Pro-choice? Pro-life? Or Both?

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My mother taught me that it was rude to say, “Shut up.” Later, as an English teacher, I taught my students to hear one another out. No version of “shut up” was acceptable in my classroom. But more and more, I feel like shouting, “SHUT UP!” to the people on the two extremes of the issues that face us.

From gun control to immigration to politics, we are mired in the muck because groups at the two extremes control the public discourse and make forward movement impossible.

The abortion debate is the latest quagmire in the wake of The Center for Medical Progress’ release of a video in which the senior director of medical research at Planned Parenthood discusses the harvesting of fetal tissue. I am pro-choice, yet I was nauseated by the image of the director eating a meal and drinking a glass of wine as she describes in cold, clinical terms how the fetus is crushed in such a way as to harvest the liver intact.

I can’t defend this. And I suspect I’m not the only pro-choice advocate who feels as I do. Given that the New York Times editorial board took the unusual step of waiting an entire week before issuing an editorial today on the subject, I suspect even they had to find the stomach to justify the director’s words and actions. They make a sound argument, but they also address only the fact that the makers of the video accuse the organization of illegally selling fetal tissue, avoiding completely the tone of the director’s comments as she waves her fork in the air and sips her wine.

Aside from whether or not Planned Parenthood’s actions are legal–and I believe they are–there’s much to be disturbed about in this video. The director speaks of the fetus as if it bears no more significance than a cockroach one might crush under one’s foot. Whether one believes that life begins at conception or birth or somewhere in between, that seems an appalling lack of respect for a heart that once beat in a rhythm with its mother’s.

Pro-life advocates are no better. Extremists among their ranks destroyed property, stalked staff members, and issued hundreds of death threats at abortion facilities, yet few pro-life groups condemned the perpetrators of these criminal acts until clinic employees—eight of them between 1993 and 2009—were murdered.

Even then, the irony seemed lost on most that the murderers, who preached the value of an unborn life, disregarded the value of the lives they took. After an off-duty policeman who worked at an abortion clinic was killed in a bombing in 1998, David Lackey, the Alabama director of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, was quoted as saying, “I was very angry somebody did this. This definitely puts us in a negative light.” Not angry at the loss of a human life. Angry at how the murder might affect the mission of his group.

In the Washington area, crisis pregnancy centers advertise in school newspapers their offer of free pregnancy tests. While they don’t lie in the ads, they do commit the sin of omission: They give no indication that they are pro-life facilities. Student journalists at some of the high schools’ best newspapers have gone undercover to these facilities, asking for referrals for abortion services, only to be confronted with graphic images of abortion procedures that are far worse than the descriptions posed by the Planned Parenthood director in the video. These students’ complaints led the pro-choice group NARAL to investigate, and in 2008 they issued a report outlining the deceptions of the crisis pregnancy centers in Maryland.

Both sides in the debate continue to act in ways that are contradictory to their values, and they drown out meaningful discussions on the issue. Meanwhile, women, some of whom I know, are caught in the middle, having to make already traumatic choices amid the clamor of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals that offer little in the way of love. There’s Suzanne*, who, despite being gang-raped, still agonized over whether to abort the child of one of her rapists. There’s Moira*, a young mother who had to choose between her unborn baby and chemotherapy—a mom who asked a chaplain to offer a prayer and a blessing for the baby she chose to lose so that her living children wouldn’t lose their mother.

There are no easy answers. There’s little likelihood that we’ll ever hear someone from Planned Parenthood say that late term abortions should not be an option for just anyone. And there’s little likelihood that we’ll hear someone from Operation Rescue say that there should be some exceptions when a woman’s doctor advises it. These purists want abortion to be legal or illegal. Period. I’m convinced there’s a third way. But it’s a way we’ll only find when reasonable people discover the courage and the voice to drown out the two extremes.

So will you be a noisy gong and clanging cymbal? Or will you be the voice of love and compassion to both the born and the unborn?

*Names changed

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