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Opinion: People with differing opinions on abortion tried to find common ground. It was a struggle.

Opinion: People with differing opinions on abortion tried to find common ground. It was a struggle.

Demonstrators on different sides of the abortion rights issue protest outside of the US Supreme Court on May 3, 2022 in anticipation of a ruling that would be released on June 25, 2022 and repeal the abortion care protections in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

By Dr. Kristin Lyerly

June 20, 2024

Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician/gynecologist, took part in a three-day effort to listen, persuade, seek solutions—and breathe deeply.

Can people with diverse experiences and opposing viewpoints regarding abortion find common ground?

Last December, 14 of us gave it a shot. Convened by Citizen Solutions, an organization dedicated to prioritizing problem solving over partisanship and solutions over stalemates, we spent three days sharing our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas, and exploring the spaces where compromise was possible.

The cast was a veritable Gilligan’s Island of characters from a farmer to a retired college teacher to me, the sole physician. Many other disciplines, faith traditions, and racial/cultural backgrounds were represented, too. We were hand picked to provide a variety of perspectives, and our differences were prominently on display from the very beginning.

Even as we started going around the table, just beginning to introduce ourselves, the conversation immediately got deep. Real deep. Our closely held personal stories surprisingly erupted out of us, exposing our hearts and revealing our motivations for spending a precious early December weekend with a bunch of strangers doing hard, uncomfortable work.

Over the next few days, the discussion ebbed and flowed. We broke out into smaller, orchestrated groups to work through specific issues. We ate our meals together, obediently seated where we were placed to ensure that we didn’t gravitate toward the people with whom we felt most comfortable. And we endured hours of carefully moderated conversations punctuated by episodes of guided breathing when emotions flared. They flared often. 

Our discussions centered around fundamental and conflicting values such as the freedom to make one’s own personal healthcare decisions, the role of government in providing services for women and families, and differing beliefs about when life begins. Participants offered a variety of suggestions for the group to consider. Some were straightforward and well accepted from the beginning, and it quickly became clear that there was plenty of middle ground to explore around education and financial support for people and families as we fine tuned our proposals based on our individual experiences and beliefs. Still, the issue of abortion itself remained elusive…and divisive.

This was where the group stratified. The five who identified as Christians consistently stood together, unified by the belief that life begins at “conception”, a term lacking a consistent definition, unwavering in their conviction. Exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother were supported by some, as were gestational limits. Penalties for seeking or providing abortion care were discussed, crystallizing into one of the most intense interactions for me personally as one of my new friends suggested plainly and to my face that I should be punished for providing standard, and sometimes lifesaving, health care for my patients. 

The role of language, including seemingly benign words like “baby” or “fetus” as well as divisive terms like “abortionist” and “murderer”, evoked powerful emotions for some, but were standard vernacular for others. I encouraged the use of neutral terms in an attempt to find level ground and identify the grain of solidarity that we could use as a starting point, drawing from my experience in the exam room taking care of people with differing belief systems, experiences, and ideologies. It resonated with some, including one of the most vocal abortion opponents who introduced me to his wife and sons and shared in the company of the entire group: “I would love you to be my wife’s doctor.”

We were ultimately able to come to a consensus on a number of proposals that provide education and resources for individuals and families. We supported requiring human development education in schools and all-options information at pregnancy centers, abortion clinics, and prenatal care providers. We agreed that programs like extending Medicaid to 12 months postpartum, offering a refundable state child tax credit, and instituting paid family leave that includes adoptive and foster parents were substantial steps that we can take to create healthier communities and strengthen families. When it came to the issue of abortion itself, we shared, discussed, debated, and attempted to create a proposal…but ultimately, we could not agree.

Looking back, I believe that some of us walked away with a better understanding of perspectives regarding abortion that differ from our own, including myself, but no-one changed their mind. In fact, no-one really even budged. This was a bridge too far.

To be honest, I’m not surprised. Having provided abortion care for women in challenging situations who identify as “pro-life”, I understand that we often form our opinions about abortion in two separate and sometimes conflicting spaces. It’s easy to hold a public opinion based on ideology and reinforced by the people who surround you. It’s an entirely different situation when a difficult or threatening pregnancy becomes your own personal reality, and the one thing you need most is the ability to determine your own path forward.

NOTE: I participated in Citizen Solutions, an effort to find common ground on divisive issues, in December along with 13 other Wisconsinites with different perspectives on abortion and family well-being. During my campaign for Congress I will not be involved in the project, but I’d encourage you to learn more and weigh in on the proposals we created together at www.citizensolutions.us/wi.

Author

  • Dr. Kristin Lyerly

    Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an obstetrician-gynecologist from the Green Bay area, is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District. She has served award-winning roles with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, guides students at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and works with leaders in the medical field to create guidance for healthcare providers to ensure quality, supportive health care to women.

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