07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Higher Ground

The murder, just over two weeks ago, of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller has deeply wounded and enraged the pro-choice community while also, some would argue, providing it with further reason to mistrust anti-abortion activists. Perhaps a different kind of wound has been inflicted on the anti-abortion side, and in particular on those moderates who dislike abortion, but don't tolerate violence, which includes most of the pro-life movement and public. Now they are sometimes treated as if they, too, are extremists.

And so, in the aftermath of this senseless attack we risk losing something else dear, the momentum of the growing common ground movement; the search for a different, more constructive way forward in the abortion debate. Shortly before Dr. Tiller's murder, President Obama had just begun to usher this movement through the White House doors. His appointees had started calling together leaders from both sides to sit at the same table. His argument has been that the two sides can disagree sharply on a fundamental issue and yet still find areas of agreement on which they can work together.

The brutal murder of Dr. Tiller threatens to poison the nascent dialogue Obama initiated. More pervasively, it threatens to make cynicism about another's motives acceptable even rational. After such a heinous act it is easy to grow remote, to give up on efforts of understanding, to believe the worst of one another. The violence perpetrated against Dr. Tiller is an attack on common ground, too, whether intended or not.

But, especially in the aftermath of the murder, a common ground movement must persist, and grow stronger. If not, we surrender reasoned and civil debate at gunpoint. If we retreat to our respective corners, we cede control of the dialogue to extremists, and with it any hope for a better and a different, more constructive way of reconciling, and living with differences.

Obama is the first President to actually take steps to bring some diplomacy to this national conflict and invite us, together, to dream up a better process. We must take up the invitation. We need common ground more than ever. Improving the national dialogue is one way to prevent future acts of violence.

The majority of Americans long for some progress on this most intransigent of issues. A recent Pew Research Center poll found two out of three want both sides of the abortion conflict to explore areas of common ground. And while a majority of Americans are unified behind the idea of common ground, many activists on both ends of this issue are justifiably critical and suspicious of it; suspecting these are code words for concession and compromise on deeply held and long-fought-for convictions.

So it's important to be clear. Common ground isn't a panacea, and isn't supposed to be. Signing on to this experiment, and it is an experiment, doesn't mean we will stop working to protect legal abortion or overturn it, depending on where we stand. And yet, even if we will not resolve our fundamental disagreement, we should agree on ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and help reduce the need for women and girls to have to make the, often difficult, decisions that accompany it.

In doing so, we are not searching for compromise. It's not an attempt to find the lowest common denominator. But as the organization The Search for Common Ground writes, an effort to locate a " 'highest common denominator.' Not having two sides meet in the middle, but having them identify something together that they can aspire to and are willing to work towards."

Already there are some leaders on either side of this issue gathered together around the table and committed to finding areas of agreement. RHRealityCheck, the leading online source of news, commentary and community for reproductive health and rights, this week launched OnCommonGround, an online forum for those interested in exploring common ground. I am moderating that online discussion, selecting posts that I believe will help move the dialogue forward. This is an experiment that we know may not work. But, as President Obama advised, the only way it can is if we come to the conversation with "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words."

This will seem a too-lofty aspiration to some. And I've been told that. But I think of the last time I saw Dr. Tiller, just a few weeks before his murder, at the National Abortion Federation conference. He and about 120 providers and clinic staff came to a panel I helped organize on making adoption a more accessible choice for women confronting unintended pregnancy. Our session was wrapping up when Dr. Tiller rose and addressed the audience of abortion providers, saying "If you have not helped a woman place a baby for adoption, I encourage you to. It's the most powerful thing. It's just the most powerful thing. It's the most powerful thing." He went on to explain that several times he had patients who were too far along in their pregnancy to terminate but were unable to parent. He and his family took them in, provided them a home until the time of delivery. He said that helping these women come to terms with placing a child for adoption, then delivering their babies and helping them through to placement were some of the most emotional and, clearly, among the satisfying, experiences he had as a provider. He will always be identified with the abortion services he provided. To me, it seemed that Dr. Tiller was urging people to expand their own experiences and their own perspectives of the pro-choice movement. After hearing his impassioned speech about adoption, I wondered if reasonable pro-lifers and Dr. Tiller would have discovered some rich areas of common ground.

The best answer to extremism and hateful murder of Dr. Tiller is for reasonable people on both sides to build a national conversation focused on progress, a national dialogue on common ground. If we each bring even a sliver of the passion to the search for common ground that we have dedicated to our causes, we can be hopeful about the possibilities.