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Anne C. Fowler: Talking with the Other

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts  and opened fire with a rifle. He seriously wounded three people and killed the receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she spoke on the phone. He then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street to Preterm Health Services, where he began shooting again, injuring two and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, then-Cardinal Law and then-Governor Weld called for a de-escalation of the violent rhetoric employed by both sides in the abortion debates.  That call represented an opportunity for visionary and philanthropist Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project in Watertown Mass.  The Project had been conducting facilitated dialogues on difficult subjects, particularly abortion, and they decided to up the ante.  

They interviewed dozens of leaders on both sides of the abortion abyss, and selected six to participate in a dialogue. They were the Chair of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the Chair of Massachusetts Feminists for life,  the director of the Pro-Life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts, the ED of NARAL ProChoice Massachusetts, and me, an Episcopal priest with a parish in Jamaica Plain Massachusetts.

I had been involved in Prochoice activities and dialogues within and beyond the Episcopal Church for some years. I had become, by default, the go-to person in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on the subject of abortion.  Most priests at the time felt it was too delicate a matter to speak about in public.  And most Pro-choice activists were suspicious of religious professionals. 

So mine was an uneasy position to occupy, but one I felt called to as an integral part of my ministry. Shortly after my ordination in 1985 I had been asked to speak at a national conference of abortion providers on the topic of “Abortion as a Moral Choice.”  I was skeptical of how many would attend such a panel on a lovely spring day in Boston.

But the room was packed.  The people there, those working in the trenches of reproductive health care, were deeply grateful to be told that their work was not of the devil. I believe they felt not only validated but forgiven.  And on that day I was convinced that I needed to speak out as priest making the case for abortion as a moral choice and for women as moral agents best suited to make decisions about our reproductive decisions.

The six of us selected for the Leadership Project agreed to meet for four meetings. We met for 18 years.  And now, nearly 30 years after we first met, we have been getting together again to feature in a documentary about the abortion divide which will premiere this summer.

We never aimed for common ground or compromise. Our goals were to be able to communicate openly with our opponents, to build relations of mutual respect, to help de-escalate the rhetoric of the abortion controversy and to reduce the risk of further shootings.  We achieved all these and many other goals undreamed of in those first fraught meetings. One of the most significant was to co-write an article about our experience which the Boston Globe published in 2001.

None of this could have been accomplished without good faith, deep commitment, and excellent facilitation. 

We began in secrecy, all sworn to complete confidentiality.  The other five women all feared that they would lose the trust of their boards and constituents were it to become known that they were participating in a project ‘across enemy lines.’  As for me, I felt I had nothing to lose, but I kept confidentiality with the others, at least for a while.

I can say so many things about those years in dialogue.  That enterprise was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and one of the best.  It demanded infinite patience, never one of my strongest suits. It demanded huge commitments of time and energy, forbearance, courtesy, and strict adherence to our ground rules. 

The first effect of our gathering was that we  became human to one another.   Some of us knew oone another across the divide, but had not met across it.  I think it was more difficult and frightening for the Pro-lifers; they came into the room believing we were baby killers. We probably believed they were stupid. Both sides had to revise our opinions, and that was humbling. 

Early on we  were all asked  what we thought we would have to give up to participate in the dialogue. I said I thought we would have to give up being right.

You mean, being righteous, said one of the Pro-life women. 

No, I said, I mean being right. I think each of us has some of the truth but none of us has it all.

We had many discussions about respect.  Could we respect our opponents if we didn’t respect their positions?  We said we respected the Pro-Lifers positions. They didn’t respect ours.  To me, at least, that was a stalemate. Rather late in the process I asked the Pro-lifers if they thought that I, a priest, was a moral person.  They couldn’t or wouldn’t answer that. So I don’t exactly feel respected.

But curiously, I do feel honored by all the participants.  I believe that one of the great gifts we discovered was the ability to honor one another. We all deeply valued one another as women. We looked out for one another beyond the walls of our dialogue. When one of us was being stalked by a rabid Pro-lifer, our dialogue friends alerted her and the FBI.  We have attended funerals for one another’s husbands and brothers, sent condolence cards and had masses said when parents and other loved ones have died.  Former “public enemies” have become fond  private acquaintances, if not exactly friends.

Another gift that strengthened our bonds was the gift of laughter. As we talked in sessions and ate together and caught up on our personal lives, witty comments and hilarity abounded. Much to our surprise we realized that we felt relaxed together, comfortable enough to kid each other, and joyful about the little community we had created. 

The Pro-lifers talked about love a great deal. They loved all children. They loved all people.  To me this love always seemed abstract, almost cheap.  But among the six of us we did achieve, I believe, loving-kindness, self-giving love.

The experience transformed me. It transformed all of us.  None of us altered our convictions except to deepen them.  Having to explain and defend our beliefs was a fairly new experience for most of us; as we see more and more in this country we tend to associate with like-minded folk who intuitively understand and share our commitments.  Having to explain and defend our beliefs sharpened our comprehension of them and deepened our allegiance to them.

The opportunity to spend vast expanses of time talking with people with whom you strongly disagree, about the very issue you disagree on, is an unusual privilege, I would even say, a luxury. I can only hope that we as a society will find more and more ways to afford this gift to others. 

Copyright 2022 Anne C. Fowler

The Reverend Anne C. Fowler is an Episcopal priest retired from parish ministry and with a spiritual direction practice in Portland, Maine.  She has been an advocate for reproductive health and justice and for LGBTQ equity and justice for decades. She’s also a poet with 6 published volumes. 

Demonstrators from both sides of the issue gather in front of the US Supreme Court on December 1, 2021, as justices hear arguments in a case about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. (CNN)

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