Out here with the yellow lines and the dead armadillos.

The fabulous Jim Hightower once said “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.” Certainly, in regards to the abortion debate, it seems that the two sides face each other across barricades, lobbing grenades back and forth. There is no middle of the road. Except where I am.

Make no mistake: I am completely pro-choice. I firmly believe abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

But, on a personal level, I recognize the beginning of life as carrying very deep significance. Yes, even before viability. Yes, even at a very early stage. I would not abort a pregnancy even in the first twelve weeks, except to protect my life or my health. You can scoff, you can laugh, you can call me irrational, whatever, but there it is: I think abortion is an extremely significant moral act, perhaps not murder, but which can achieve in some circumstances an equivalent moral import. However, I recognize that is my own personal moral calculus and no one else’s, and I make no judgment upon anyone who has had an abortion, other than to feel sad that they had to make what is often, no matter what your politics, a painful and difficult choice.

I can understand how someone in the right to life movement can come to say that “abortion is murder.” I know people who say that. I have family who say that. I believe that they believe that. I also believe that, for some of the people I talk to, it is a shorthand for a complex idea that would otherwise be unwieldy: murder is the closest thing to what it feels like happens morally when an abortion happens, so that’s the word they use. That may not mean that they think about all the legal consequences flowing from abortions in exactly the same way that they would murder.

I have seen in the past two or three weeks a lot of crowing about how hypocritical right-to-lifers are because of that “abortion is murder” stance. If abortion is murder, then why don’t any of the proposed anti-abortion bills provide for prison sentences for the women having the abortion? They clearly don’t actually believe what they’re saying! They are only interested in subjugating women. HYPOCRISY! Idiots! We win!

Except that this isn’t a high-school debating match. You don’t get points for slicing your opponent up into little bits with your brilliant logic and rhetorical skills. What you do get is a closing down of dialogue, and an increasing radicalization on both sides. And really — do you want to push people to supporting prison sentences for women getting abortions? That’s just as likely as ever convincing people of the rightness of the pro-choice position by belittling them.

And what if they do mean murder when they say murder? It is possible to condemn a crime, and have compassion for the criminal. Or to view shades and degrees of culpability. Ah, but to allow that pro-life advocates might think that, then one has to view them as capable of making nuanced moral decisions. They have to be human! Gasp!

And it’s not like we on the left don’t occasionally come up with our own sterling examples of hypocrisy: the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has chosen to pass resolutions condemning various conservative religious organizations — the Catholic Church; Battle Cry for a Generation, a fundamentalist Christian group that stages teen rallies — who are anti-choice or oppose same-sex marriage. Considering that we — by which I mean pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage progressives, presumably including the members of the SF Board of Supervisors — have been fighting like hell to keep religion out of government, don’t you think we should try to keep government out of religion? That wall of separation between church and state we treasure runs both ways.

People say that the two sides can’t talk to each other. I think they’re wrong — and a January, 2006 study from the University of Florida backs me up. The study found the differences both sides perceived between themselves and the folks across the barricades were exaggerated.

Screaming at the other side over one issue — abortion — makes it all that much harder to change hearts and minds on other issues, such as the war in Iraq, or the dangers to civil liberties presented by the PATRIOT Act, or same-sex marriage. Because no one likes to be called a hypocrite, or these days, told that they are evil. For is not oppressing others evil?

Personally, I’d rather lose the debating match, if I can engage in open and heartfelt discussion. After all, that’s what adults do.

If I seem angry and bitter about all of this, I am. I know people on both sides, good people, people who searched their consciences to arrive at an answer to the most difficult political and moral question of our age. I am fed up with the nastiness lobbed across the barricades. I am tired tired TIRED of the demonization, of the caricaturing, of the reductionism being spouted from either end of the debate.

You know what? Different may not mean wrong.

And, much more importantly, WRONG does not always and everywhere mean EVIL.

And maybe if we start remembering that for a change then maybe we can reclaim the debate from the screaming demagogues and actually get somewhere.

And maybe, just maybe, we can reclaim the center here. And get rid of these damned armadillos.

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