January 20, 2011

Transcript for Listening Beyond Life and Choice

Krista Tippett, host: She is best known as an activist in the abortion debate. But this hour, for the Civil Conversations Project, we draw out lessons from Frances Kissling's less famous adventures of new relationship with her political opposites.

Ms. Frances Kissling: If we are interested in understanding each other, and if we are ultimately interested in policy that reflects what is good in the concerns of those who disagree, the only way we’re going to get any sense of what that is, is if we can acknowledge what is good in the position of the other, acknowledge what troubles us about our own position. You know I don’t understand how you can work on an issue for 35 years and never change your mind at all about anything.

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, On Being. Stay with us.


Ms. Tippett: When we talk about abortion, we collapse it to two sides, and each side famously demonizes the other. No issue is more a symbol of culture war — and of the way we've impoverished our collective approach to intimate, complex human questions. This hour, for the Civil Conversations Project, we explore new possibilities quietly unfolding. Frances Kissling has been at the center of the abortion debate and was the longtime president of Catholics for Choice. Some dubbed her the "abortion queen." In recent years, she's given herself to pursuing real relationship, a whole new kind of conversation and encounter, with her political opposites. She's experienced something more powerful, as she tells it, than defining common ground. We'll listen beyond the pros and cons of abortion to how this has changed her, and what she's learning that might be useful for us all.

Ms. Kissling: The need to approach others with enthusiasm for difference is absolutely critical to any change. You know like I'm the toughest of fighters. And you know I love a good fight. And I love to win. But I think what I have learned is that you have got to approach differences with this notion that there is good in the other. And that if we can't figure out how to do that and there isn't the crack in the middle where there are some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is gonna continue.

Ms. Tippett: From American Public Media, I'm Krista Tippett. Today On Being — "Listening Beyond Life and Choice" — Frances Kissling's unfolding wisdom on human and social change from inside the abortion debate.

Frances Kissling is best known as the President of Catholics for Choice, a post she held from 1982 to 2007. She distinguished herself as a thinker as well as an activist. And she was always attentive to what she saw as moral weaknesses in the arguments on all sides of the abortion debate. Life introduced her to moral ambiguity early on. She was one of four children of a twice-divorced Polish-American mother from a coal mining town in Pennsylvania. Frances Kissling was aware, she says, that her mother's life was embittered by the burden of children she did not want. Her mother was estranged from the church, but she raised her children in it. And while a very young woman, Frances Kissling spent a short time in a convent.

Ms. Tippett: So how did you then end up becoming a nun at the age of 19? I mean, how did that happen?

Ms. Kissling: Well, I mean, first of all, I did go to Catholic schools. When you grow up in a working-class Catholic family with most of your models in life being working class, and a mother who had two bad marriages, the life of a nun looks pretty good in many ways. So I saw religious life as a way of really doing good and nuns were the smartest, kindest — although some of them were pretty mean.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Kissling: But they varied from the meanest to the kindest — people I knew. I had some ideas about Catholicism that were different from most Catholics even as a young girl in the sense that, you know, I didn't think divorce was the worst thing in the world and I didn't see any reason why people shouldn't get remarried. And I certainly didn't think my mother was going to hell or was an adulteress. And I thought that people like me needed to be active in the church, you know, that it was that period where things were beginning to change. And so I think that was part of my attraction to religious life, of feeling that I had something to offer that might be a little bit different.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And you were just there, what, a year? Is that right? Short-lived?

Ms. Kissling: Yeah, under a year. Yes. As a friend of mine who was a mother superior often says, "Definitely a chicken."

Ms. Tippett: And I wonder — you know, I'm just trying to see the trajectory of the things you care about and you came to care about. You've written and said to others that you were never deeply interested in having children or imagining yourself as having a lifelong marriage, and yet at a pretty young age, this issue of abortion — you became very passionate about this and an activist on this. Where did that originate in all of that?

Ms. Kissling: Well, it actually wasn't — I would say it wasn't at that young an age because I became involved — I never thought about abortion. You know, I often say that, you know, when you grew up before abortion was a political issue, it was never mentioned. Abortion was not something that came up in Catholic schools in the '50s and even into the '60s. It really became a political — theopolitical issue after Roe v. Wade. And so I really had almost no exposure to abortion whatsoever.

I think that, for me, the starting point was as a younger woman was sexuality in the sense that, first of all, I had a mother who had a sexual life that was condemned by the church. I myself, because I had no seeming interest in marriage and had no desire to have children, but in my early years, in my 20s, after I left the convent and left Catholic school and moved to Greenwich Village and went to the New School for Social Research and became active against the war in Vietnam, my thought was that, you know, really — I really didn't think God intended me to never have sex just because I didn't get married.

Ms. Tippett: And this was the '60's, again, too, right? I mean the sexuality being discovered in a way.

Ms. Kissling: This was the '60s, that's right, that's right. And it was only in 1970 that the issue of abortion entered my consciousness because two physicians whom I knew opened an abortion clinic when the law changed in New York and asked me if I was willing to run the clinic and I said yes. So that was my first exposure to the abortion issue was dealing with women who faced what for them were deeply difficult situations in pregnancy, who were suffering very much from a pregnancy that carried with it all sorts of problems for them. So that was my first experience, and I guess my sympathy always from Mother forward has been for women.

Ms. Tippett: So I'd like to talk about your perspectives, your experiences and your perspective, across this sweep of time, about what goes wrong in our culture as we try to navigate this issue of abortion. Where would you start to talk about that?

Ms. Kissling: I think that — first of all, I think I always had an approach to abortion that was somewhat different from that of the mainstream choice movement in that politics never interested me very much. You know, the idea that abortion was about getting the right people elected, that there were extremists on the side of those opposed to abortion and rational people on the side of choice never quite fit for me completely. I think that, since I did this work as a Catholic, even though many Catholic venues were closed, I probably talked to more people over the years who were opposed to abortion than most folks in the choice movement. And while I certainly think there is a twin absolutism between those who think there is only one value at stake, the value of women's identity and rights, or on the opposite side of the spectrum, the value of the fetus, that for most people, including me, both of those values exist and the abortion issue is one in which one mediates those values and others.


Ms. Tippett: So let me ask you this way. I mean, for example, a couple of years ago, I moderated a discussion between three generations of Evangelicals, and one of them was Chuck Colson at the elder and also at the most conservative end. And then there was somebody there who was, I think, he would call himself a socially progressive Evangelical and there was someone who was part of the new monastics movement. So it was kind of this spiritual renewal movement that is Evangelical, but kind of on the edges, like monasticism and Catholicism has always been.

What was interesting is that they held very different theologies on all this. Abortion was something that, on one hand, they all, I think, agreed is a sin, but then they went to very divergent places about what that meant, right? So for Charles Colson, it did mean that you would look to elected officials as part of what Christians should be about. For one of them who was a pastor, he felt that abortion was a sin, but felt that poverty is often at the root of abortion and said that, if a church wants to work, you know, that it should be working on behalf of women and not necessarily electing pro-life candidates.

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: So — but one thing I asked them and I don't really think I got a satisfying answer to and I'd like to ask you is why do you think it is that this issue has become such a lightning rod and it's often put together with other issues around sexuality or, you know, gay marriage?

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: But that one is moving, and abortion is the one that is where everybody — you know, at least in our public dialogue, everyone is in the trenches, and it's hard to see any way forward, at least just reading newspapers. So what is it about this issue that makes it so difficult and so important?

Ms. Kissling: Right. Right. Well, I think there are many things about it that have lent to the kind of intransigence or intractability that abortion has become in our society.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Kissling: I think, first of all, OK, some people would disagree with me about this on the choice side. Abortion in and of itself is not a positive good, OK? It has positive outcomes. It may indeed often be necessary, but unlike, say, homosexuality in which what you are dealing with for most people is the positiveness of human relationship, partnership, love, all of those good things that some people think people of the same sex shouldn't enjoy, but nobody questions that those are goods.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Kissling: OK. In the case of abortion, you are dealing always with the destruction of life. It may not be life that is personal; it may not be of the highest value. It doesn't, in my opinion, have rights, but I think particularly as time has passed, we are all striving to create a world, where most of us are striving to create a world in which life in all its forms is fostered and nurtured. And abortion in some ways goes against that. So if you have a kind of absolutism, you know, if you don't contextualize it and you just look at it even if you're not looking at it as murder or killing, you know, in the grossest terms, but simply as the interruption of life processes that we would prefer under other circumstances go forward, it always has a dimension of loss to it. And so that's very difficult to deal with in political context, which is how we deal with it. So I think that's part of it.

Ms. Tippett: What is it about the political context that makes that — it removes the possibility of context, doesn't it? I mean, it turns everything into a vote.

Ms. Kissling: That's right. Something that's either legal or illegal. It's either legal or illegal. And that's a very difficult way of dealing with — I mean, it's the same thing with, you know, end-of-life issues or many other issues that we deal with that are moral and ethical issues, health care issues in our society. It's very difficult to reduce them to yes or no. And I think, in that sense, both movements, you know, the choice movement and the life movement — and I'll use life for the purpose of graciousness — have so focused on an absolute yes or no perspective to this that the context gets very, very, very lost.

And the other thing I would say is the other difference is that abortion is something that enters a person's life at a specific moment and leaves it very quickly. Homosexuality is part of one's daily identity, and so the need of people who are GLBTQ, etc. to find a place in the world in which the totality of their lives is accepted is much stronger. And for most people, most of us don't want to think about abortion, and even women who have abortions don't want to think about abortion all of the time. They don't make — they don't want to make abortion, for the most part, a defining part of who they are and their identity.


Ms. Kissling: You can listen to that 2008 public conversation that was just mentioned — with three generations of Evangelicals on abortion and other matters of politics and moral values — that's at onbeing.org.

I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, as part of our ongoing Civil Conversations Project, we're exploring Frances Kissling's unfolding wisdom on human and social change from inside the abortion debate. She was President of Catholics for Choice for a quarter century. More recently she's devoted herself to the tenor and content of her encounter with political opposites. For example, she convened a controversial, high-profile 2010 conference at Princeton together with passionate advocates on every side of the issue. We're touching on the contours of the issue per se, from Frances Kissling's perspective. But we're really focused this hour on how she has changed across the years; and how she's experienced this moral values divide to shift, albeit often below the political and media radar.


Ms. Tippett: So I'm really aware that you and I are talking as though there are two sides to this issue, which is how we talk about it in our public life. You know, there's pro-life and pro-choice. I remember, though, being so struck by hearing about the results of that same poll out of the 2004 election where we got the God gap, where it showed this moral values gulf. But hearing that in that same poll, a majority of people who had voted, a majority including Democrats and Republicans, came out for abortion with some limits, right?

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: So on the one hand, you know, I think right now the poll that gets kicked around a lot is the Gallup Poll, 2009, that showed that, at this point, 51 percent of Americans are pro-life, against abortion. But I know that you're steeped in this and I'm aware of some of it too. What the research says when there's any nuance to it is that in fact there is a broad consensus in the middle of that, lots of details to be worked out. But, but — but…

Ms. Kissling: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Let's talk about that, what you know about where we are collectively as a nation with this.

Ms. Kissling: OK. First of all, I think that 2004 in some ways was, for me and I think for this issue, a moment of great sea change and that, you know, the popular word now is it was a game changer.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Kissling: But I think that not too many people have recognized that it was a game changer, so nobody's playing in this new field. You know, that the sides still remain mostly ossified, so I'll just put that on the table. And I'm trying to be different than that, whether it's better or worse. But at any rate, that's where I am. And I think that what became evident at that point was, first of all, on the side of those who have been opposed to legal abortion and who see it as very immoral, essentially immoral, but who are religious and progressive on many, many other issues. They realized that they had to change on abortion.

I think that they made the first move and that move was the notion that — and a person like David Gushee, the Evangelical, I think, is the example of the best version of this shift.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Ms. Kissling: It was the recognition that what we have been doing in being against abortion for the past 30 years has gotten us nowhere. Trying to make abortions illegal is not going to happen and there is no evidence that the number of abortions has declined significantly. So we have to concentrate on getting the number of abortions down by other methods than illegality.

I saw that as a good thing. And by the same token, from the choice side at least where I stand, it's also true that the political legal strategy hasn't really worked for us. Yes, abortion is still legal, but it is so much more restricted and particularly restricted for women at the margins that the vision that we had about equality as part of access to abortion has eroded, not been achieved.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I want to read — this is a sentence you wrote. I think it's really wonderfully clear and provocative. This is something you wrote after this "Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair-Minded Words" conference at Princeton. You said that one of the things that conference did is made you and others aware of a need to tend one's own house and here's one way you summarize, I think, partly what you just said. "This assumption, assertion, premise that making babies is serious business and sex is a pleasurable and meaningful activity with social consequences."

Ms. Kissling: Right. I actually think, you know, in this discussion about civil discourse, I think that there are multiple layers in having civil discourse. I'm actually finding it easier to have civil discourse with some people who are opposed to abortion than I am having civil discourse within my own movement, and I'm sure that's true who are opposed to abortion. You know, the poor person on the side of those opposed to abortion who deviates from the absolutism of making it totally illegal is very castigated by their movement and, you know, they've been fighting over incrementalism versus absolutism, you know, for years.

And now, you know, there is just the beginning on the choice side of the same kinds of discussions over, again, sticking the line that abortion is, you know, largely an absolute right of women or thinking about, as I put it, not so much thinking about restrictions, but thinking about ways in which we as pro-choice people can let the American public know that we think abortion is serious business. We think making babies is a very serious, very serious responsibility.

Ms. Tippett: I think that's, you know, the human condition and an irony of this moment we live in where pluralism is real and a lot of us are living into it. But some of our bitterest disagreements are with those who are closer to us, right?

Ms. Kissling: Well, it's always that way in the family. I mean, all of this is based — you know, ultimately people say the family is the basic unit of society, and I would have some disagreements with that. I think the community is. But, you know, these are all reflections of the dynamics between — you know, it's the same dynamic between a couple. There is nothing worse than your partner disagreeing with you in public. If you have a partner and you believe something very deeply and your partner goes out and criticizes you in public or says something different, I mean, that is really devastating, much more devastating than somebody who, you know…

Ms. Tippett: You already know you don't have anything in common with.

Ms. Kissling: You think you have nothing in common, they disagree, who cares? So that's what we're struggling with in our movement.


Ms. Tippett: And I want you to tell me about dialogues, conversations, approaches that you have been part of these last two years that are opening this up and that are very different from this either/or pro/con politicized abortion discussion that we're used to. You know, I've been reading about the Public Conversations Project.

Ms. Kissling: Yeah, I was just going to mention them.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. What stories would you want to tell people about how this conversation's unfolding?

Ms. Kissling: Well, first of all, I was very lucky in that I met the people in the Public Conversations Project in the early '90s around a different conversation effort than the straight-out abortion one. I met them around a conversation that they organized that lasted for two years between feminists, environmentalists, and the population establishment, the old-line population control people. So I had the benefit of working with them in a group of 30 or 40 people who met, as I said, over a two-year period to come to understand each other better.

So that was my first formal experience at dialogue. It was a very successful dialogue and people stuck with it and it actually made changes in terms of how these three groups worked together at the policy level. I then became involved with them when they turned their attention to the abortion issue. Most strongly they turned it at the time when there were the murders of abortion providers in Boston.

Ms. Tippett: That was the mid-'90s, right?

Ms. Kissling: Mid-'90's. And one of the things I did with them was I asked if they would conduct a dialogue with me and one person who is pro-life who I respected a great deal, a professor at Fordham University who was a progressive Democrat. And we met with them for an entire day. We talked with each other for six hours in a facilitated discussion that was videotaped for posterity and in which there were like six facilitators engaged in working with the two of us, one in the room and four or five behind the two-way mirror. So that was my first, and it was a very profitable encounter. What I think is very important is I'm not a big believer in common ground. Let me be very frank about that. I think that common ground…

Ms. Tippett: You mean the notion of common ground? That the way we resolve our disagreements is by finding our common ground? OK.

Ms. Kissling: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, right. I just think it's just, you know — I mean, I think that common ground can be found between people who do not have deep, deep differences. And in politics, you can find compromise. Politics is the art of the possible. But to think that you are going to take the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Organization of Women and they are going to find common ground on abortion is not practical. It's not going to happen, and we could extend that.

But I do think that when people who disagree with each other come — and this is the essence of the Princeton conference you're talking about — come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. But the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other, and we don't understand each other.

And the polarization that exists on the abortion issue in which people have called each other names and demonized each other for the past 30 years speaks against — it definitely speaks against any level of trust that enables people to come to some commonality, and so that you really have to start with this first idea that there are some people — not all — who see some benefit in learning why the other thinks the way that they do. And, you know, some of it's the simplistic stuff of humanization that the person becomes a real person, not an extremist, not evilly motivated, you know, that perhaps for some people you can overcome the epithets that we have charged each other with. And that, I'm a very strong believer in.

I have learned — I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last 10 years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And as a result, I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine. That's, for me, what has happened.

Ms. Tippett: And that is, again, different from this rush that I think we have in this culture, this little sick kind of a parallel to finding common ground, getting on the same page, right? Because you're not talking about getting on the same page.

Ms. Kissling: No, no. But, you know, Sidney Callahan, who is against legal abortion, generally speaking, a long time ago said that, you know, the hallmark of a civil debate is when you can acknowledge that which is good in the position of the person you disagree with.


Ms. Tippett: This interview with Frances Kissling is part of the Civil Conversations Project.

It's a series of radio shows and an online destination for starting new conversations in our public life, as opposed to sustaining familiar arguments. How do we formulate the questions we don't know how to ask each other? Can we find ways to bridge gulfs between us about politics, morality, and life itself? Can we do that even while we continue to disagree, passionately? We've pulled together voices of wisdom, poetry and practicality. And you'll find them all at onbeing.org. There you can also listen to this program again and to my unedited interview with Frances Kissling. Hear her speak in greater depth about her experimentation and process in forming relationship with her political opposites.

Coming up, Frances Kissling on the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we disagree. Also how grappling with kidney disease at this stage in her life has furthered her thinking on our bodies as both private and public entities.

I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. This is the Civil Conversations Project for On Being. Today, "Listening Beyond Life and Choice." I'm with Frances Kissling, the longtime former president of Catholics for Choice. She's best known as a thinker and leading figure in the abortion debate. But as part of our ongoing series on Civil Conversation, we're drawing her out on her less famous adventures of recent years in new relationship and conversation with her political opposites. What Frances Kissling has learned is controversial inside her own movement; but it holds resonance and lessons for grappling with all kinds of social division.

Ms. Tippett: I want to read you something that I was really struck by that you wrote. You were giving a list of a couple of qualities that you thought were necessary, as you said, if we are to continue the conversation to bring construction forward thinking approaches to what has been a long and difficult issue. One of them that really struck me was "the courage to be vulnerable in front of those we passionately disagree with."

Ms. Kissling: Right, right. And I think that's the hardest thing to do and I think it is very hard for all of us in these situations to acknowledge, for example, that we just don't have the answers to this problem. I don't think we have the answers to the problem of abortion in our society, whether it's the problem of abortion itself or the problem of how we're going to mediate our differences about abortion.

And a willingness to admit that is very, very difficult. What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? Where do you have doubts? Because it is only, I think, if we are interested in understanding each other and if we are ultimately interested — and it's not a question of common ground — but if we are ultimately interested in an abortion policy that reflects what is good in the concerns of those who disagree, the only way we're going to get any sense of what that is is if we can acknowledge what is good in the position of the other, acknowledge what troubles us about our own position. I mean, I've said this to somebody recently. I said, you know, I don't understand how you can work on an issue for 35 years as complicated as this and never change your mind at all about anything.

Ms. Tippett: But don't you think also, again, you know, the whole context, the whole ambiance of our public hand-wringing over these intimate issues that get at our sexuality and our core identity, right? There's so much fear. It's an atmosphere of fear.

Ms. Kissling: Yes. Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, it is precisely in an atmosphere of fear where people don't feel safe — where they don't feel — yeah, where they don't feel safe. You have to feel safe enough to show vulnerability, to express doubts.

Ms. Kissling: Let me say, I think that's one aspect of this, but there are some others. What we've been doing hasn't been working. Now maybe some people think it's been working, but — and I think that you become more willing to be vulnerable at a moment when you recognize that what you have done has not gotten you where you want to be. So there is that element of part of vulnerability is some modicum of helplessness, OK?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Kissling: And if you don't think you need any help and you think everything is just hunky-dory, well, then, there's absolutely no reason to be vulnerable. Most of us — when we and I think that the fascinating thing at least for those of us who are, you know, on the choice side, which tends to be more progressive and more liberal, we are the first people to criticize fear-based politics.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Ms. Kissling: Right? So we can't operate from fear. Some people have to step forward and not — you know, it was Pope John Paul II's motto on his crest, "Be not afraid," you know, and that's the story. Be not afraid. You know, again, to pull this into a religious context, this is what we — I mean, there are things about Catholicism that, I think, stick with me or, first of all, nobody ever told me, being a Catholic or being engaged in public life, was a popularity contest. You know, Christians are not called to be popular. A lot of that stuff is in me in one way or another. You know, we're called to speak the truth with humility, OK, with humility. Because the truth — we may not be right, but we're called to say what we think. And if it's popular one week, very nice; and if it isn't, well, that's the way it goes.

So I think that, you know, there is some need for some people, and some people on both sides of the abortion equation, more often than not people with either religious backgrounds or in the religious community have decided that they are willing to be unpopular with their own community. And I don't say that as any kind of martyred — you know, I'm by no means a martyr and it's like, "Oh, woe is me." I have no sense of "Woe, woe is me." It's a great life. But I think that, you know, you can't be motivated completely by a desire to have the choir singing your praises.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Um, I want to test something out on you.

Ms. Kissling: OK.

Ms. Tippett: This is an idea I have. Again, these issues, like they're so different in many ways, but, say, abortion and gay marriage. Let's say those are the two lightning-rod issues.

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: What binds them is that they're both about these intimate sexual aspects of life.

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And it strikes me that there are people on all sides of these issues who are literally caught in them, the pregnant women, and on the pro-life side, someone would say the innocent, unborn child, right?

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: But, you know, you are someone. You've become, I don't know what, somebody's called you "the philosopher of the pro-choice movement," and someone else called you the "abortion queen."

Ms. Kissling: Right, and "the cardinal of choice," I've been called.

Ms. Tippett: "Cardinal of choice," OK. So but you again are someone who — you've never married, you don't have children of your own. There's — and I feel like in these issues, these things are painful and personal for so many people and that there's a role for, you know, people I see like you for bridge people who aren't, um, personally caught in that trauma and yet can be a voice.

Ms. Kissling: Yes, I guess so.

Ms. Tippett: I think that's, if that's true, then it's important to raise that up to point at it because that suggests a role for all kinds of people in our culture who may not feel like they want to be issues-based, but do care about the fabric of our common life.

Ms. Kissling: Right. Although I would just say that the fact that I've never been married and I've never wanted children and I've never had children does not mean that I haven't been sexual. So as a woman who was — I'm now 67 years old, so fertility is no longer a question. But, you know, for many years, I was fertile. So the potential of becoming pregnant was in my life and I think that it has a profound effect, I mean, probably a more profound effect on me than it might have had on a person who wanted children and who had a vision of their own life as bound in a more conventional marriage, family, etc…

It was very important for me not to become pregnant, more important, I think, than — for women like me, I think it was really, really critical. And I think that, you know, again, I want to go back, although it's not quite the topic we're on, to this whole question of the seriousness of the power and responsibility that women have as life-givers.


Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, exploring longtime pro-choice advocate Frances Kissling's unfolding wisdom on civility and on human and social change.

Ms. Tippett: So I want to ask you also, you have been struggling with kidney disease. Now I've read a few things…

Ms. Kissling: Yes, you're right. I didn't know that you knew that.

Ms. Tippett: …over the last few years. Do you have a donor? I've been reading about your — did that happen?

Ms. Kissling: Well, my kidneys have continued — my kids, as I call them — "How are your kids?" people ask me. My kids have been behaving well, so I have not yet had to even cross the threshold of, you know, getting a donor finally approved.

Ms. Tippett: You know what? What occurs to me is I wondered how this experience has flowed into all the thinking you've done and all the passion you've put all these years towards thinking about our bodies as at once private and public.

Ms. Kissling: Yes, yes. And the concept of donation — the concept, I mean, it really extended my consciousness around the whole idea of the gift of life, and I have written a little bit about the relationship between someone giving a part of their body to me. You know, it's like — oh, this is so terrible. It's sort of like communion, OK? That a part of someone else's body is going to be in me for the rest of my life, and a foreign part that I am going to have to work through drugs for my body not to reject it. These are very interesting philosophical reflections that I've made.

Also, for example, when somebody gives a kidney, we applaud that person as the most altruistic of human beings. But women give their bodies every day to a fetus to bring it into the world. And every pregnancy carries with it the risk of death. Pregnancy is normal. Having babies is normal. It's natural. It's no big deal that women do this. It is a big deal that women give their bodies to bringing new life into the world.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I've always thought that, if we were really talking about this theologically as opposed to politically, we would have to speak in terms of gifts rather than rights. I mean, rights is a concept that's foreign to the Bible, but choice and life are gifts.

Ms. Kissling: Right.

Ms. Tippett: What do you think you've learned about how social change happens? What would progress look like now in these years ahead of you with your own kidneys or with other peoples' kidneys?

Ms. Kissling: Well, I mean, that's a very difficult question. What have I learned? I guess really — I mean, it's something I learned when I left Catholics for Choice three years ago and I was lucky enough to get a fellowship to go to Harvard at the Radcliffe Institute. I learned a great deal there about how we learn and how we communicate with each other. It was really a remarkable experience.

The need to approach others positively and with enthusiasm for difference is absolutely critical to any change. There is no way to change somebody. I mean, you know, I'm the toughest of fighters. Let's be very clear. I mean, my reputation for being devastating in debate is legendary and, you know, I love a good fight and I love to win. But I think that what I have learned is that, you know, the simplistic way of putting it is that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. That's a very wise saying.

But I have learned that change really — first of all, I think change comes about at the margins. I've always believed that. People in the center are not going to be the big change makers. You've got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change. But that more importantly, you have got to approach differences, as I said, with this notion that there is good in the other. That's it. And that if we can't figure out how to do that and if we keep thinking if both sides on the — if there isn't the crack in the middle where there's some people on both sides who absolutely refuse to see the other as evil, this is going to continue.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. What I think is really emboldening to others, let's say to people who might be listening about what you just said, is thinking about change on the margins as opposed to the margins where you are marginalized, because this model, this approach you're talking about, is really does fly in the face of the logic and the etiquette of what happens in politics, what happens on TV talk shows. But you're saying that still is where the pressure comes that makes its way.

Ms. Kissling: Right. And there's a lot of pressure to be that way. It's much easier to be that way. It's much easier. It's much easier to, you know, like, again, it's like preaching to the choir versus, you know, but listening to people who disagree with you. And the choir is already there; the choir doesn't need us.

Ms. Tippett: OK. (laughs)


Ms. Tippett: Frances Kissling is currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.


Ms. Tippett: We didn't focus this program on the ins and outs of the abortion issue — but there's much more of that for you to hear in my unedited interview with Francis Kissling, at onbeing.org.

On our website you'll also find all the other voices in the Civil Conversations Project — ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces. This includes — from a very different place on the cultural spectrum than Frances Kissling — the evangelical educator Richard Mouw on "Restoring Political Civility." As a conservative Christian, he insists that his fellow Christians and the rest of us must recover our sense of what binds human beings together that politics "can't create and shouldn't be able to destroy." He has wisdom on navigating the fear that complicates our political life right now, and the temptation it brings to distort the truth about those we see as enemies. Also at onbeing.org, find a powerful essay by David Gushee called Sacred Conversations. Frances Kissling cited him as a conversation partner who, like her, is seeking graciousness of dialogue, while he represents a pro-life position.

Use these shows and transcripts as resources for new conversations in your family and community, and tell us what happens. Find it all at onbeing.org. And, consider joining the rich community of dialogue on our Facebook page at facebook.com/onbeing. Or follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.

This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Our Web developer is Anne Breckbill.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I'm Krista Tippett.