Catholic Lawyers Guild: The role civil discourse can play in bringing about a culture of life

About 15 years ago, our community was shocked and saddened by the actions of John Salvi. Mr. Salvi murdered two women and wounded five others who worked in local abortion clinics. As a result of these events, Gov. William Weld and Cardinal Bernard Law joined in calling for meetings among leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice communities to attempt to lower the rhetoric in order to avoid future violence against either pro-lifers or those committed to upholding the laws allowing abortion. The called-for meetings were held in secret for a period of about six years and involved the participation of three pro-life leaders and three pro-choice leaders with the help of skilled facilitators. Those meetings came to be called the "Dialogue" and on Jan. 28, 2001 The Boston Globe published an essay written by the six participants in the Dialogue which was entitled: "Talking with the Enemy." The Globe article speaks for itself.

The three pro-lifers involved in the Dialogue were acutely aware of the terrible violence against the unborn and against women which occurred (and continues to occur) every day in abortion clinics. The hope was that engaging in the Dialogue would help stop that violence as well. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have been one of the three pro-lifers who participated in the Dialogue and my deepest longing was that the discussions would convince the pro-choice leaders of the dignity and the sacredness of every single human life.

The professionals who facilitated the Dialogue among the six leaders structured the conversations in such a way that civil discourse was required. The life and death issues dealt with were, to say the least, deeply divisive and passionately felt; however, the discussions were able to occur without volatile language or name-calling. For hours on end and within the confines of a windowless room, six of us examined and presented our views as calmly as possible and with words that were, indeed, civil so that we could see what our real differences were without the distortions necessarily resulting from the use of speech that used "hot button" phrases and comments.

Now, it is almost 10 years since the Dialogue formally concluded and I have been in a reflective mood about my experience of it. In my mind, there is no doubt that the civil discourse taught by the Dialogue has brought many good results. I would like to mention just two of them:

1. The pro-life ethic is regaining its seat at the table. I came to the Dialogue as a lawyer who began practicing in 1970 and who had been profoundly disturbed from witnessing first-hand the battle for the soul of the American Bar Association. As a matter of principle, I resigned from the ABA when it adopted a pro-abortion stance in the 1970s. Many other pro-life attorneys resigned as well. As a result of participating in the Dialogue, I have come to understand how important it is that pro-lifers never ever give up their seats at the tables of professional and community life. It is simply impossible to stand up for the truth when one is not actually present to proclaim it. The civil discourse taught by the Dialogue provides the opportunity for each of us to advocate for, and to be heard on, the life issues and on many other very important issues within our Church's magnificent 2,000 year tradition of social teaching.

2. The pro-life ethic has gained a hearing in places where it had never before been seriously thought about or discussed. The number of venues where the pro-life women of the Dialogue have appeared or spoken is incredible -- places where we never expected to be welcomed. Whether it be speaking to journalists at Harvard or to Hollywood actresses like Sally Field and Jane Fonda, each of us could tell you of moving and touching experiences.

Personally, I have had conversations of great depth with folks who were publicly pro-choice, but who admitted to me that they had never actually heard the underlying reasons why pro-lifers cared so passionately about the dignity of each human person. These folks hadn't heard because not only had many of us absented ourselves, as a matter of principle, from the powerful venues where these issues were being discussed, but also simply because the rhetoric had turned them off. It, had, in effect, shut down their ability or their willingness to listen. Now, with the tool of civil discourse, the truth can be spoken in fora never before available to us.

It is critically important to emphasize that civil discourse does not require we be mealy-mouthed or timid in presenting our views. On the contrary, civil discourse requires that we hone our skills so that our language is direct and accurate and it allows us, without question, to be uncompromising and ardent in our advocacy.

Civil discourse can help build that culture of life and civilization of love so beautifully proclaimed by Pope John Paul II in The Gospel of Life. Both the late pope and Pope Benedict XVI have told the laity that it is our responsibility, our vocation, our calling, to witness to the Gospel message in all the areas of our private and public lives. The only way we can proclaim that message is if we are actually present to do it, where and when necessary, whether convenient or inconvenient, and if we use words that are respectful of the truth as well as respectful of the dignity of each human person with whom we engage in discussion. It is my abiding belief that the truth has a beauty all its own and if each of us could be heard speaking the truth about the sacredness and dignity of each human life, the extraordinary and enduring beauty of that truth would indeed touch hearts and minds.

Attorney Frances Hogan is a long-time leader in the Massachusetts pro-life movement and a member of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston.