro-choice? Could we use language that suggests what is at stake and what we want to take seriously as opposed to absolutes?

DR. GUSHEE: I think the language is past its sell-by date. I think we should retire it. You know, when thoughts crystallize or calcify into slogans, they don’t really explain anything anymore. They’re not really helpful to us. It is true that polling shows — you ask the same group of Americans are you pro-life or are you pro-choice, the majority will say, yes to both, because there is something there in the middle. And also, the polling reflects the limits of the categories. I think that we face here a perennial human problem that touches all kinds of dimensions of life, including sexuality, our — the nature of our relationships, economic realities, the relationship between morality and law, you know, how — how one adjudicates rights and all of that. I’m happy for us to have a conversation where we never again mention the phrase pro-life or pro-choice.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s try. Let’s try. It maybe hard. Yeah.

DR. GUSHEE: It’s not about that anymore. I don’t think.

MS. KISSLING: Yeah. I don’t think it’s hard to have a conversation in which those terms are not mentioned.

DR. GUSHEE: Instead we talk about the sub-issues, the issues that contribute to the conversation that, you know, that needs to happen, yeah. So we’ve done, we’ve taken care of it, Krista. It’s over.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, that’s great.

MS. KISSLING: Of course, you have a universe of two here …

MS. TIPPETT: And then we have a half an hour to come up with a new language.

MS. KISSLING: … and probably a lot of people who already listening who are a little angry and perhaps a little confused.

DR. GUSHEE: Maybe because we’re seen as not being properly loyal to our sides. But the problem is, these sides have become entrenched. And I think that entrenchment, it’s almost like a permanent interest group kind of situation. And then people stop thinking fresh thoughts.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I sense that what’s important to the two of you — and I think is important to most of us and all of us — is not just the categories or the positions, but what is at stake here. I like some of the way that two of you from your different perspectives on this have, you know, talked about — so — so David, this is provocative language that one of your concerns about what’s at stake in a society where abortion is practiced is you have a moral concern about a society that depends on abortion to underwrite its sexual and romantic practices. And Frances, you know, from your perspective you’ve said this, you know, “Making babies is serious business and sex is a pleasurable and meaningful activity with social consequences.” And that’s an important statement for you as a person on the side we won’t name that starts with a capital C — on that side, which believes that abortion should be legalized.


MS. TIPPETT: When you and I first, Frances, first talked about this you said — I said I wanted to invite David. And you said, “I have so many questions I’d like to ask him.” I think it’ll be really interesting for us to hear you ask questions you may have had of each other and possibly couldn’t ask on large panel discussions. I don’t know, Frances, do you want to go first, since I felt like you’d been carrying this around?

MS. KISSLING: Well, maybe just more of a conversation in a sense. OK. David, you and I had one other experience together in which we were on a panel at Princeton on this. And one of the areas where that I think is a flash point are questions around sexuality, which very much are at the root of this question.

MS. TIPPETT: Meaning, sexuality meaning?

MS. KISSLING: Well, I say that there are two aspects. One is …

MS. TIPPETT: Remember this is public radio, OK.

MS. KISSLING: When do you — well, I thought you could say anything on public radio. I mean I think that Anaïs Nin said …

MS. TIPPETT: Oh great.

MS. KISSLING: At least I’m not going to quote Foucault. But Anaïs Nin said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” And …

DR. GUSHEE: There’s a lot to that.

MS. KISSLING: And there’s a lot to that. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a world beyond how each of us sees it.

DR. GUSHEE: Right.

MS. KISSLING: But we see it as it is. And you and I see the sexual world very differently. I am a product of the sexual revolution. Whatever my mother’s experiences were, they’re not my experiences as a woman. I never married. I never wanted to marry. And I don’t think that God intended me never to experience sexual intimacy because I didn’t marry. That’s a very — I think that’s a very big difference. That you think that’s what God intended for me. And that I should sit here as a woman on the verge of my 70th birthday never having experienced sexual love and full intimacy with another person.

DR. GUSHEE: It’s a great question to ask. I want to take it in a direction that links it to abortion.


DR. GUSHEE: I think we do have fundamentally different readings of the sexual revolution. That was when, I believe historic limits on the morally accepted expression of sexuality were changed; they were abandoned. The idea that sex belongs within a marriage relationship primarily gave way to sex belongs within any relationship where two people want to be together. I think that the sexual revolution opened up millions and millions of Americans to having children that they were not prepared to have. That the simultaneous birth control revolution did not adequately meet the need. It was thought that the availability of the pill would mean that people could have sex with whoever they wanted to have sex with. And it wouldn’t be a problem. But it turned out to be a problem.

So I link our society where one out of four, or one out of five pregnancies ends in abortion to a society where so many people are having sex in context in which a pregnancy would be a disaster. I also believe that the sexual revolution didn’t really do any favors for women. Because I believe that it created a context in which women would be expected to and would routinely want to have sex, but if things went wrong in terms of pregnancy that the burden of that going wrong would fall on women disproportionately. So yes, I think that the sexuality is fundamentally significant here. And what has happened in our society needs to be considered in that context.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I just want to say. I think this is, um, it’s really illuminating in a sense; it starts to help me understand very quickly why we contained the discussion to pro-life and pro-choice, right, because this is an impossible thing to talk about. It’s very hard.

DR. GUSHEE: It’s hard.

MS. KISSLING: Well, it’s very hard. One of the things I’ve experienced around what you’re trying to do here in terms of — and what others are trying to do around the idea of having a dialogue about abortion. Is that people don’t want a dialogue.

DR. GUSHEE: They want to win.

MS. KISSLING: They want to win, number one. They want to win. But they also don’t want to do what you are talking about, which is this is hard.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this On Being, a conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue.” We’re at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. I’m with Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, and Christian ethicist David Gushee.

MS. TIPPETT: So David, I’m going to give you a couple minutes before you ask Frances her question. So I interviewed Frances in 2011, and one of the things you said to me, which I thought was very provocative, thought provoking and challenging was that, so that you left Catholics for Choice and you did not change your position on it, you were still in the same camp, if we want to talk that way. But you felt very compelled to try to be in a relationship with your political opposites on this. And so that’s been where a lot of your energy’s gone. And you told me that one of the things you had learned and you’ve written about this, is about the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom you passionately disagree. Which is we’re experiencing this a little bit here. And I mean just wading into the water and imagining how tricky it gets. You said that this kind of relationship requires you to ask certain questions of yourself. For example, to be able to honestly reflect on what is it in your own position that gives you trouble. What is it in the position of the other that you’re attracted to? I’d love to ask that question, I mean maybe of David first.


MS. TIPPETT: What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you’re attracted to?

DR. GUSHEE: One of the things I’m attracted to and have really learned a lot from in dialogue with Frances and others in the pro-choice community is the sustained knowledgeable commitment to the well-being of women. And this issue, no progress can be made on it without that commitment. And many on the pro-life side — especially the most visible folks — they have a tin ear there; they just don’t sense that it’s there. Well, one kind, I mean one kind of help is offered in a certain kind of crisis pregnancy center. But the broader more holistic getting deep into the realities of women’s lives globally, the global perspective really is important too as well as domestically, I think is important.

A concern I have about my own side, and I know we’re not going to focus on legalities, but I will say this. What the main activists in the pro-life or anti-abortion community want is an overturn of Roe vs. Wade. I am not at all convinced that if that were to actually happen that they would like the world that they would see on the other side. Because I am not sure that it would lead to fewer abortions, I think it might lead to more. If especially there was a shredding of the social safety net at the same time. So I say to my side, if you’re all about five Supreme Court Justices overturning Roe vs. Wade, you better be all about being in a dialogue with everyone who knows about why women seek abortions and are addressing the prevention side and addressing the support for women side. And in general that’s not where the activists on the pro-life side are to be found. And so I’m, you know, deeply worried about that, deeply conflicted about that.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So Frances, what is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to?

MS. KISSLING: Well, I think what I’m troubled by in terms of those — generally speaking those who support both the legal and the moral right to abortion. Which I think is a good thing to support. I’m generally troubled by the one-value approach to the question. That the only value that needs to be considered in both moral decision-making and in legality is what the woman wants. OK. And that whatever the woman wants, no matter what difficulty, whatever difficult situation comes up that we talk about: abortion for sex selection, abortion very late in pregnancy, abortion of disabled fetuses. And these to me are very, very complicated questions. And what I get back from my movement is if the woman wants an abortion, there is no other factor or value that should be considered. And it is, even though I don’t think fetuses have an absolute right to life, you know, I have a very different view of the fetus than David does. I think fetuses have value. And I don’t think you can make the fetus invisible in the abortion decision. I think abortion decision is a conflict value decision.

What I like about the position of people who are very strongly opposed to legal abortion, is that side of that movement that really is troubled. That really is, it does have what David calls a consistent ethic of life. I could rip it apart, you know, if I was in one of my win moods. But I think that notion that there is a holistic, um, need for respecting life and life processes is very attractive. And I think the arguments that are made about wanting to expand our sense who is part of our community is a very attractive argument. That’s a good thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Watch, listen, and download my conversation with Frances Kissling and David Gushee at onbeing.org/CCP. This is the second of four Civil Conversations we’re holding to subvert deep divides in American life, which only become more polarizing in an election season. A great group of policy centers are joining us: the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, and the Brookings Institution. Learn more, and add your voice, your questions, and your ideas. Again, that’s onbeing.org/CCP. On Twitter, use hashtag CCP2012, and I’m on Twitter: @kristatippett.

This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue.” I’m with Catholics for Choice founding president Frances Kissling and David Gushee, a Christian ethicist at Mercer University in Georgia. They are two voices in a constellation of choice and life activists who are exploring real relationship with their political opposites.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, Frances, when you said a minute ago that the fetus can’t be invisible, you made this point that I had not thought about. That in fact, technology has made — in 1973, we didn’t even have images of a fetus the way we do now. I think that’s very interesting because it made me aware that that technology has changed all of our imaginations. You know, whether it has turned into a position or not, it’s a new reality we live with that certainly has infused this discussion.

MS. KISSLING: Yes, I think that, you know, when I said, I think it picks up on the idea of who is a part of our community. I mean, you know, I used to have this old Catholic way of thinking about this. Is the fetus a person or is the fetus not a person? And I really think that’s a dead argument. The fetus is the fetus. OK. And it’s real. And as it enters into our consciousness, you know — first of all, we did have, you know, Lars Nielsen’s photos long before 1970. And many women who have abortions have already had babies, many more than we think. And so women do kind of know. But I do think that for those of us who are pro-choice to have no empathy to — I think there’s a crassness — I want to say this very clearly — on both sides of this movement. And I think we recognize more readily the crassness on the other side than our own. I think those of us who are pro-choice are often crass about the fetus. And I think those who are pro-life — and we’re using those terms right now — are very crass about women, very crass.

DR. GUSHEE: Sometimes.

MS. KISSLING: Well, sometimes the same on the — both sides.

DR. GUSHEE: Right.

MS. KISSLING: But let’s, you know, like I don’t want to push you to be more pro-life than you need to be, David.

DR. GUSHEE: Right. So — just being honest, just being honest.

MS. TIPPETT: So and I’m also aware that we’re in a safe space here. We’ve created a safe space. Right here, just for an hour and a half. It’s an unusual, an unusually safe space when it comes to this issue maybe. And the real …

MS. KISSLING: There is no — there is no safe space.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And the real-world dilemma — the real-world dilemma that runs through both of your writing and all the writing and discussing on this is the fear on each side of what happens if you give a bit. So both of you are going to probably hear more from people inside, on your own side of the discussion than from others. You know, Frances, there was something you have actually been writing about pro-choice activists calling for restrictions on late-term abortions. You’ve been raising this as an issue. And one reaction to something you wrote about that was, this is like offering the crocodile your arm so he won’t eat the rest of you.


MS. TIPPETT: And that fear is real. And it’s based on real experiences.

MS. KISSLING: Right. Well, I think that, you know, when you speak outside of the box and outside of the terminology that is known in your field, you are often misunderstood. I mean people don’t read what you write. They read what they think you’re saying. And they read from their, you know, defensiveness. So, but I think that, you know, if we’re going to go beyond legality, then we have to answer the central question of ethics and morality.

I’m not interested in compromise for the purpose of compromise. I’m interested in what’s the right thing to do. And I no longer think — and I don’t know yet exactly how to deal with this — I no longer think the right thing to do is that the only answer in the abortion question is if a woman wants an abortion whatever period of time it is, and for whatever reason it is, that’s fine. And I would hope that David thinks there is more to this question of what is the right thing to do than that from the moment of conception, the conceptus has an absolute right to be carried to term and brought into the world. So I don’t, you know, I may actually have a little more, I don’t know. I kind of, I’m feeling righteous, because I think I have a little more room than you do. But I’d love to hear you tell me that you got some room too.

DR. GUSHEE: Well, first of all I think that what you’re saying from your side is just a tremendous step forward. And I think that on my side, I would just say that this is an unsolvable problem apart from broad cultural attention to the well-being of women, to the fragility of our relationships, to the weakness of our social safety net, the problem of poverty, all kinds of factors that lead people to make the desperate choice of having an abortion. And to the extent that the pro-life side hasn’t attended to that, has not contributed to the conversation we’ve needed to have. Can I ask my question?

MS. KISSLING: You can.

DR. GUSHEE: OK. I was very struck when I dug a little deeper into the polling as to the reasons women give for why they choose abortion. And some of the demographic data from Guttmacher like, that 60 percent of abortions are obtained by women who are up to 199 percent of the poverty line.


DR. GUSHEE: That many women say that the reason they had an abortion is because of the fragility of their relationships in their family or with their partner. Then I had this really quite staggering experience when I learned that some people at a university when, that I know about. The students, the guys were saying, well, if a girlfriend of mine got pregnant, I would just tell her to have an abortion. I would just tell her to have an abortion.


DR. GUSHEE: OK. So my question for you is. Given pressure from boyfriends, husbands, fathers, given poverty, is abortion as a routine social practice empowering for women?

MS. KISSLING: I think that the problem is — I don’t think abortion is empowering for women. I don’t think that childbearing is particularly empowering for women either, by the way. I, you know, like when people say to me, well, you know, the thing you say is that abortion lets men off the hook. OK. My experience is that men are off the hook.

DR. GUSHEE: They just are?

MS. KISSLING: They are off the hook. And they …

DR. GUSHEE: Oh, existentially kind of off the hook. OK.

MS. KISSLING: And they are off the hook if you have the baby. And they are off the hook if you have an abortion. So for me, it’s a false argument that you make, because, you know, like the number of the men who don’t support their children and the society who allows them not to support their children, is much higher — I’m hypothesizing. I would have to ask Guttmacher to tell me the truth. But my hypothesis is that that’s a much higher figure than the number of men who say to the women, have an abortion.

It’s not wrong that women have an abortion because they can’t take care of children, in my humble opinion. It’s wrong that they have no choice but to have an abortion because, or they feel they have no choice, because they don’t have the money and the resources to take care of children. But I don’t think that’s a reason to make abortion illegal. I think that’s a reason to take women out of poverty. I think that’s a reason to do the things that empower them. I think that the big thing for me is I want more women to use contraception.

DR. GUSHEE: And I agree, women and men.

MS. KISSLING: I want people to be responsible. I, you know, and I got you know, beat over the head for this too. I want women to be, and men, to be responsible, because I think procreation is sacred.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being — conversation about religion, meaning ethics, and ideas. Today, “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue.” We’re at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota with Christian ethicist David Gushee and former longtime president of Catholics for Choice, Frances Kissling. I want to introduce Marie Griffith now. She’s going to moderate the question and answer session. She is the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. And she’s the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.

MARIE GRIFFITH: Thank you so much, Krista, and thanks. We’re delighted the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics to be cosponsoring this event. David, a number of listeners are interested in having you expand on some of your ideas around the social safety net. What sorts of policies in particular around women’s lives you would advocate. Helen wrote in online about the lives of children, noting there are hundreds of thousands of kids here who will likely never find homes, because they are the wrong age or the wrong color. So that skews even the adoption issue. What about their lives? Can you offer some specificity about policies you’d like to see as part of a consistent ethic of life?

DR. GUSHEE: Well, the way I’ve seen this broken down is, um, at one level intelligent measures to help people prevent unintended pregnancies. And I have, I’m on the record as an evangelical as saying we need to make comprehensive sex education, including the use of contraception in every school, and evangelicals need to drop their linkage between contraception and abortion as if they are equally problematic. I don’t see why that would be the case from the evangelical perspective.

Also, we seem to have a lower percentage of people who use contraception properly, or use it consistently or whatever in this country. We need to improve that. We need health care so that if a woman is pregnant she doesn’t have to think about, I need to get an abortion, because I can’t get adequate health care. Hey, especially if you say you’re pro-life you should want to rush to the aid of that pregnant woman and to be sure that she has the health care that she needs. And it’s not a question. So same thing with expenses for childbirth or for early childhood for children. We need all of that.

And so the broad concern I have is we have deficit concerns, we have fiscal concerns. But a society that would roll back access to abortion could not be simultaneously weakening the social supports that would help make carrying a child thinkable. My nightmare scenario is pro-life people win. Abortion access is rolled back without adequate social safety net support, and we have lots of botched abortions. And we have lots of children, even more children being raised in desperate situations, than are already happening and women not getting adequate prenatal care. Those have to go together. Those concerns go together for me and in a holistic kind of pro-life vision.

MS. KISSLING: I think those things would reduce abortion considerably. But I think that, you know, if we look at the international experience particularly in the Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe, I think that we see that even in systems where all the things you talk about are thousands of percent better than they are here, there are still significant numbers of abortions, much lower than ours, but significant numbers of abortions. And I think there’s something else that we don’t do that somehow we’re going to have to come to grips with. And that is that the desire to have a child and the desire not to have a child are so strong, so strong and they’re not even always related to social conditions. There’s something existential that is being ignored …

DR. GUSHEE: In that person at that moment. Yeah.

MS. KISSLING: … in our discourse. There is no doubt that if I had gotten pregnant, I am capable, I am, you know, woman. I am capable of taking care of a kid and being a good mother, but I do not want to be mother. I am not meant to be mother, but I could get pregnant. That’s a challenge for you.

DR. GUSHEE: It is. I would just say we seem to have dropped adoption off the table in the broad social conversation about this. That the sacrifice of those nine months, people need support for that too. We should go to another question, shouldn’t we?

MS. GRIFFITH: Somewhere here in our audience writes: “How does one balance being authentic in dialogue across an ideological divide, abortion or otherwise, while at the same time advocating for public policy that is one-sided?” Jill in Illinois asks it this way: “What brings you back to conversations such as this one? I’m sure there have been times when it seemed hopeless to pursue dialogue on this heated topic. What keeps you in dialogue with the opposition, besides the hope of changing their minds?”

DR. GUSHEE: I guess I would just say, we live in a national community. And this national community is fractured. And as a human being, as an American, and as a Christian, I think I’m called to seek reconciliation. I also think that this fracturing is really bad for us. It’s bad for our national soul, and it also distracts us from attending to other problems because we’re so gnarled up on these kind of culture wars-type issues. So for all of those reasons, I don’t feel like I have any choice but to engage in the conversation.

MS. KISSLING: For me, I’ve given up participating significantly in the political process on abortion. I agree with the person. It’s very — for somebody like me, who was such a proponent and is such a lightning rod on this issue, I think the only way that I can be creditable on this is to give up the hard political side. You know, and there is enough people who want to do that that’s not a problem and to really concentrate on the other side. And the other thing is I go into this because it’s not to change anybody else, it’s to change myself. Thich Nhat Hanh said this best of all — he’s the one where I got it from. He said, if you don’t want to be changed, don’t go into dialogue.

MS. GRIFFITH: One last question. So I think folks were very taken with Krista’s question to both of you. Asking you to reflect on what made you uncomfortable in your own movement? And so someone has essentially asked the question, how will you take some of this back to your own movement? Are you in dialogue and discussion, fruitful dialogue, with people on the pro-life side, David? The pro-choice side, Frances, where you think they’re could be movement along the lines that you’re describing with sort of solving some of those, the crass issues, as Frances put it, the crassness on both sides?

DR. GUSHEE: I don’t know if I really represent the pro-life movement. I don’t think so really. I’m a Christian moral thinker who deals with this issue, as Frances said, along with others. I have such an ambivalent relationship with what I think are the ideas and the power structures and the ways of doing things of that world. I would say this though — I hope they’re listening — I think we’re dealing with a human problem and a moral problem and a relational problem and trying solve it in a public policy voice. And that’s never going to be adequate. I also really resent that this has become a kind of a, just a political shibboleth, just play the abortion card, get votes, whatever. I think that’s so crass about something as profound as this, something as human as this. So I guess that’s my muddy answer to what I would say about them.

MS. KISSLING: I think the danger that I’ve experienced in doing this kind of public thinking and, you know, believing that doubt is a virtue as opposed to moral certitude being a virtue, is that everything gets polarized very quickly. And so the new polarization is not those who are opposed to abortion or those who are in favor of abortion. The new polarization is those who believe in common ground and dialogue. And those who follow their principles to the very ends of the earth on something they believe in very deeply. I’m not here to say the pro-choice movement should change. I think people who feel very strongly, um, I admire them. You know, in many ways, in the same way you asked the question of what do I admire in somebody who has a different position on abortion than I do. What I admire in those people who believe life, those people who believe women’s autonomy in absolute, in relatively absolute terms. That’s to be admired. And also to be admired are those who are somewhere in between all that.

MS. TIPPETT: So you know, it seems to me that in dialogue at this stage, which is more advanced than we often get in our common life. But really we’ve scratched the surface, right? I feel like we could keep going for eight hours. We’re not really talking about common ground so much as common grappling. Right. This is common grappling, which is a step forward.

DR. GUSHEE: Common grappling is a whole lot better than ideological talking point hurling.



MS. TIPPETT: I think to close I want to just zero in on this idea of how change happens and what it looks like. What kind of change we’re aspiring to, given that common ground is illusive. You know, there was this public conversations project I mentioned that Frances has been part of and, David, you’ve experienced some too. You know, they had a five-year closed-door in-secret conversation in Boston between leading pro-life activists and leading pro-choice activists after people were killed in an attack on a Planned Parenthood center in Brookline, and there was incredible trauma on both sides about that.

They met for five years and they wrote something which is called “Talking to the Enemy,” which we’re going to post. I put it out on Twitter today; we’ll post online. But I was very struck with the conclusion of these people, how they wrote about the experience they’d had: “Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a paradox. While learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, we have all become firmer in our views about abortion. We hope this account of our experience will encourage people everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion and other protracted disputes. In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.”

So that paradox is so interesting. And I think all of us who have worked in any kind of encounter with difference that was a profound encounter know that paradox. You may stand more firmly where you stood before, but you are changed.

DR. GUSHEE: I have found that to be true, that statement that you read. After the Princeton conference in 2010, I felt clearer that the position that I had going in related to the wrongness of kind of mass abortion. I was clear about that. I was more clear. But also I was more clear about the intelligence and the love that motivated the people on the other side too. And I respected that, you know, I really saw that.

And I got to talk to people I would never have talked to otherwise. And I saw we’re kind of dealing with the same problem from opposite ends. And maybe there’s a meeting in the middle of people who care enough about the world to engage its problems at a deep enough level, and they meet each other in the middle, even if they realize, hey you know, we start from a different place, we go back to different communities, but there’s some things that we both care about.

And, um, that is change; that changed me. And it certainly made it impossible for me to sit by when somebody made some kind of grotesque caricature of a pro-choice person or a pro-choice movement say, no that’s not true. You don’t know what you’re talking about. So yeah, I wish we could get some resolution, but meanwhile, there is real value in the conversation. It is transformative.

MS. KISSLING: And that’s enough.

DR. GUSHEE: At least it’s something.

MS. KISSLING: I agree.

MS. TIPPETT: Frances Kissling, that can’t be your last word. It’s too short.

MS. KISSLING: I never had a good end game in chess either.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, what about that question of sitting where you sit knowing what you know. You know, what your encouragement be to people out there who care about this? Who care about women, who care about pregnancy, who care about the sexual sensibility of our culture.

MS. KISSLING: You know, I think that we have lost in many ways the ability to ask the question why. But look, I …

MS. GRIFFITH: In the question why. What do you mean, the question why, why?

MS. KISSLING: Well, why do you, you know, like when somebody says they have a view on any of these subjects, very rare, you know, like I think we have to learn not to be advocates. This is what I’m in the process of doing. I’m learning not to be an advocate. And I think what we all need to do is ask more questions. I think part of the conversation really is about asking questions, rather than giving people answers. And this is what those of us who are advocates do. The minute, you know, like the minute David says something, there’s this little part of me that is like, I want to give him the right answer. I want to give him the right facts. I want to take him up on mass abortion language. I, you know, like I, you know, I want to do that. It’s useless, that’s stupid, it doesn’t work. Nobody, you know, it’s not how anybody learns. If I’m interested at all in him understanding me, I got to figure out the right question to ask him. So that he thinks about what he just said. And I like people to ask me questions that make me think about my assumptions, suppositions, etc.

MS. TIPPETT: So if …

MS. KISSLING: It’s about questions, not answers.

MS. TIPPETT: … we’re not advocates, we’ve become what? Listeners?

MS. KISSLING: Well, listeners we have to become. But questioners, I mean we become, you know, we don’t give up our critical faculty. I used to, you know, it’s my closing joke, because I love jokes, is what I always say about the Catholic Church is, the reason I’m still a Catholic is because the Catholic Church asks the right questions. It has lousy answers, but it asks the right questions. What do you think about that, David?

DR. GUSHEE: I’ll let you deal with the Catholic community on that one, Frances. I guess maybe a walk-away point for me is — I think we’re becoming dumber as a society.


DR. GUSHEE: Our politics is making us dumb. Our media, with NPR excluded, is making us dumb. And we have plenty of really intelligent people in this society who are able to have intelligent conversations. Academia should be one place where that happens, and sometimes it actually does happen like today.


DR. GUSHEE: But intelligent nuanced conversation is not rewarded materially or politically. And so engage — I guess my walk-away word is engage in intelligent questioning, listening kinds of conversations with everybody you have a chance to have that conversation with. I actually think the younger generation already gets that. My students, they don’t want dumb. And they don’t want hard-line talking points. They really want to understand and they want to have meaningful conversations. I do despair sometimes that our politics is not producing that. I think this is a matter of civilizational significance that we learn how to talk like this with each other again. And not just about abortion.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Thank you, David Gushee. Thank you, Frances Kissling. Thank you all for coming.

DR. GUSHEE: Thank you.


MS. TIPPETT: David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. His books include A New Evangelical Manifesto and, forthcoming, The Sacredness of Human Life. Frances Kissling is president of the Center for Health and Social Policy.

Watch my entire public discussion with Frances Kissling and David Gushee at onbeing.org. And please join your thoughts and your passion to the Civil Conversations Project, which continues to unfold online.

Our next event is happening on Tuesday, October 9th, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. I’ll be talking with two political bridge people — democratic economist Alice Rivlin and longtime republican senator Pete Domenici. Then on October 10, back at the Humphrey School, I’ll be with Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn with fresh points of entry to pondering the future of marriage.

Find out more. Watch the live streams and weigh in at onbeing.org/CCP. Follow our show on Twitter: @Beingtweets. Follow me: @KristaTippett.

On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefni Bell, and Susan Leem.

Special thanks this week to Marie Griffith and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and to Larry Jacobs, Kate Cimino, and their colleagues at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. That’s at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: Next time, vocal magician Bobby McFerrin on the territory between music and mystery. Please join us.

This is APM, American Public Media.

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