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. Could they also 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. 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 polarizing issue.

Within eighteen months, they had conducted 18 single-session dialogues. Several participants were activists but, by design, only two were highly visible leaders. Each of the dialogue 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 model for reducing polarization, building trust and mutual understanding across deep divides, and making new relationships possible without sacrificing strongly-held values.

Tragedy and Transformation

Then 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 and wounded several others. The tragedy drew widespread media attention. Governor Weld and Cardinal Law issued a joint call for common ground talks between activists and an end to inflammatory rhetoric.

At that time, Essential Partners (then the Public Conversations Project) was the only organization with a track record of promoting new kinds of conversations on the issue of abortion. The founders had maintained good relationships with the sixty participants of their 1990-92 abortion dialogues.

That work gave EP 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, EP's 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 dialogue handbook, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides

Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Leaders Meet in Secret

Meanwhile, another confidential dialogue experiment was underway.

Working in partnership with mediator Susan Podziba, EP co-founder Laura R. Chasin designed, convened, and facilitated a series of confidential dialogues between three pro-choice and three pro-life leaders:

  • Rev. Anne Fowler, an Episcopal priest and outspoken pro-choice advocate who served as the Rector of St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain, MA
  • Madeline McComish, a chemist and then-president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life
  • Nicki Nichols Gamble, then-President of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts
  • Barbara Thorp, the director of the Catholic Archdiocese Pro-Life Office in Massachusetts
  • Melissa Kogut, the Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Mass 
  • Frances X. Hogan, an accomplished legal professional who served in leadership roles for numerous pro-life and Catholic organizations, including Women Affirming Life and the Pro-Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops

These dialogues were never intended to change minds. Their intent was to broaden perspectives, deepen understanding, and foster human connections. “The dialogues changed my life,” says Gamble. “It was a miracle,” says McComish.

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 Basement Talks: A Documentary for a Post-Roe America

Following the Supreme Court ruling that effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, a documentary was released that told the story of the six women who participated in these confidential dialogues.

The Basement Talks, produced by independent filmmakers Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins, offers insight into the context and stakes of the dialogues—and the impact they had on the course of the abortion conflict in Massachusetts.

Dialogue participant Melissa Kogut, former head of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, calls this “a powerful documentary right when we need it.” Frances Hogan, founder of Women Affirming Life describes it as “fair, clear and intriguing,” and Anne Fowler, a pro-choice Episcopal priest, writes “inspiring, brilliantly told.”

The Ongoing Mission of Essential Partners

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.

Essential Partners gives people the means to strengthen relationships, deepen belonging, and renew hope in their communities. EP has helped people have richer conversations about abortion—as well as issues like partisan polarization, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, interfaith conflict, and more.

The ability to live, learn, and work with people who are different is fundamental to a peaceful society and a flourishing democracy. EP's approach, Reflective Structured Dialogue, engenders trust without compromising values, builds connections that make communities resilient, and fosters a deep sense of belonging for all.

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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