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Stupak: Win Or Lose, We Need Culture Change

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Feminist blogger Kate Harding often takes issue with how cynical the progressives on Daily Kos write about abortion politics, but on Nov. 10, they found some common ground. Two days after the House voted to approve health care reform and the Stupak Amendment, which seemed to catch so many by surprise, Kate wrote on Salon and David Waldman wrote on Daily Kos that the passage of Stupak was entirely predictable. Not a shock. Not a surprise. Disappointing, frustrating, and infuriating, perhaps, but certainly, they agreed, everyone should have seen the Stupak Amendment coming.

According to David, the "lavishly-funded national network of professional abortion rights advocacy groups ... somehow found themselves blindsided and rolled by a situation that was 100% predictable (not to mention 35 years in the making)." And Kate wrote, "We were rolled with, like, 35 years of advance warning" and she decried Democrats who "will sacrifice pretty much everything they claim to believe in, just because the words 'Democratic majority' sound so much better than the alternative."

Let's all get over our collective surprise and admit we need an entirely new strategy. The Stupak Amendment represents our decades-long national reality: deep political divisions about abortion rights and moral judgments against women who have had abortions. If we really want different results, we need different strategies. We can't count on a president, professional lobbyists, or politicians to transform the abortion conflict or assure justice. We can't even count on ourselves if our only strategy is to "get angry and gear up for a fight." What we need to do is change the conversation about abortion.

If we don't fundamentally and proactively change the conversation we risk deepening political divisions and forcing more people to their own sides, leaving out, yet again, the silenced voices we need most: the voices of women who have had abortions.

If we want to transform the conflict, the voices of these women need to take center stage. A true conflict-transformation approach, according to Eyal Rabinovitch, an expert on this approach, "focuses less on solving the conflict than changing how we engage with one another when we are in it. [It works by] giving voice to all affected by a given conflict and enabling open communication between them."

Note that it does not work by giving voice to those "who speak on behalf of" or "advocate for" a particular group; those speakers certainly have not been silenced in public discussion. Neither are their voices the ones who need reassurance of open communication. Conflict transformation does not try to force opponents to comprise or agree with each other.

A conflict transformation approach on abortion enables open communication for those who have personally experienced abortion, the people whose voices have been silenced most as a result of the Abortion War. Today's abortion conflict replaces their voices with stigma, isolation, judgment, myths, stereotypes, and the belief that women are best used as case studies to "prove" that one side or the other is right. Every day at Exhale, the organization I lead, women and their loved ones call our national talkline after an abortion to find the nonjudgmental comfort and support they are unable to find in their everyday lives. At Exhale, we witness the personal impact of this war on a woman's life and her well-being.

Conflict transformation ensures that every story, every voice, is heard, and that each person's dignity and humanity is respected.

We transform conflict when we take a public stand for each and every woman who has had an abortion, despite how uncomfortable her story makes us feel, or how inconvenient her truth may be to our position. We humanize the issue of abortion when we create room for those who have had abortions to feel supported, respected, and connected to one another.

Personal stories have the potential to change the way we think about abortion and the women who have them, and we must elicit them with openness and an authentic desire to learn. Because it is through personal stories that we can explore the real impact of abortion--positive, negative, and everything in between--in the lives of women and their families, and find new solutions to promote their health and well-being.

We should expect this new strategy to be messy--in fact, we should hope for that. Thelar Pekar, a communications expert, writes: "Story sharing, if done correctly, results in chaos. ... Story begets story, which begets story, which eventually ... begets chaos. [We should be] surprised, delighted, and frightened by what [we hear.]. Only then, out of chaos, will clarity, innovation, and/or change emerge."

The impact of this approach on our cultural conversation about abortion will not be predictable like the Stupak Amendment or the political motivations of Democratic leaders. It gives us a real choice with real consequences, just like abortion: we can choose the same battles and get entirely predictable results or we can take a risk and try different strategies with unpredictable outcomes. Listening to personal abortion stories and enabling communication between women who have had abortions is messy, and it grows the possibilities for peace.

This is Pro-Voice.

If you want to be a part of transforming the abortion conflict and building peace, start by being pro-voice in your online discussions about abortion. Here are 5 easy tips:

• Be Authentic--Speak from your own personal experience.
• Be Respectful--Be aware of times you're reinforcing an "us-versus-them" mentality.
• Avoid Jargon--It tends to be alienating at worst and boring at best.
• Remember Your Readers--Online, your readers could be your friends or family, even your daughter or mother. What would you want them to read?
• Practice Self-Care--If you find yourself drawn into a frustrating or infuriating online discussion, take a deep breath. Allow yourself to back away.

Whether or not you have personally experienced abortion, you can be a champion for women's voices. Speak from your own personal experience and tell a story about a time you felt heard, truly heard. How did it change the conversation? How did it change your life?

The Abortion War today needs this pro-voice strategy. Instead of seeking political solutions--where we end up "blindsided" by political sacrifices like the Stupak Amendment--we need a strategy for deep, fundamental culture change. We need to transform hearts and minds.

We start by taking the idea of the Abortion War seriously. Very, very seriously. We must recognize that we are a nation deep in conflict, and instead of trying to win with politics, we must work towards building peace. I believe we can do that by being pro-voice.

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