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Abortion can be difficult to talk about. These 14 strangers took it on anyway

Without knowing one another, 14 people, including Kai Gardner Mishlove, gathered from across Wisconsin to discuss all things abortion for three days in Madison.
Maayan Silver
Without knowing one another, 14 people, including Kai Gardner Mishlove, gathered from across Wisconsin to discuss all things abortion for three days in Madison.

MADISON, Wis. — A few blocks from the Wisconsin state Capitol, 14 strangers meander into an event space, nametags on, hot coffees in hand. They’re here to talk about something on the minds of a lot of people in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 — abortion.

On its face, it seems like an odd assortment of people. There’s a veterinarian from rural Wisconsin, the head of the Women’s Medical Fund Wisconsin — a group that provides money to help people obtain abortions — a former Libertarian candidate for Congress, a woman who works to end domestic violence, an activist with a group against abortion rights, among others.

The participants are from all over Wisconsin; most have never met before. Their views on abortion are widely divergent, but they are all here to sit down for several days of civil conversation.

Facilitators start with an icebreaker. They ask the participants to answer: “My town, region, state has the best … fill in the blank.” It’s “those pizza farms where you go out and have pizza in the country with some goats and things,” for Bria Halama, a clinical mental health counselor in a flowy gray tunic. The former political candidate, Jake VandenPlas, who is also the director of an organization called Door County Farm for Vets, says he’s “now very interested in farming pizza.” Everyone laughs.

It's a way to ease any tension before three days of discussing one of the most button-pushing topics. Across the country, abortion access has been piecemeal since the Supreme Court issued its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, overturning Roe v. Wade nearly two years ago.

Around the time this group of 14 Wisconsin residents first found themselves in the same room together last December, exchanging curious hellos and guarded handshakes, a state trial court judge had just reconfirmed that an 1849 law in the state doesn’t apply to abortion.

Now, the procedure is available in the state up to 20 weeks post-fertilization, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with its narrow liberal majority, is deciding whether to take up the issue this spring.

The entrance to the Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers is seen inside the state Capitol in Madison, March 14, 2024.
Todd Richmond / AP
The entrance to the Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers is seen inside the state Capitol in Madison, March 14, 2024.

If the issue isn’t being decided by courts or lawmakers, voters are weighing in on their ballots. Four states this year, including Florida, already have abortion rights on the ballot. Abortion-rights supporters in six other states, including Arizona and Missouri, are attempting to get an item on the ballot for November.

The back-and-forth has become familiar to women and pregnant people in many states around the country.

A process designed for differing takes

So, this consensus building in Madison was an unusual opportunity to cut into echo chambers and encourage people with significant differences to learn from each other. The ideas exchange was arranged by a non-partisan group called Starts With Us, which aims “to overcome political and cultural division in America.”

With its Citizen Solutions project, which it runs in partnership with Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, the group has also brought together 11 people to discuss gun rights and safety in Tennessee and plans to work in other states on issues like immigration, education and climate change. Participants receive a small stipend for their time.

Guided by trained moderators, participants are asked to get to know each other, hear from experts, hash out proposals in smaller groups, and then come together and vote on proposals that, if unanimous, they can push forward. Those proposals then go through a public feedback process for citizens in their respective states to potentially end up before legislators, or as the basis for future advocacy work.

It's a big task for these 11 women and three men sitting together in this historic Wisconsin Masonic Center. As they wrap up the icebreakers, there’s a cold plunge into the topic. Participants are asked to explain one personal event and one world event that have influenced their perspective.

For a majority of the women, that personal experience is one or more abortions, pregnancy complications, domestic violence or sexual assault. The women are unflinchingly honest about it, emotional at times. One woman says she was raped when she was 12 years old, another got a devastating diagnosis for her unborn son at 20 weeks. Another had deep regrets about her abortion for decades after she said she felt unsupported and misled by her provider. One of the men says his mom had an abortion.

At each turn, participants unload complicated and varied experiences. They explain how these experiences color their views, one way or another, along with aspects of their identities, whether that’s race, ethnicity or religion.

For Ali Muldrow, (Ali like Mohammad, not McGraw, she notes), her commitment to bodily autonomy for women, including the ability to choose to have an abortion, harkens back to slavery. Muldrow runs the Women’s Medical Fund Wisconsin.

 Participants study an issue guide on abortion.
Maayan Silver / WUWM
Participants study an issue guide on abortion.

“Most people are familiar with a tobacco plantation. Most people are familiar with a cotton plantation,” Muldrow says. “Very few people are familiar with a breeding plantation. And, so, the reality of Black women in the United States is we don't have to create fictional narratives about what it means to be forcibly impregnated against your will. That is part of our history.”

The conviction driving Kateri Klingele’s belief around abortion is known as the “consistent life ethic.” Klingele is a clinical mental health professional and co-founder of Wisconsin Student Parents Organization. She says that means protecting life “from conception to natural death,” whether that’s supporting immigrants, ending mass incarceration or stopping the death penalty.

So, when it comes to abortion, Klingele says, “if I know it's a human being and I believe that they have the dignity to be able to have a life free from violence, it would be arbitrary and inconsistent with what I've stated to then say that I believe that their life should be ended.”

The group’s task is to listen to and honor these hugely varied opinions, as the discussion here in the room begins to sound like those happening at dinner tables and in state capitols across the country. At its heart: When should the law protect a pregnant person’s autonomy and when should it favor the embryo or fetus?

A shared understanding

To the participants, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the group is not going to be able to reach a unanimous consensus on the number of weeks, if any, that abortion should be available to all pregnant people. So the group chooses, instead, to discuss advancing policies that address issues that can sometimes lead to abortion, such as education and access to health care. They also discuss whether to get behind exceptions for the life, or health, of the mother, and rape or incest.

As the days go on, participants learn more about each others’ views in small groups and hash out proposals, and many of the narratives are flecked with personal experiences.

Jeff Davis, the veterinarian from rural western Wisconsin, has volunteered with groups that discourage women from having abortions and says this process shook him. He uses three words to describe the experience: “First one was ‘brutal.’ The second one was ‘worthwhile.’ And the third was ‘gratitude’ for all the people who were here.”

Davis says prior to the sessions, if he knew that a woman had an abortion, he would first think, “‘Well, why did you do that?’” Now, he says, his go-to is, “I want to know more.”

These sessions, he says, made him look at someone who’s had an abortion differently than he used to. “Not [as] someone who's done something wrong, but someone who was faced with an immensely difficult situation,” he says. “I look upon them in the same light that I would if they’d have chosen life, now.”

After all the dialoguing, Halama, the mental health counselor, says she still believes abortion is wrong, that it’s ending the life of a person who has dignity and value. “I hold that so deeply, [but] I also want to support this person as much as I can,” she says. “Regardless of what decision they make, how can I still be compassionate and loving and understanding?”

She says she has prayed at clinics in hopes that women would not go through with the procedure, but this experience helped her see an opposing view. “I mean, there were so many examples of just like, in the case of rape, in the case of incest, just awful things, that yeah, just like wrenched my heart and it made me have this stretching, this questioning.”

Sometimes people with opposing views found unlikely allies when discussing a policy. Muldrow and Klingele, for instance, agreed that they don’t support criminal penalties for medical staff who provide abortions. The group didn’t unanimously agree on that idea, though, and decisions had to be unanimous before pushing forward a proposal. Even one hold-out would nix the policy from being offered.

Moderators ask everyone to fill out index cards with one personal and one global event that’s shaped their view on abortion.
Maayan Silver / WUWM
Moderators ask everyone to fill out index cards with one personal and one global event that’s shaped their view on abortion.

The group, ultimately, coalesced around ways to address educational and health inequities. That includes policies like extending Medicaid coverage postpartum, enacting paid family leave and requiring standardized and medically accurate information at any facility that provides prenatal care, regardless of its position on abortion.

The group also made headway on whether abortion should be allowed when a woman’s life is at risk, beyond a state’s general abortion limit. The tenor of that discussion impressed Ali Muldrow, the abortion rights advocate with the Women’s Medical Fund Wisconsin. She says before the discussions, the way she thought about people who were against abortion access “was that those folks kind of gave lip service to valuing the lives of all people."

She says the talks changed that. “I was so deeply appreciative to have been able to experience folks really take into consideration the consequences that can jeopardize the health and safety of people who are pregnant,” she says.

But while there was some movement, the group couldn’t unanimously agree on whether to allow exceptions for rape and incest or when a pregnant person’s health or life is at risk. “While all of the participants agree with the essence of the proposal [to allow abortion if a woman has a life-threatening condition],” wrote Starts with Us in a statement, “for some, the language is still too permissive and for others it’s too restrictive.”

Muldrow also felt there was more to do to provide equity for Black women, who are more likely to die during birth, and their children, who are more likely to die after being born. “The racial implications of this issue are part of what made this conversation really hard,” says Muldrow. “We sat around, and we got all of this information on how Black women are uniquely positioned to have adverse health consequences related to pregnancy. And we as a group were not able to galvanize energy around addressing that. And that was hard.”

A return to social circles and advocacy groups

As they wrestle with new information and new ways of thinking, the participants will also have to face their social and work circles who didn’t participate in this process.

“I think what will be interesting is what this looks like when each of us kind of go back to our echo chamber,” says Muldrow. “And I think all of us had to take into consideration, ‘Will the people who agree with me, the people who have worked with me on this issue, will they be ashamed of how I showed up in this space? Will they be mad at me for being willing to engage in this conversation?’ I think that that means something for all of us, right?”

Halama says she’s already had a tiff with a friend who got triggered at her newfound compassion for “the quote-unquote ‘pro-choice’ side."

“I think especially in the Catholic Christian communities, there is this rigidity,” says Halama. “So, I think having more of those conversations and being able to honor the strength of their convictions, while trying to encourage them to have these conversations as well, I think is a place where I can see myself kind of being drawn to, to continue to move,” she adds.

Newfound friendships

Yet, the participants still feel like moderated discussions are the way to go. When Kai Gardner Mishlove, the executive director of Jewish Social Services of Madison, asks her fellow participants what the most surprising part of the experience has been for them, Halama chuckles, “my friendship with Ali.” Muldrow flashes a smile and says, “I think, Bri, there are these moments where you legitimately shocked me in terms of the potential to honor people and love people.”

People who may not have agreed about things have hopped on a WhatsApp chat group to organize meet-ups or share recipes and have started following each other on Facebook. “That's how this starts,” says Gardner Mishlove. “A relationship develops, you get to see someone else's point of view. It challenges you.” She says maybe they only agree on the right color socks to wear, “but that’s a start, right?”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.