We Americans have increasingly struggled with how to relate to one another. The pain caused and the dangers posed by that collective shortcoming have been on full display in the days since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion.
On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned its prior ruling that the U.S. Constitution’s implied right to privacy included a right to abortion in certain circumstances. In the days since that ruling, we have seen Americans express joyous celebration and desperate sorrow. What we have seen very little of is either side of the yawning political and ideological divide attempting to understand the other.
Issues like abortion are difficult to talk about. Positions on abortion are often defined by deep-seated beliefs. For or against it, your position probably derives from a fundamental belief about something like freedom, life, autonomy or equality that makes it difficult to hear and understand those with different perspectives. Religion, of course, plays a big role in the abortion debate, but make no mistake, the church holds no monopoly on faith. Those in favor of access to abortion typically come to their positions with beliefs just as fervently held and immutable as their opposition’s.
Conversations about abortion are so uncomfortable because they often involve disagreements about ideas that the participants believe to be fundamental truth. As humans, our instinct is to avoid the cognitive dissonance that conversations like this cause by only talking about the subject with those who agree with us. This is unhealthy for us as individuals and for our society.
Now more than ever, it is important that we have the uncomfortable conversations. It is especially important that we have those conversations with the goal of understanding where the other side is coming from, even if we are never persuaded by their position, or convince them of our own.
We often hear talk of the need to unify our country. I agree with the sentiment, but for too many of us, “unification” is really code for converting everyone to our own way of thought. While it certainly would make for easier conversations, in a nation as large and diverse as the United States, it is unrealistic to believe we all will think the same way, even on very important issues. Genuine unification requires, instead, a concerted and widely shared effort to understand opposing viewpoints. When we do that, it becomes very hard to see the other side as an enemy and it opens the opportunity to seek common ground.
In practical terms, this means that those who oppose access to abortion need to try to understand the very real concerns that lead people to be in favor of it. For example, female bodily autonomy, subjugation and gender equity are real and valid things to be concerned about. Similarly, those who support abortion access need to understand the very real and valid reasons that lead people to oppose it. Concerns about human life are real. Concerns about devaluing human life and using abortion as a surreptitious method of making judgments about who is deserving of life — especially those with genetic abnormalities or diseases — are real, and pro-abortion citizens must try to understand them. Even if neither side is convinced by the other, understanding the “why” of the other side’s stance will lead to better and more empathetic conversations.
Just as important as the attempt is the attitude. This effort to understand must not be merely an attempt to set up a strawman to knock down. There is no value in making the other side into a caricature with poor arguments to be mocked or villainized. Rather, when we genuinely try to understand, we will likely find that what separates us is less than we think — even on hot button issues like abortion. Polling indicates more than 80% of Americans support access to abortion in instances of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother. The public has similarly high levels of support for bans on abortion in the third trimester. At the same time, there are certainly areas of profound difference. The question of when human life is entitled to protection on its own is a question that we will wrestle with for a long time. The intertwined question of what level of responsibility or autonomy a woman has regarding a fetus that results from consensual sexual activity is also a debate that we will undoubtedly be having for years and years to come. Hopefully, those having that debate begin by trying in good faith to understand the opposing position.
Even if we never reach a definitive solution, our country will likely end up in a better place for the effort.