Abortion, the Citizens Assembly and the Power of Listening

I was born after Roe v. Wade, so I’m learning from Irish believers how to live in – and speak to – "the before" abortion conversation

In 2013, I attended an event I’d never been to before: a frank, nuanced, diverse discussion on abortion hosted by Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

See, I was born after abortion was legalised in all 50 American states. Any exposure I had to the abortion debate was limited to abstinence education, Focus on the Family articles, and the occasional Life March. I was never in on the formative discussions; it had already been decided and there was only one stance I was encouraged (read: allowed) to have.

Abortion is wrong.

End of discussion.

So living in Ireland as this debate gains in national and critical importance has been more than eye-opening.

I daresay it’s revolutionary.

I sat in a classroom at the Irish Bible Institute with dozens of Christians from all denominations and churches, calmly and graciously – if not passionately – discussing all manner of issues surrounding abortion. Questions were asked and answered and asked again, painful testimonies given, scientific and legal facts explained, and perhaps even a few minds changed.

Not everyone agreed in that room; in fact, many did not. But the shared faith of all in attendance demanded careful examination and an absence of hyperbole.

From where I sat, an American trying to keep her mouth shut, the safety of that room and the unity of the Spirit allowed such a discussion to take place without the casting of stones. I’m sure some left the evening disheartened and maybe even a little bit frustrated, but I left in awe: we were talking about the hard things. We were listening. The dye had not yet been cast.

From where I sat, the safety of that room and the unity of the Spirit allowed such a discussion to take place without the casting of stones.

Despite the good intentions of the pro-life movement in the US, many of our arguments betray the fact that we’re fighting a battle that’s already been lost in the war. Our secular clocks cannot be rolled back. We cannot re-wage a war with impotent tactics.

In my experience, placards and billboards don't change minds. On the contrary, the only thing I’ve found that truly allows space in my mind and heart for differing opinions and an absence of knee-jerk judgments is what happened in that classroom in 2013… and in a Malahide conference room over the last several months.

The listening of stories. Questions asked. Discussion had. Answers sought. Time for reflection given.

It can’t have been an easy process, and surely the weight of Ireland herself laid heavily on their shoulders. And though the Assembly’s advisory opinions are not binding, committing anything to paper carries the burden of risk.

The risk of being wrong or of being misunderstood. The risk of consequences or the risk of change. And the risk of life and death, health and liberty.

The risk of what comes next.

Since that night at IBI, listening to church leaders and Senators and biologists and mothers, I’ve wondered if we can keep this up: an open, gracious discussion about abortion. Some days, it seems like we can’t. News presenters and commentators seem to use inflammatory words on purpose and with great regularity. No one seems to be happy with how they come across, how much airtime they get, how often they’re let in the room. It tends to feel either all or nothing, and if one’s opinion seems to harbor a bit of both, we leave very little room grace.

My hope is that we will approach the coming months, the ensuing debate, and yes, even the likely legislation, with caution and with care. My hope is that believers can offer safe spaces for those difficult questions, that we can work out our salvation – and our thoughts on bodily autonomy – with fear and trembling. My hope is that, no matter the passionate belief we hold on either side, we might refuse to name and shame the darkness we tend to see in the other.

For sure, there is evil lurking in our hearts, even yours, even mine. But perhaps instead of waging war or pushing an agenda, we might pursue a peaceful engagement with the tough questions, the hard stories, and the answers only Grace can provide.

My hope is that it's not too much to hope for.