Watching a televised debate about abortion in 1989, with the pro-choice and pro-life advocates going after each other like pit bulls, Laura Chasin got to thinking. "It occurred to me that I wouldn't put up with this if it were happening in my office," remembers Chasin, then a therapist on faculty at the Family Institute of Cambridge in Massachusetts, "and neither would any of my colleagues. If a family is embattled, we know how to help make something more constructive happen. A lightbulb went off: I wondered if some of what we do with couples could be adapted to people embroiled in civic and political conflict."
Yes, it could. Chasin recruited six of her coworkers and started the Public Conversations Project (PCP), inviting local people who expressed interest in a dialogue about reproductive freedom to come talk to one another. "We said that the only goal was mutual understanding. It would not be an opportunity to try to persuade, meaning we had some ground rules." Incendiary name-calling (such as "baby killer" or "religious fanatic") was forbidden, and questions had to convey genuine curiosity (no "Don't you think your position is stupid?"). The initial 20 meetings usually involved six people and were set for three hours. "It's always hard to end," says Chasin, "once the horns and tails are removed, and you begin to see areas of shared concerns." With such an encouraging start, PCP considered expanding to other charged subjects. "We thought this way of bringing together people who are at loggerheads needed to travel," recalls Chasin, "and we were full of exploration energy, when John Salvi happened."
John C. Salvi III was the student hairdresser who, in 1994, stormed two women's health clinics in suburban Boston, killing the receptionists at both and wounding five others. Governor William Weld and Cardinal Bernard Law jointly called for "common ground" talks. PCP doesn't use the language "common ground" because, Chasin points out, when it comes to abortion, people hear that phrase and think they'll have to make an unacceptable compromise. "But we felt an obligation to see if the situation was ripe for some kind of engagement across the divide," she says.
Six women leaders from both sides of the issue agreed to meet in secret, but it was just about their only point of consensus—they couldn't even decide on how to refer to what grows in a pregnant woman's womb.