Common Ground

Posted on September 12, 2017 By

by James Kelly

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in the series of blog posts based on presentations at our 30th Anniversary conference, held August 4-6, 2017. It’s also the second of three posts that come from Jim Kelly. This was at the session of the Consistent Life Network’s research arm, The Institute for Integrated Social Analysis.


We can’t pay attention to everything in this boom-buzzing confusion called life. We necessarily focus on some elements and omit others.  So we “frame,” (The primary text is Irving Goffman’s 1974 Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience)

To frame is to capture something well, but to omit other points – which, as time goes on, prudence might teach us are key. Individuals constantly project onto the world around them the interpretive frames that allow them to make sense of it; we only shift frames (or even realize that we have been framing) when an inescapable incongruity calls for a “frame-realignment.” We only become aware of our habitual frames when something challenges us to replace one frame with another.

Frame alignment happens when we find that we must leave the security of our moral tribes and present our interpretations to skeptics in a way that makes the most sense to us, and then to them, both in terms of first principles and their prudent applications. Within our moral tribes we mostly do tactics and brand the enemy as thoroughly disreputable.  In frame alignment, we persuade by listening in dialog to the “morally other” and then seeking common ground with them. Frame alignment becomes frame deepening, a broadening of perspective by taking seriously the claimed values of the opposition.

“Common ground” doesn’t mean any loss of moral deepening, but after the experience of dialogue, finding creative ways for both sides to better advance their moral core. In the abortion controversy, that means advancing the pro-life goal of non-violence and the pro-choice goal of human equality.

Making Free Choice Real Choice: The Need for Common Ground

Let’s begin with an example from the more brutal real world of hard politics – the New Jersey  “Family Cap.” In January 1992 the New Jersey State Legislative, under Democratic Party control, passed a welfare reform bill with national significance. In its pre-Donald Trump embodiment of a mistrust of government programs, of tax revolts, and of an “individual-moral-failure” explanation of long-term poverty, New Jersey (NJ) included in its welfare reform a novel Family Cap. Its premise was that the single most important cause of poverty was unmarried women having children. Now, any woman on welfare who became pregnant and gave birth would receive no additional state monies to cover her increased costs (although she would continue to receive food stamps and Medicaid for herself and her “additional” child).

The monetary pressure to abort offended both pro-life and pro-choice sensibilities and led to some common ground political cooperation. The NJ Right to Life chapter, NJ Citizens for Life, and the NJ Catholic Conference immediately announced their opposition. And because it seemed self-evident that the cap subverted a poor woman’s “reproductive freedom,” the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the NJ Civil Liberties Union announced their opposition. Their joint opposition was endorsed by dozens of other NJ activist groups.

The initial pro-choice/ pro-life collaboration was tentative and resulted only in a joint press release. When NOW and the ACLU filed a civil rights class action suit, it didn’t include any pro-life members.

By 1998, 20 states had followed New Jersey’s example. But that was not the end of common ground.

More Common Ground Efforts

At its heart, common ground signifies the possibility that adversaries can engage in joint ventures without either side compromising their essential principles.Common ground” is not a synonym for “centrist.”  If common ground jeopardizes integrity, it’s no longer common ground, but compromise.

Common ground is difficult to accomplish, and even more difficult to maintain. Since legal abortion is the status-quo, abortion opponents are wont to find the notion of common ground veering ever closer to compromise.

Dr. Wanda Franz

In his Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes (1990), pro-choice Harvard Professor of Law Laurence H. Tribe has a section entitled “Towards Common Ground’’ which designates a future which, while there are no restrictions on abortion, is “a world of only wanted pregnancies” achieved by better sex education  and better and more available contraception. Tribe’s outlook resembles President Clinton’s meme of making abortion safe, legal and rare. Mainstream pro-life organizations viewed such “safe and rare” outlooks more as trench warfare than as dialogue invitations. In her March 16, 1993 National Right to Life News editorial NRLC President Wanda Franz cautioned her 3,000 chapters in 52 states that common ground was a “clever pro-choice” strategy seeking “to gain acceptance of the pro-choice position as morally equivalent (or morally superior!) to the pro-life position.”

Both sides feared the term would mean compromise and at least a tacit endorsement of their adversary as morally legitimate. One of the first pro-choice members of the first common ground venture (in St. Louis Missouri, July 12, 1990), B. J. Isaacson-Jones, recalled “the barrage of resentment from her pro-choice colleagues that left her cuddling up in the fetal position for her days in her Planned Parenthood office.”

Loretta Wagner listens in a legislative hearing

But in her arguments to her pro-life critics another member of the first common ground effort, Loretta Wagner, pointed out that both  sides ought to acknowledge and do something about the high rates of abortion among the poor who felt they had no real choices. “We need to relieve some of the pressures that cause many women to choose abortion and to make it possible for a kinder society for them and their children. There are many things we can agree on: more and better quality pre- and post-natal care, providing more access to treatment of substance abusing mothers and their children, welfare reforms, day-care, affordable housing, adoption, improved recruitment of foster parents, helping women find jobs and educational opportunities. Neither side wants to see poor women economically compelled to have abortions.” Wagner’s analysis and policy suggestions are far more aligned with the typical Democratic platform than with the Republicans.


The concrete achievements of common ground in its St. Louis birthplace were short-lived. B. J. Isaacson-Jones, director of St. Louis Reproductive Health Services, could not find the additional financial resources to support its adoption placement services for her predominantly poor Black clientele. Loretta Wagner acknowledged that “The media thinks common ground is a really dramatic new story but I can’t say we’ve done anything dramatic – just getting the idea out.”

Stories appeared, for example, in USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Glamour Magazine, and countless local media.

One of the early efforts was by the Family Institute of Cambridge (FIC) which in September 1992 initiated a “Public Conversations Project” whose aim was to improve the debate about abortion through a dialogue that would enable opponents to come to see each other as “people just like themselves.” The Public Conversations Project eventually comprised 72 people. But in and interview I had with her, the project director, Laura Chasin, acknowledged that although their goal was to move to problem solving action, the conversations remained “one-shot experiences.”

In February 1992 a grass roots group comprised of six pro-life and six pro-choice women published the North Carolina Piedmont Area Directory of Pregnancy Support Services which was distributed in the area’s churches and family planning clinics.  In 1993 Washington DC the Common Ground Coalition for Life and Choice was initiated by a conflict resolution organization founded in 1982 to help international diplomacy. CGCFLC co-coordinators were Mary Jacksteitt, a lawyer with experience in arbitration, and Sister Adrienne Kaufman, OSB, who coordinated the Peace and Conflict Resolution program at Washington University. In 1995 they published a manual entitled Finding Common Ground in the Abortion Conflict, explaining that their work is simply the facilitation of dialogue and not any specific proposals or policies.

With their assistance a Buffalo (NY) Coalition for Common Ground was formed to help mitigate the anticipated community conflict that was expected by a “Spring of Life Campaign” announced by Operation Rescue. One of its founders, Rev. Sanford, the executive director of the Buffalo Council of Churches, reports very slight impacts.


While disheartening for its promoters, the ebb and flow – and it’s mostly ebb – of common ground efforts makes good sociological sense. Leaders of social movements, who are preoccupied with daily concerns, are making tactical gains that encourage their membership that they are winning, albeit slowly, the abortion wars and, not incidentally, justifying their most recent fund raising appeal.

Besides, the man-bites-dog media appeal of common ground – that abortion opponents can actually talk to each other – has lost any front-page reader appeal.

It’s sociologically naïve to expect that any social-movement organization that can still plausibly promise its membership at least some tactical incremental victories will endorse a common-ground approach. Sociologically, common ground is tangential ground.

But tangential does not mean marginal. In the long run, the common ground frame realignment is highly significant. For abortion adversaries their moral culture – non-violence and justice for women – is far, far more important than seeking tactical gains and fearing tactical losses.



The rest of our series of blog posts from presentations at our 30th anniversary conference in August, 2017:

The History of Framing the Arguments (Jim Kelly, the first of three)

The Vital Need for Diversity (Sarah Terzo)

Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives (John Whitehead)

My Difficulty in Voting: Identifying the Problem (Monica Sohler)

The Mind’s Drive for Consistency (Rachel MacNair)


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.


abortioncommon groundhistory

  1. Kevin Cushing says:

    Abortion has been legal and probably safer, but hardly rare- and never will be. Simply banning legal abortion would do nothing; women would just go to underground clinics like before Roe. It would help to cut tax-payer funding for it entirely, since abortion is so morally unacceptable, however. There are plenty of wealthy pro-choice people out there.

    A better way to eliminate abortion is to help lift people out of poverty (since many more poor women resort to abortion than more well-off ones), as well as the conversion of society- both much more challenging tasks than simply passing laws and issuing court rulings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *