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Ceasing fire in the abortion war Weary fighters seek common ground

After 20 years of shouting at each other across barricades some leaders in local abortion battles are trying something revolutionary: They're talking, away from the heat of politics, in an effort to find common ground.

The movement, still tiny and tentative, is growing in a country that finds itself exhausted by two decades of ceaseless conflict over abortion. Common-ground efforts are embraced by people wearied by the name-calling and frustrated by a political process unlikely to yield a clear victory to either side.

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"I'm tired of the fight," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, a devoted abortion opponent who worked this summer on the campaign to defeat an abortion-rights law on the Maryland ballot. "This whole field is dominated by people who like a good fight. Searching for common ground means letting go of our enjoyment of a good fight."

In most of the groups, people who disagree profoundly about abortion agree simply to put the argument aside. That done, they find much to agree on. They care about women and children, about preventing unwanted pregnancies, about child support, day-care programs and health.

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"Pro-life and pro-choice people were putting vast amounts of resources, passion and money into fighting each other, when we should be putting our money and our resources into other causes," says B. J. Isaacson-Jones, whose St. Louis clinic includes abortion services.

"We have been guilty of demonizing our opposition, and they us," says the Rev. David Kunselman, who objects to abortion, in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's high time we give our opponents dignity."

The common-ground efforts have no formal structure. They are whatever the organizers decide will work in their community. No one is asked to compromise on abortion. But everyone is urged to try to see beyond the stereotypes, the labels that deem one side baby-killers and the other oppressors of women.

The idea is delicate, its supporters say. But it can work.

In St. Louis, abortion opponents and abortion-rights activists agreed to support legislation that helps crack-addicted pregnant women. In Austin, Texas, Roman Catholics who differ on abortion have joined to discuss women's issues. In Buffalo, leaders are working to bring together a community rent by last spring's protracted abortion protests.

Such cooperation by people so divided is rare, says Craig McEwen, chairman of the sociology and anthropology department at Bowdoin College.

"These really are contending social movements that are colliding with each other and have defined themselves as having opposite agendas," says Dr. McEwen, who also is affiliated with the Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation. "What this movement suggests is that this appearance of opposite agendas is not altogether accurate. I think that's fairly unusual and promising."

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, says the movement has emerged because "the general public has come to see the ugliness of the debate as unacceptable."

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Both sides, she says, know the public's tolerance for intractable positions has waned. In response, the groups have subtly softened their positions in recent years. Abortion-rights groups now talk about reducing the numbers of abortions. Some anti-abortion groups talk about restricting abortion instead of outlawing it entirely.

But the common-ground movement is not for everyone.

Roger Stenson, head of Maryland Right to Life, sees little reason to talk with abortion-rights advocates. "I'd feel like taking a shower every time I left those people," he says. "Right to Life's job is to be for the right to life."

But for others deeply involved with the issue, the time for discussion has come.

In St. Louis, where the common-ground movement began, the time came after the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that allowed the state to restrict abortions in public hospitals and clinics.

Six months later, Andrew Puzder, the lawyer who helped write the Missouri law, wrote a newspaper commentary that called for cooperation. "If we can put aside for a moment our simple win-lose attitudes and approach this issue sensibly and calmly, perhaps we can jointly accomplish some good for those we all seek to protect," he wrote.

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Ms. Isaacson-Jones, the director of Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis, read the column and decided to call her legal adversary.

"It was a gutsy move on her part," says Mr. Puzder, now an Orange County, Calif., attorney.

A veteran of clinic invasions, a firebombing, death threats and picket lines, Ms. Isaacson-Jones invited Mr. Puzder to come to the clinic. He agreed -- but only to an after-hours meeting, when he was sure no abortions were being performed.

They met in her office. "I was so nervous," she says, "but he was so gracious and warm."

"We both agreed," he recalls, "I'm not going to convince you to be pro-life, and you're not going to convince me to be pro-choice. Now, having said that, what can we do?"

They found he was involved with a home for pregnant women and she had set up an adoption agency in her clinic. "So we had a little common ground right there," he says.

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From that first talk came many more -- some just between Ms. Isaacson-Jones and Mr. Puzder, some in larger groups. The two sides work on issues in which they share an interest: preventing unwanted pregnancy, teaching abstinence to teen-agers, reducing infant mortality, financing school-breakfast programs.

Then there are specific problems they've faced together: When a 10-year-old girl turned up pregnant at the clinic and decided to have the baby, Ms. Isaacson-Jones worked together with Missouri Right to Life to find a sitter to stay with the girl when she was confined to bed.

Not everyone in the abortion fight was ready to embrace the enemy.

"I was accused of making the other side sound reasonable," Ms. Isaacson-Jones says. "And I said, 'Well, I'm talking with reasonable people.' "

And Mr. Puzder says some abortion opponents asked how he could talk with people who kill babies. "I said, 'Look, if I can do something that might save the life of a child, are you going to tell me not to, so you can protect your moral or ethical purity? If that's what you're telling me, I'm telling you to get the hell out.' "

In San Francisco, Peggy Green began organizing Common Ground retreats after watching news coverage of abortion protests last year in Wichita, Kan. "I just couldn't take one more picture of women screaming at each other," she says.

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The sessions focus on personal beliefs and experiences. "Leave your rhetoric and your agendas and your T-shirts and your signs outside," she says.

And what if the talks result in nothing more than a few dozen people getting to know each other?

"There's nothing wrong with sitting in a room and feeling good when you've been hating each other for 20 years," Ms. Green says.

"You never know," Ms. Kissling says, "when you sit down and talk with people what good may come of it."

Not all efforts to find common ground succeed. Patty Brous, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Greater Kansas City, says she spent two hours with one of the leaders of the city's anti-abortion movement. But the discussion got stuck on the conflict between a woman's rights and a fetus' rights. "I can tell you from my short experience we did not find common ground," she says.

But other groups think the idea will work, over time, if it is nurtured.

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In Buffalo, Mr. Kunselman, a Presbyterian minister, says a group has been meeting for months simply trying to build trust, fearful of moving too quickly and perhaps alienating some participants.

Mr. Puzder says he worries that the idea "will get into the wrong hands. The only way this stays common ground is not to use it to advance the abortion debate. There are so many people who live for the debate. If they get a hold of this idea, they'll kill it."

Despite his concern, despite the slow pace of the dialogue, despite the criticism of some people who cannot trust each other, Mr. Puzder says the effort must be deemed a success.

Last spring, when Ms. Isaacson-Jones was presented with a civic award in St. Louis, Mr. Puzder flew from California to praise her at the banquet. At the end of the night, one of the guests approached him.

"This little blue-haired, pro-choice lady walked up to me and said, 'I used to consider you the enemy, and I don't think that anymore.' "

He was thrilled. The critics, he says, are wrong. "For people to tell me this has no effect -- I just don't listen to that anymore."


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