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Can we talk about Abortion?

Getting Perspective

If you are invested in the debate over abortion you’re likely fired up right now. The leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade has taken this conflict to a new level of intensity for all of us.

The abortion issue triggers strong reactions. It impacts our core beliefs in the sanctity of life and individual liberty. And it is natural to feel passionate and angry when something that we care deeply about is threatened.

I see the importance of this issue, and I’m also concerned about the way that we are approaching it. In our passion to defend our values we are bitterly dividing our society. The fierce competition to see which side will win is paralyzing the process of Democracy and undermining our integrity as a nation.

The emotions and needs surrounding abortion are complex, and we often lose sight of what we really want in our fervor to win the fight. This struggle has fueled bitter culture wars for decades and not brought us any closer to a solution that we can all live with. If we can get a larger perspective we may see that we are hurting ourselves, and undermining our own cause, in our efforts to prove that we are right.

Values and Needs

Conflict happens when our basic needs and values appear to be threatened by someone else. Our habit is to defend our values in order to get the other side to see things our way. We throw ourselves into conflicts over values because our ego depends on us being right. And the more people who agree with our values, the stronger we feel.

We are approaching the abortion issue as a competition between two sides who both see ourselves as right. We justify using force to defeat the enemy and impose our idea of what is right and just. However, this habitual approach to conflict confuses being right and winning with getting our needs met. And it ensures that the conflict will continue without resolution because no side can be forced to accept the other’s values.

Values are what we believe is right and wrong. These are deeply personal beliefs that often come from our family, religion, or culture. Our values don’t usually change because someone else points out that we are wrong or convinces us that they are right. We can’t change another’s values by coercion. Our values change when we are open to learn from our life experiences, or genuinely see things from another person’s point of view.

When we focus on values, as we are in the abortion debate, we lock ourselves into perpetual conflict that is impossible to resolve. This is why this argument has persisted for so long and caused so much damage to us as a society.

Trying to win a contest of values sets us up for hostile competition aimed at tearing each other down. This kind of tension has become so prevalent in our world that we are disabling our Democratic process. We are draining our vital energy and losing our capacity to work together to generate effective solutions to the immediate problems that we face.

This dysfunctional way of approaching conflict occurs because we identify ourselves by our values. We mistake what we believe in for who we are, and then lose sight of our immediate basic needs. When we can’t recognize our needs, there is no way to actually resolve the conflict.

Our needs are ordinary basic requirements for us to be happy, healthy, and thriving. They include things like air, food, water, shelter, safety, security, independence, connection, and belonging. An effective way to resolve conflict is first to separate the values from the needs, and then to focus on creative ways that both sides can get their needs met. To enable a rational approach to this conflict, however, we first have to recognize the emotions that are activated.

Focus On Emotions First

Many of us are feeling angry, frustrated, anxious, or afraid about this fight over abortion. This is a natural response when our values and needs are threatened. And, we aren’t able to think clearly or act effectively when we are in the throes of these strong emotions.

To resolve conflict we have to discharge the emotions that are present, without making anyone right or wrong. We can simply acknowledge our feelings of anger and frustration instead of embellishing them with a story of victims and villains. This enables our feelings to be seen and validated, which in turn allows us to let them go.

To be effective therefore, you first have to take care of yourself and release your emotions responsibly. In the heat of the moment, it can help to simply take a deep breath before you react. You can also vent your rage with someone you trust, move it out physically with exercise or physical work, write it all down, scream into a pillow, pound your mattress, or talk to someone who can listen with empathy.

It doesn’t work to pretend that you’re not upset, to drown your emotions with alcohol, drugs, or other distractions, or to direct your rage at the other side. These common responses only prevent you from finding a realistic solution.

Separating Values From Needs

Once we are calmer and able to think clearly, we can approach conflict with more wisdom and clarity. We can recognize that we often identify ourselves by what we believe is right and wrong. This is why we feel threatened and get so upset when someone challenges a core value by presenting an opposing one.

Instead of becoming entrenched in a competition over values, we can distinguish our values from our basic needs. We can acknowledge that being right or winning a fight does not meet our real needs or make us happy in the long run. And we can allow people to have different values while still maintaining our own. We don’t have to make someone into an enemy or shut them out of our lives because they have a different value than we do.

Focusing on which side is right and wrong fuels our ego and diverts our attention away from simply meeting our needs. We could approach this instead as a collaboration, using our creative energy to see how we can find new solutions that meet everyone’s needs. Few people in this debate so far have considered the actual needs that each side is trying to meet, or suggested new and creative solutions that both sides could live with. If we don’t know or can’t discuss the practical details of what we actually want, there is little chance of finding a resolution. We remain caught in a power struggle and all of our energy is consumed by merely trying to win. It is only when both side’s basic needs are addressed that a conflict can actually resolve. Agreeing to disagree over our values enables us to focus our attention on our basic needs. This is the part of conflict that we can do something about. If we allow for different ideas about what is right and wrong, and focus instead on what we want, there is a chance to finally resolve this conflict.

Focus on Needs

In order to find out what each of us needs in a conflict, we can ask the question; “what do you want it for?” or “what basic needs are you trying to meet?” This enables us to separate our basic needs from solutions, or ideas for getting those needs met. In most conflicts we get stuck fighting over whose value is right, or whose solution will prevail, and never get to the bottom of what our actual needs are.

Let’s consider some possible needs in the abortion issue. On the conservative side is the need to respect life and hold human life sacred. And on the liberal side is the need for individual rights and personal freedom. I think that we can all relate to these needs, and understand why the other side wants them.

We all share the same basic needs, and our needs change according to the situation at hand. Those of us who identify as politically conservative have made individual liberty paramount and usually want government to stay out of people’s private business. Yet in this issue we want the government to assert its authority and restrict personal freedom.

Meanwhile, those of us who identify as politically liberal usually champion the sanctity of life and oppose killing and violence. We are often against war and death penalties, while favoring gun control and the protection of all forms of life. Yet in this issue we want a woman to have the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, even if it means killing an unborn fetus.

If we can step back for a moment we may see that we are more alike than different, and in the end we mostly want the same things. Instead of tearing each other apart, we could put our energy into collaborating to come up with creative new solutions.

An open dialogue without judgements or emotional charge is essential if we truly want something to change. We can begin by acknowledging that all of us want to hold human life sacred, and all of us want our individual liberty. Our task then to find a new solution that will honor the sanctity of life while also maintaining individual sovereignty.

This approach will enable more of us to get what we want, and repair the tear in the fabric of our society. We don’t need to know the solution ahead of time. We simply need to believe that if we cooperate with each other we can get more of our needs met.

We could let go of being right and get practical about what we really want and need. Then we can put our hearts and minds together to find a solution that will make our society whole again.


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