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On abortion, we need to stop yelling at each other and start listening

I am afraid of those who would sacrifice my life and my rights for a hypothetical human. But nobody is changing minds by trying to win this war of words.
Image: Jenn Lyon
Sharing stories, and the empathy of real listening might be the only thing that has ever touched a heart or changed a mind.Jeffrey Fountain

Have you ever innocently but loudly misrepresented a story for as long as you can remember and never checked the source material? Of course you haven’t; I never would either. Except that I have so many times.

This is another one.

Take this thought experiment by Patrick Tomlinson: “You're in a fertility clinic. Why isn't important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a 5-year-old child crying for help. They're in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled, ‘1,000 Viable Human Embryos.’ The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die — saving no one. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no C. ‘C’ means you all die.”

This is a hypothetical ultimately meant to test whether one truly believes that life begins at conception and a human embryo has the same value as the life of a child standing before you.

Historically in philosophical inquiries of this kind where, say, the choice is between pulling a lever on a speeding train that would kill one man to avoid a collision that would kill five, studies show that 90 percent of people choose to save more people at the expense of one.

So, I used to think that I was landing a rhetorical deathblow when discussing Tomlinson's scenario and it becomes undeniable that no one can really say in earnest that 1,000 embryos are equal to the life of an actual child when danger looms. And I must admit, I am usually waiting for the victorious moment where I say something like: “Seems like you’re struggling. Do you really believe these embryos are actual kids? If you really did believe that, it wouldn't be that hard of a choice for one kid to burn and you are clearly just a woman-hating-liar-fraud with twisty snakes for brains and cleverly hidden horns. Hahahahaha! I gotcha!"

I don’t actually say that, but, in my head, I smile beatifically while ascending onto an imaginary stage at a strip mall to be awarded a medal by the ghosts of famous feminists; I can’t wait for "pro-lifers” to squirm and repent under the irrefutable mirror I feel I am holding up to their dogmatic moral confusion.

It’s gross to admit, but that’s what I’m doing. I have long since ceased to listen, in any meaningful way, to the other side.

And what I realized writing this is that I’ve been telling the story wrong the whole time. The way I have been telling it, there is a grown woman behind the clinic door crying for help, instead of the 5-year-old child. I smugly misremembered that’s how the story went and I never checked again. The original thought experiment using the child is much more effective in uncovering where our allegiances lie in terms of where life begins.

But in this culture war, it was just as easy to imagine it as a choice between a live woman or the embryos. That's how it feels, and that’s how I heard it. Telling it that way forces whomever I am sparring against to admit that their stance on the issue is not complicated at all. They must value the tangible life of an individual adult woman over the ambiguously defined potential in the box. If they don’t, they have a clear disdain for women — even, and especially, if they are one.

I have been pitting women against one another with my strident lecturing. I have chosen to believe that it isn't difficult to reconcile this hypothetical choice with their actual religious beliefs or their lived experiences, that they should just know it’s only wrong to leave the woman to the fire. (And it might be, but that’s not the point.)

In my quest to protect the autonomy and freedom of women, I have become the ultimate conversation stopper. There is nothing to which I don’t have a counterargument, no silence I can’t fill with more statistics. In my head at these moments, I'm wearing a Katherine Hepburn lawyer-type outfit with a 1973 necklace on to represent Roe v. Wade — trust me, it screams "very confident." But these are not the actions of a confident woman.

No, truthfully, my rhetoric is the reaction of a throaty wild animal sensing the fire. I can feel the room getting smaller and filling with smoke. I am the woman trapped in the fire. I’m sure that the people that burst in the door will choose the theoretical in the refrigerated box over the real woman pleading and coughing in front of them.

How can I become a better listener if I am this afraid? Can we afford to put down our weapons for a moment in this stand off? Do we do it on the count of three? How can I trust you? Or how can you trust me when I have hijacked the conversation and made you my hostage?

Aspen Baker, founder of the women empowering nonprofit group Exhale created a platform/philosophy called “Pro- Voice” that seeks to bridge this battleground. It has only two tenets: that people should listen and share stories. Her website says, "Pro-voice focuses on the all-to-often ignored or exploited personal experiences with abortion." In a 2015 TED Talk, she expanded on that idea: "The feminist who regrets her abortion. The Catholic grateful for hers. ... Personal abortion stories don't fit neatly into one camp or the other.”

Another organization I love called “A is For," and it seeks to fund access for all reproductive care and to end the obstructions preventing it. But it also seeks to reduce the stigma surrounding abortion by sharing stories. Recently, as more anti-abortion bills were passed in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, North Dakota and Utah, A is For gathered and shared the stories of women living in those states, no matter what side of the issue they favored.

Sharing stories, and the empathy of real listening might be the only thing that has ever touched a heart or changed a mind.

If gentle listening, if really telling and hearing stories could disarm the bomb that begins ticking on this battleground every time the opposing sides meet, why do I still have a secret gun, a detonator in my pocket and a knife in my boot? Because another gross thing to admit is that I’m not ready to do what I espouse. I’d rather show you the other versions of this article that are, in fact, ticking and armed with explosions of my rightness. Just me feeling very right over and over! (And I'm wearing the Katherine Hepburn lawyer-type outfit, duh.)

But the true story that we need to hear is that one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45 and we need to listen to them — as well as the women who chose differently. Barbara Kingsolver, who is a brilliant writer and badass Appalachian woman after my heart, once said: “Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It is the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.”

So, even though I am scared and prideful, I am offering to lay down my weapons so that I can listen to the stories — all of them, not just the ones that fit my perspective. Will you join me? On the count of three...