Foes Find Common Ground in Abortion Debate
By Edith H. Updike
Even among the strange bedfellows made by politics, few couples are odder
than Bill Baird and Father Frank Pavone, die-hard partisans on opposite sides of
the abortion conflict. Baird is a veteran crusader for birth control access and
medical privacy and founder of the Pro-Choice League in Huntington. Pavone is a
Catholic priest and founder of Priests for Life, an antiabortion activist group
based in Staten Island. Pavone pickets clinics like the one Baird used to run.
Baird pickets the Right-to-Life Convention where Pavone is often a speaker.
Despite their opposing positions, they have evolved a remarkable friendship over
the past several years.
Now, the two are cooperating to make public a joint statement against violent
and demonizing language in the abortion debate, in the hopes that others will
join in to support more civil dialogue on the issue. The declaration was
unofficially released this past summer during the Right-to-Life Convention, and
has been circling among Catholics and antiabortionists ever since. Part of the
statement reads: "Respectful dialogue...can lessen or stop dangerous,
dehumanizing assumptions about those on the opposite side of the issue."
This declaration attempts to establish some rules of engagement in the
abortion conflict, with the primary idea being that toning down the rhetoric
will help tone down the violence. Since various laws banning abortion were
overturned by the Supreme Court in 1973, so-called "pro-life" crusaders have
bombed hundreds of medical clinics and shot at doctors (and also Baird), killing
some. They have also harassed women seeking medical attention.
But the declaration crafted by these two friendly foes also encourages
activists on both sides to mirror their unusual relationship. The statement
continues: "We believe that regular meetings, including social ones, between
opposing sides should be conducted at least once a month to encourage people to
form civil relationships."
Their own cordial relationship began about five years ago. Every year, Baird
attends the Right-to-Life Convention, picketing outside with an eight-foot cross
and reconnoitering the opposition. One day, Pavone came outside to talk. It was
nothing new to Baird, who says right-to-lifers at these events regularly hug
him, attempt conversions and offer him money to switch sides. But Pavone, who is
executive director of Priests for Life, took it a few steps further. He invited
Baird to lunch and to his office in Staten Island. He gave Baird a birthday gift
one year. They have broken bread together many times. Two years ago, Pavone
invited Baird to hear Mass. Last year, as Baird struggled with his eight-foot
protest cross, Pavone stepped in to help his opponent get set up.
Their odd-couple friendship is driven in part by a certain sympathy of
temperament. Although Pavone is in his 40s and clearly a product of the new
conservatism and Baird is in his 70s and equally clearly a product of the
liberal era, they’ve got a few things in common.
"We’re both high energy," says Pavone. "We’re both driven by the cause, and
both totally committed. You don’t meet too many people like that and it
generates a certain kind of relationship no matter where you stand on the
issues." Baird says their main similarity is one of purpose: "We both feel we’re
What is certainly true is that they are also both remarkably open to dialogue
with the enemy. One of Pavone’s major goals is outreach to pro-choice leaders.
He has developed relationships with Ron Fitzsimmons, president of the National
Council of Abortion Providers, and others. Baird is also always willing to
engage his opponents in serious debate. He has regular, friendly contact with
Joe Scheidler, leader of the Pro-Life Action Network and the defendant in a
critical class action suit brought by the National Organization of Women to end
violence and intimidation by antiabortion groups at clinics. (Scheidler and his
co-defendants, who have lost on all appeals, are expected to take their case to
the Supreme Court this year.)
Baird and Pavone’s joint statement against violent rhetoric is an outgrowth
of a similar declaration Baird had ginned up with Bishop John Hickey of the
Cleveland Diocese in 1978 after that city’s Concerned Women’s Clinic was
firebombed. Bishop Hickey went on to become Cardinal Hickey. When Pavone emerged
as a leader in the antiabortion movement, Baird wanted him to sign too—in fact,
suggested that the priest had to sign so as not to disobey the Cardinal. But the
priest was not so easily won over. "For several years he laughed it off," Baird
says. "Then I pointed out that eight of us [on the pro-choice side] have been
shot, including Dr. Slepian. I asked him ‘Do you think only one side can get
guns?’" Baird says he knows pro-choice activists who have armed themselves, and
he believes that a backlash against the latest election may turn violent.
Baird has been called "the father of abortion" and is seen by some (even on
his own side of the table) as too radical. He opened the nation’s first abortion
clinic in Hempstead in 1963—before abortion was even legal. He has been arrested
and jailed numerous times. His name graces several Supreme Court decisions, most
importantly Baird v. Eisenstadt, which fully legalized birth control and laid
the groundwork for Roe v. Wade. Surprisingly, he won the case without the
support of Planned Parenthood, which embraced the status quo of the time.
Hence it is no surprise that Baird is a lightning rod for antiabortion
passions. When he informally released the joint statement during the
Right-to-Life Convention, Pavone stayed away at the request of conference
organizers, who did not want the announcement connected to their event.
"This statement deserves an event of its own," Pavone says. But the trial
balloon has been floating through Catholic and antiabortion circles since June
and sparked few objections. At least one supporter wrote to Pavone to say s/he
could not continue to support a group that ‘dialogues with evil,’ but other than
that there has been little fallout for the Catholic priest. "I expected more of
a negative reaction," Pavone says. "I can count on one hand the people who have
questioned it to me."
Lately, Pavone has had more success in building his organization than Baird
has had with his. Priests for Life has grown to a staff of 45 and a budget of $7
million. The group has some 8,000 affiliated priests, according to Pavone,
produces television and radio programs, and does other outreach to antiabortion
groups as well as non-partisans. Baird, on the other hand, has closed his Long
Island clinic and watched the country take a conservative turn—most recently in
the national election which threw the Senate (and control of the judiciary) to
the Republican Party. He would like to sue to have the Catholic Church declared
a foreign lobbying organization, but no longer has the money to bring lawsuits
against deep-pocketed foes. He is a passionate speaker and savvy debater, and
currently earns his keep mostly by lecturing at colleges and other venues around
On the other hand, abortion is still legal. Pavone has had far less luck
selling his message to a majority of Americans. "When Priests for Life started,
we thought that if the public is convinced that this is a baby that’s being
aborted, then abortions would stop," he told the Catholic Register in 1999.
"We’ve found that...even when people are convinced of it, they still think
abortion is ‘unfortunate but necessary.’" Hence the group now promotes the idea
that abortion is bad for the mother as well as the fetus.
Neither man is giving any ground on his position. "I don’t want people to see
this as an attempt to find a compromise," says Pavone. "The controversy over
abortion shouldn’t be swept aside. We cannot agree to disagree." Both know that
one of them will win and the other will lose. But in the meantime, both want a
fight of ideas, not fists.