We met through a mutual friend who told us both, “You’ll love her. You get angry about all the same things.”
That was almost exactly correct. At the time, Joanne had just started a nonprofit to provide free diapers to families in need. Colleen was a freelance writer who had walked away from a newspaper job to work in a soup kitchen after her editor told her to stop writing so much about poverty.
We found sisterhood raging about injustice over coffee, and devising strategies for change.
Twenty years of collaboration and friendship followed. We’ve worked together, written a book together, talked each other through family crises. But we disagree on one fundamental issue. We are on opposite sides of the abortion debate that splits the country, sides that have become more fixed and hostile with the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade. Yet we never argue about abortion because that would be pointless; our positions are formed by deeply held values. We have discussed abortion more since the overturn of Roe than we did in all the years of our friendship that preceded it. These are uncomfortable though not acrimonious talks, with more silent pauses than usual. Still, through these hard conversations defined by respect and humility—largely absent from the public discourse—we have not let the two “camps” define our stances, or our friendship.
Joanne grew up in a justice-oriented, Reform Jewish household where her faith and her family supported the right to abortion. Her mother ran a reproductive health clinic that offered the full range of care including abortion services. Her father was an attorney active in the American Civil Liberties Union. Joanne became a social worker, gravitating toward supporting parents and children.
Her belief in abortion rights never wavered. Joanne believes all women should have the same options when an unplanned pregnancy occurs. Restrictions on abortion disproportionately prevent women and girls with low income from obtaining them. She also recognizes that real “choice” needs to include resources that put all children on path for success.
Colleen’s parents, neither of whom had a high school diploma, had three children in the early years of their marriage and then avoided having another for 11 years. Money was tight. Colleen’s father’s alcoholism was already causing his mental and physical decline. Nevertheless, Colleen appeared.
Observant Catholics, Colleen’s parents believed that life began at conception and that, even in their circumstances, a baby was something to celebrate. Her father was a Conservative, who railed against “welfare queens” and the “goddamned liberals” at every Sunday dinner. One day, young Colleen protested, “You shouldn’t talk like that, Daddy. It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus was a liberal.” She aspired to spend her life as Jesus did: sticking up for people nobody wanted, particularly people in poverty.
Though she recoiled from her father’s conservativism, the Left’s reasoning on abortion was unpersuasive to Colleen. No one can prove when life begins. For Colleen, abortion risks killing a human being; and Jesus’ favorite kind of human being at that—an unwanted one.
Our partnership would not work if Colleen behaved like the most aggressive abortion opponents—or if Joanne lumped her in with that crowd. Colleen does not harass women walking into clinics. She gets as angry as Joanne at “pro-lifers” who support the death penalty. Joanne donates to advocacy groups that fight for legal abortion. Colleen does no legislative advocacy around abortion and instead works toward life-affirming policies like eradicating poverty and providing free health care. Joanne favors the same policies, not because they would affect the demand for abortion but because everyone has a right to thrive—this is something we agree on absolutely.
Neither of us remembers when Colleen came out to Joanne as pro-life, probably because it was not dramatic. To posit the possibility and protection of life before birth in progressive company is usually uncomfortable. Colleen has left groups supporting immigrant justice, socialism, and voting rights when those entities expanded focus to make statements or take actions supporting abortion rights. Comrades have yelled at her about coat hangers and accused her of not caring about women and girls who are raped. Much like the bloody fetus signs anti-abortion activists wave outside clinics, these are unfair accusations that people on the other side lack compassion. Neither of us believes the other is less of a person because we disagree about abortion.
We tend to support different candidates in presidential primaries: Colleen donated to Bernie Sanders; Joanne to Elizabeth Warren. In general elections, we both have always gotten behind the Democrat, because Democratic policies help more people thrive, especially those living in poverty, than the alternative. But we also believe that some politicians on both sides of this debate are getting a free ride. You are pro-life if you oppose abortion—with no obligation to support paid family leave, quality affordable childcare, or the many other reforms families desperately need to live and thrive. You are pro-choice if you support abortion access—regardless of whether you have done anything to work toward wage parity or push back against the closure of maternity care hospitals, which is exacerbating the already horrendous Black maternal mortality rate.
Decisions about having children do not exist in a vacuum but are influenced by a thousand cultural and economic realities. Being truly pro-life or pro-choice requires us to knock down rhetorical barriers and focus on the areas where we wholeheartedly agree: that every child has a right to be placed on a path to success and that no mother should have to sacrifice her own success to make that happen.
We are both horrified by the recklessness of the post-Roe rush to legislate. Some people are finding it impossible to get methotrexate—one of the drugs that saved Colleen’s life (twice) during cancer treatments—because it is used in some abortions. The idea that a lawmaker in the U.S. wrote legislation in 2020 suggesting a physician should “attempt to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman’s uterus”—which is medically impossible—is at best ignorant, and more likely a blatantly cavalier approach to women’s lives and health.
Laws touching on reproductive health should be written by reputable medical experts—just as legislators turn to legitimate experts in fields ranging from coastal erosion to air traffic control to draft other kinds of bills requiring specialized knowledge. We agree that progressives who are also anti-abortion have a particular obligation to speak up about the ignorance that drives so much of the movement, and harms women.
Abortion is important, and worth fighting over. But making abortion a litmus test issue is helping to steer the country in the wrong direction: one where defining what camp you are in is more important than actually creating a society where more people can thrive.
And so we go about our business working for, almost always, the same thing—the needs of oppressed people who have already been born. This is more productive than an endless argument. But it’s also harder. It requires each of us to acknowledge that people are complicated and that good people can hold beliefs we find absolutely unacceptable. It requires genuine love and humility.
We both came of age after Roe, and we both have friends who’ve had abortions. Shortly after graduate school, when Joanne was a new mother, a friend of hers contemplated abortion, largely for financial reasons. Joanne offered her a home and resources to make raising a child possible—if that was what her friend wanted. About this same time, one of Colleen’s closest friends had an unplanned pregnancy. Colleen volunteered to drop out of college and support the baby so that her friend could get a degree on schedule.
Both young women chose abortion. From extremely different perspectives, we behaved similarly: We offered a helping hand and unwavering love, regardless of our friends’ decisions. We believe that says everything about choosing friends and allies—and envisioning the kind of society we want for ourselves, and future generations.
Send A Letter To the Editors