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Where is the common ground for abortion-rights opponents and supporters?


Where is the common ground for abortion-rights opponents and supporters?

Apr 25, 2024 | 2:06 pm ET
By Sofia Resnick
Milly Gonzales, who works with domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking survivors, supports abortion rights. She said the repeal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 was "devastating." (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

Milly Gonzales, who works with domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking survivors, supports abortion rights. She said the repeal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 was "devastating." (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

abortion experiment

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series about a group of people from Wisconsin trying to come up with policies to address abortion and its root causes that could be applied nationwide. Their larger goal is to find common ground on one of the most divisive issues in America. 

MADISON, Wis. — For the 14 abortion-rights opponents and supporters recently recruited to find consensus solutions on abortion and family well-being, their first major agreement was that Wisconsin has some of the best cheese in the nation.

Their second was that even where abortion is outlawed (currently in Wisconsin that’s after 20 weeks gestation), life-saving treatment for the pregnant person should not be. 

“If the mother’s having to make a choice between do I live or does my child live, she gets to make that choice,” said Bria Halama, a 31-year-old white, Catholic clinical mental health counselor in Milwaukee. In the past, she said she struggled with her stance on bodily autonomy and faith, but now opposes abortion and seeks to honor both the mother and child.

Five of the participants in the Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion & Family Well-Being defend the concept of “consistent life ethic,” which opposes the intentional ending of human life from conception until natural death. One exception they account for is called the doctrine of double effect, a principle that says that sometimes doing something morally good (for example, saving a pregnant woman’s life) will have a morally bad side effect (ending the unborn’s life, for example), and that this is morally permissible as long as the bad effect was not intended.

All 14 Wisconsinites agreed that situations like ectopic pregnancies are medical emergencies that need to be treated regardless of any abortion ban. But there’s an ultimately unresolvable dispute over how to determine “life-threatening,” something that OB-GYN Dr. Kristin Lyerly told the group is rarely black and white and always unique to a particular pregnancy. (Lyerly has since stepped away from the Starts With Us project because her recently launched congressional campaign conflicts with its nonprofit status.)

However, there is a slight shift in some of the abortion opponents’ thinking on medical interventions to save the fetus when a pregnancy is terminated to preserve maternal life. When Halama suggested that within the exception for maternal health emergencies they include a caveat that all efforts should be made to save the baby, Lyerly pushed back.

“I really struggle with that, because there are babies that are born as a result of an abortion that are alive but are not likely to live,” Lyerly said. “And the parents … will wrap their babies and hold them until they die instead of taking them away and poking them with needles and putting a breathing tube down their throats and making them suffer and experience pain until they die. And I think that some people would choose one and other people would choose the other, and I can’t make that decision for my patients.”

Halama agreed with Lyerly that efforts to save fetal life may not always be the best option in all circumstances. And so did Thomas Lang, a Catholic from Janesville who opposes abortion. 

“I really appreciate that,” Lang said. “Because we can bring that to end-of-life-care, too, where you know, the breaking of the ribcage, enough already. You’re prolonging death, you’re not prolonging life here.”

Another place of early agreement in the same realm involved miscarriage management. Stories of women being turned away from hospitals with non-viable pregnancies persist around the country and are the subject of the second major U.S. Supreme Court case since Roe v. Wade was overturned, which justices heard Wednesday. But there’s also a story around this table. 

Participant Heather Martell shared with the group that her first pregnancy, at 19, ended in a miscarriage. She alleged that her doctor would not evacuate the pregnancy because of the doctor’s anti-abortion beliefs and that she bled for months before seeking treatment at a Planned Parenthood clinic. 

“I almost died because of a pro-life agenda,” Martell told the group.  

The participants initially agree on a proposal that says that receiving medical care for miscarriages should not be subject to a state’s abortion laws.

Dispute resolution on steroids

Facilitating these sessions were Mariah Levison and Kelly Wilder from Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that for about a decade and a half has helped opposing groups in the public and private sectors find consensus on a range of policy issues like education, poverty, and health care. But what typically takes Convergence at least a year for each project, Starts With Us has asked them to do in three days (they will eventually add a fourth day in early April). 

“This is the same methodology like on steroids,” Levison, Convergence’s CEO and president, told States Newsroom. The Minnesotan said she has worked in dispute resolution her whole career, but abortion is a new topic for both her and Convergence, which facilitated Starts With Us’s inaugural session, about gun rights and safety in Tennessee; a third session on immigration is being planned for later this year.

Fourteen Wisconsin residents of diverse backgrounds and stances on abortion rights met for three days in December and a day this month to try to arrive at consensus solutions on abortion access and family well-being. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)
Fourteen Wisconsin residents of diverse backgrounds and stances on abortion rights met for three days in December and a day this month to try to arrive at consensus solutions on abortion access and family well-being. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

Beyond agreements on policy proposals, Levison said the larger goal is to help people build trust and understand each other. 

And it’s the role of Starts With Us as a civic engagement nonprofit to elevate these examples of understanding and agreement and try to change the narrative that issues like abortion and guns and immigration are intractable. For the first three days of the session last December, camera operators filmed the participants, while the rest of the team watched in a makeshift video village in a drafty hallway space. In the months since, they’ve used the footage to help tell the group’s story and to give Wisconsin residents (and those in other states) a different option on abortion policy that isn’t just relegated to ban vs. no ban. They invited States Newsroom to observe the December sessions, though everything said was initially off the record unless participants gave permission to be quoted.

Levison told the participants they must find OPTIONS: Only proposals that include others’ needs succeed. She had them consider the example of a neighbor complaining about the other’s constantly barking dog. A real consensus solution, she explained, goes beyond keeping vs. getting rid of the dog. And she instructed them not to compromise; if a proposal would cause anyone “heartburn,” it didn’t go on the final list. As in a jury, even one dissenting vote can tank a proposal.   

In the group, the biggest sticking points are: fetal health; maternal health that might not be immediately life-threatening; and sexual and domestic violence and whether someone should be forced to procreate with an abuser. 

The teams are broken into two groups to facilitate better discussion. By the end, participants will raise their voices, burst into tears, slam a folder. Kai Gardner Mishlove, the executive director at Jewish Social Services, quickly becomes the group’s emotional stabilizer, guiding them through deep breathing during tense moments. But they keep showing up, and listening. 

Walls coming down

Heading into the cold December night after the second day of heavy discussions, Thomas Lang told States Newsroom that his wife knows the very night their eldest of three was conceived. The 61-year-old property manager grinned as he remembered her reciting a prayer before being intimate on their honeymoon.

“There is a purpose and meaning of sexual intimacy,” said Lang, who supports the teaching of natural family planning as opposed to “artificial” birth control. He’s very much in love with Amy, who’s 11 years younger and whom he met on the dating site Ave Maria Singles 15 years after a divorce and annulment from a relationship with which he shares three adult children. “One of the basic principles behind the proper use of NFP is that married couples should always have an openness to life.”

Of the 14, Lang is among those on the most restrictive end of the spectrum, a stance informed by his deep Catholic faith, his mother’s abortion regret, his six living children, as well as two miscarriages and a stillbirth. To support his position, he repeatedly cites the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” and the legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin.

And unlike some of the other abortion opponents in the group, Lang is comfortable using the word murder to describe what Lyerly does for a living. He doesn’t expect to connect with her. 

Throughout the initial three-day session, the OB-GYN from Green Bay patiently answered medical questions, described abortion procedures, and explained how she views abortion morally.

“My obligation to my patients is to make sure that I’m helping them with the right thing for them,” Lyerly said. “If I’m taking care of a woman from the Jewish faith, they have a very different perspective than my Catholic patients than my agnostic or atheist patients. So my job is to understand where they’re coming from and to make sure that they feel fulfilled and well taken care of and have what they need to be able to live their lives according to their morals.” 

At one point Lyerly obliged Lang when he asked her to switch from clinical language (fertilization, products of conception) to his preferred terms (conception, baby), a move that frustrated several of the abortion-access participants but endeared her to him.

“I would have been repulsed to have met an abortionist before this meeting,” Lang told Lyerly on the second day of the session, “but I can’t tell you how much you enamor me with regards to the way you put yourself in your patients’ shoes. I would love you to be my wife’s doctor.” (He later acknowledged to States Newsroom that this could never happen because Lyerly’s “compassion is incoherent without principled procreative and life ethics.”)

With Lang and Lyerly at opposite ends of the spectrum, the 14 were able to come to only small agreements about when abortion should be legal and accessible, but found more common ground on how to mitigate some of abortion’s root causes, which many of the participants have experienced.

University of Wisconsin-Madison obstetrics and gynecology professor Jenny Higgins presents U.S. reproductive health data to the Wisconsin 14 on day one of the Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion & Family Well-Being, December 8, 2023. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)
University of Wisconsin-Madison obstetrics and gynecology professor Jenny Higgins presents U.S. reproductive health data to the Wisconsin 14 on day one of the Wisconsin Citizen Solutions on Abortion & Family Well-Being, December 8, 2023. (Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner)

Kateri Klingele, 25, a white mental health professional and co-founder of Wisconsin Student Parents Organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has two children. Not only was Klingele navigating poverty and school during her two unplanned pregnancies, but she was also incredibly sick. She was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum, which resulted in her being fed intravenously during both pregnancies and delivering both her children early due to malnutrition. She said she also experienced partner abuse and was on every social support available, living in constant terror of falling off the so-called benefits cliff. 

But she’s firm that abortion should rarely ever be an option because she believes that ending the life of a child is wrong and does not end other issues, like abuse and poverty.  

“I am deeply troubled by this idea that providing an abortion and ending the life of a child is a way to stop domestic violence,” Klingele told the group. “As someone who’s experienced that, what’s harmful is the treatment of being abused. What’s harmful is that there’s insane wait lists for domestic abuse survivors’ housing. But my sons were not the problem here.” 

Her life experience has brought her to the opposite conclusion to other participants who work with domestic and sexual violence survivors, like Monique Minkens and Milly Gonzales. 

“In 2022 I could see both perspectives, especially as a person of faith,” Gonzales told the group. “But it scared me when Roe v. Wade was repealed. It was devastating, especially in my work, seeing how it affected women and all persons that are able to have children. Sometimes we don’t think through decisions that people have to make and how those decisions impact the babies that are being born.”

Meanwhile, Halama, who said she has counseled patients facing crisis pregnancies, began to grapple with the idea that maybe the hardline anti-abortion stance doesn’t reduce the most amount of harm. 

“Am I coming from a place of pride? Am I coming from a place of rigidity and not loving compassion?” Halama told the group on the third day. “This is just like to challenge maybe us pro-lifers, but I don’t know, are we working so hard to eliminate this harm, and harming women who are in these positions of domestic violence, and in these positions of discrimination, when we know that we have a merciful God?  … I don’t know what to do with that because it’s so hard for me to concede on something that in my mind is harming, [but] I don’t know if having this harsh black-and-white stance on [abortion] is the right way to do it.”

Back in video village, the sometimes chatty or snacking Starts With Us staff are rapt looking at the screens. Someone whispers: “Wow.” 

There’s also an understanding reached between Klingele and Ali Muldrow, a Black abortion fund director, where Muldrow agrees with Klingele about treating people with disabilities with compassion and not suggesting that they should not be born. “I want you to know with my whole heart and soul that I don’t think we should be universally killing people with Down syndrome,” Muldrow told Klingele.

“A variety of health factors inform why people terminate pregnancies, and to suggest that people simply don’t want children with disabilities is insensitive to the complexity of information people obtain about the health and quality of life that factor into people’s decisions around pregnancy,” Muldrow later clarified to States Newsroom. “I think folks who are anti-abortion access take disability into consideration when you’re talking about the fetus, but they don’t seem as willing to acknowledge disability as a factor for the pregnant person.”

Unlikely partnership

On the second day, during breakouts, Klingele smiles kindly at Lyerly and explains that the “intentional ending of a pregnancy” should not be legal.

“I think there should be no criminal charges on women for seeking that,” Klingele said. “But with regard to providers, I think there should be penalties. So, I want to look at you when I say this because I value you and I care about you and I know you care about your patients and about their children. But poisoning them and pulling them out of the womb and vacuuming, whatever terms you want to use, destroys their dignity.”

“I appreciate your perspective,” Lyerly replied. The next day she addressed some of the participants’ notions of her work. “I sit here with people who might be shouting at me as a doctor entering an abortion clinic. Someone who yesterday essentially said I should be in jail. I’m a murderer, right? But every time that I trust women and understand that they know what’s best for them, every time I perform an abortion for someone, we acknowledge that there’s a life there. And we honor that life. And I know that that sounds crazy. But we do the best that we can under every circumstance. And these are hard, hard decisions and everybody is different. But I would offer to you that we do love them both.”

And that’s the next point of common ground: Klingele clarifies that she doesn’t believe abortion providers should be incarcerated, which as Lyerly points out, they could have been under Wisconsin’s temporary abortion ban that went into effect after the Dobbs decision. Klingele ultimately can’t answer what it means for abortion providers if termination is illegal; she said she’s more concerned about making it easier for people to give birth and parent safely.

“I don’t have all the laws or regulations,” she told Lyerly. “But I see ending a life as wrong and there are consequences for doing something that’s wrong.”

But the two found that they agree on a lot more outside of abortion. Lyerly told States Newsroom that the two have agreed to work together in some capacity.

Starts With Us head of programs Ashley Phillips told States Newsroom she was heartened but not surprised to see participants agree and connect. 

“It’s hard to hate up close,” Phillips said. “And when you have the opportunity to sit for three days across the table from one another and have nuanced discussions about both your lived experience and the issue at hand, it’s not surprising that you’re able to humanize and learn and grow. And it’s still beautiful to see.”

Tomorrow: A doctor gets heartburn. 

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