A Civil Dialogue on Abortion

The following post comes to us via Tracey Sands, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s West Campus studying communication as it relates to advocacy. Tracey believes dialogue is an act of love and strives to empower others to find and use their voice. She is an education outreach intern at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

Photo: Tracey Sands

On a chilly November evening, 100 Arizona State University students, staff, and faculty met on West Campus in Glendale to discuss a topic that inevitably leads to a moral debate filled with anger, distrust, and heartbreak: abortion. At the front of Kiva Lecture Hall, two professors sat among the group and committed to a two-hour civil dialogue on abortion. This was a room divided in beliefs, yet united through dialogue.


Civil dialogue with someone who holds an opposing position is not black and white — it’s all shades of gray.


Dr. Bertha Manninen, associate professor of philosophy at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, argued in favor of abortion rights, while Dr. Jack Mulder, professor of philosophy at Hope College, a Christian college in Michigan, argued against abortion.

American public discourse is marked by an unfortunate trend: We choose only to discuss controversial topics with those who agree with us, leaving conversations with those outside our political, economic, social, and religious positions beyond the boundaries of possible dialogue. Further, if a discussion is to be had with someone on the opposing side, it usually slips into angry insults and disrespectful feedback.

Drs. Manninen and Mulder acknowledged this strict practice of discussion among like-minded people as an echo chamber:

an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered, or further yet, considered to be repulsive.

When we confine ourselves to an echo chamber, they claimed we are committing ourselves to “ideological hardening”: an act of blind belief without the possibility for interpretation, influence, or critical awareness, creating a concrete stance on a specific ideology — leading to confirmation bias.

In order to soften the hardened ideologies within the room, both professors shared their reasons for choosing their position on abortion before the conversation opened up.

What Were the Arguments?

Dr. Manninen presented in support of abortion rights with two supporting arguments. First, Dr. Manninen provided statistics to show the injuries and deaths surrounding unsafe abortion practices due to inaccessibility, showing that restrictive abortion laws lead to higher mortality rates. Therefore, in order to have healthy and safe pregnancies, we must allow individuals the ability to make decisions and provide the necessary medical support to follow through with their decisions. Her second argument was the autonomy argument, which is grounded in the premise that we cannot force someone to use their body to save another’s life. For example, if someone is in need of a bone marrow transplant or a kidney transplant, no one is required to give up their body to save that person’s life, nor are they legally forced to use their body. Only in pregnancy is a person’s bodily autonomy questioned.

Following, Dr. Mulder presented against abortion rights. His argument was thin, yet concise and with depth. He argued that abortion is an act against a vulnerable party and any living “human animal” should be accorded moral treatment — no matter what.

Drs. Manninen and Mulder continued this peaceful exchange of ideas and responses. The lecture hall was calm, almost comfortable. This dialogue was so remarkably civil that one audience member stated, “This is the kind of conversation that needs to be highlighted on social media and news outlets, but I’ll be honest, it’s not sensational enough to gain attention — this was too easy, too boring.” I’ll admit, I was in agreement with them. This realization was a heartbreaking commentary on the state of dialogue in our society. Are we valuing drama and disrespect over growth and understanding? Can we only have civil dialogue in a controlled environment?

The Recipe for Civil Dialogue

So how does civil dialogue work in the “real world”? How can we have conversations without contaminating our exchanges with the visceral emotions we feel about abortion, while still allowing for the heat of debate? Both Drs. Manninen and Mulder agreed on the recipe for civil dialogue:

  • The willingness to concede there is a key tenant in the other person’s argument

Focus on the other’s humanity. People on both sides of the debate might be able to agree that an embryo or fetus is living, even if they disagree on the significance of when life begins or how important a pregnant person’s bodily autonomy is in comparison to the living embryo or fetus in their womb.

  • Acknowledging the flaws and limitations within your own argument

Be self-critical — you’re not always right.

  • Don’t use language that gets in the way — avoid using labels

Labels do not reflect the complexity of how most people actually think and feel about abortion. The goal of civil dialogue is to move through the spectrum of perspectives with patience and understanding, whereas using labels makes positions more concrete.

  • Finding a point, or multiple points, of convergence within both arguments.

Although many abortion opponents also fight against access to contraception or medically accurate sex education, there are plenty of people in the real world whose discomfort with abortion doesn’t extend to their feelings about contraception or sex education. People on both sides can often find common ground around preventing unwanted pregnancies, for example by increasing access to birth control or comprehensive sex education, reducing incidence of abortion and giving more people control over their reproduction.

  • Practice, practice, practice. 

Even with these five simple steps, civil dialogue surrounding a topic as impassioned as abortion is still not an easy task. Participating in dialogical action with someone who holds an opposing position is not simply a black-and-white matter; rather it’s all shades of gray — ambiguity with red-hot emotions.

Allow yourself to feel it … now take a deep breath.

So the questions is: Can YOU have a civil dialogue on abortion? I think yes. Actually, I full-heartedly believe so. With the holidays right around the corner, I challenge you to take this opportunity to break down the echo chambers … to follow the civil dialogue recipe … to have the difficult conversations … to listen to the “crazy uncle” whose beliefs you can’t fathom … to see the humanity in them … and to find patience, care, and love in your response.

Planned Parenthood is proud to provide safe, legal abortion at health centers around the country. We believe you deserve accurate information, and access to the full range of reproductive health care services, including safe, legal abortion — so you can make your own, fully informed health care decisions.

One thought on “A Civil Dialogue on Abortion

  1. In 1920, our nation banned the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic liquor. It was an abject failure: people continued to drink. The lesson that we should have learned from that experience is that banning something doesn’t make it go away. If people want it, they’ll get it: legal or not. And the unintended consequences can be monumental. I see a close parallel in the current “so-called pro-life” efforts.

    The pro-life activists would do well to examine Ireland’s recent legalization of abortion.

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