Photo: Abortion Dialogues

Abortion Dialogues in Greater Boston

The idea for the Public Conversations Project—the organization that, in 2016, became known as Essential Partners—occurred to Laura R. Chasin while watching a televised debate on abortion.

The moderator’s efforts to facilitate an orderly conversation among two pro-choice and two pro-life advocates had been totally ineffective. Speakers on each side had attacked and counter-attacked, and they had interrupted each other repeatedly to disparage their adversaries.

The moderator lamented, "There's nothing going on here but a lot of noise."

Laura agreed. She mused that she and many of her family therapy colleagues knew how to facilitate constructive exchanges on "hot" conflicts—at least among related individuals—and wondered whether their approaches could be used to help small groups of unrelated citizens.

Could they help people engage in productive conversations about abortion and other divisive public issues?

Laura invited a small group of colleagues at the Family Institute of Cambridge to join her in exploring this possibility. They began by watching videos of political debates and brainstorming ideas about how those conversations might have been more constructive. They drew cautious optimism from their clinical experiences, where couples and family members learned to resist chronic patterns of attack and counter-attack.

In the Spring of 1990, the founders convened small dialogue groups to talk about abortion. These early participants served as collaborators, innovating methods and structures to allow constructive conversations about the divisive issue.

Within eighteen months, they had conducted 18 single-session dialogues. Several participants were activists but, by design, only two were highly visible leaders. All groups were evenly balanced with people who described themselves as "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

By the end of this series of dialogues, the founders had developed and field-tested a reliable model for opening new ways of communicating on this contentious issue.

Tragedy and Transformation

On December 30, 1994, an activist named John Salvi entered two women’s health clinics in Brookline, MA with a gun and opened fire. He murdered two clinic workers. The tragedy drew widespread media attention. Governor Weld and Cardinal Law issued joint calls for common ground talks between activists and an end to inflammatory rhetoric.

At that time, Essential Partners (then the Public Conversations Project) were the only organization with a track record of promoting new kinds of conversations on this issue.

The founders had also maintained good relationships with the sixty participants in their 1990-92 abortion dialogues. This gave them considerable access to, and credibility with, activist networks on both sides of the issue.

Well positioned to build on the fruits of our prior efforts, the founders initiated five streams of activity in the following months:

  • A second series of introductory abortion dialogues
  • A training program for pro-choice and pro-life facilitation teams
  • An ongoing network for "graduates" of the introductory dialogues interested in opportunities for sustained dialogue and collaboration
  • A more limited confidential dialogue series involving pro-choice and pro-life activists
  • The Abortion Dialogue Handbook (Download our free handbook, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides)

These five activities were strategically linked with the goal of depolarizing the climate surrounding the abortion controversy in the Greater Boston area.

The introductory dialogues served as feeders for the development of the graduate network. The training of bipartisan facilitators expanded the circle of people who had the ability to facilitate these difficult conversations. And the founders began to draft a Handbook that others could use to convene dialogues on abortion in their own communities.

From December 1995 through April 1998, the founders conducted a series of ten single-session dialogues on abortion, each with six participants. Each of the ten sessions was observed by or facilitated by one of three bipartisan facilitation teams trained previously.

This second series of citizen dialogues comprised the grassroots component for a multi-faceted initiative to improve the climate surrounding abortion in the Boston area.

Human Connection Across Fundamental Differences

These dialogues were never intended to change minds. Their intent was to broaden perspectives, deepen understanding, and foster human connections.

The ultimate goal was that no person would ever be harmed by the dehumanizing effects of dysfunctional public discourse.

In follow up calls, participants indicated that the stereotypes they had brought to the dialogue—in some cases unconsciously—had been softened. Many participants explained the ways in which the dialogue had fundamentally altered the way they interacted with people of different perspectives.

Quantitative evaluation of the dialogues indicated that participants came away giving less credibility to the media’s portrayal of people who hold opposing views on abortion.

Working in partnership with a mediator, Susan Podziba and Associates, the founders designed, convened, and facilitated a series of off-the-record meetings with leaders from the pro-choice and pro-life communities. They met at intervals for five years, exploring the many dimensions of division and conflict.

And in the end, the participants co-authored an account of their experience that was published as "Talking with the Enemy" in the January 29, 2001 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe.

The Origins of Essential Partners

The introductory dialogues in both the first and second series were notable for the heartfelt manner in which participants shared their stories and perspectives, the way they listened to each other and expressed curiosity about each other, and the extent to which they reported having been invited into deeper reflection on their own beliefs.

Over the years, the Essential Partners dialogue method developed and changed. Practitioners discovered applications to a broad range of divisive public issues, in a diverse array of communities and organizations, with people from every walk of life. But the underlying mission has remained steadfast.

As Public Conversations was then, Essential Partners today is committed to fostering constructive dialogue where conflicts are driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values.

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