When the two vice-presidential candidates squared off last week for a much-anticipated debate, the moment the conversation turned to abortion their responses predictably, and depressingly, fell along partisan fault lines. Yet the following evening, a very different—and more hopeful—conversation at Columbia University showed how it is possible to move past the all-too-common abortion debates gridlock.

I had the pleasure of moderating this panel, “Transcending the Partisan Politics of the Pro-Life Movement,” which included a stellar line-up: fellow Crux contributor and Fordham theologian, Charles Camosy; Mollie Hemingway, senior editor of The Federalist; the editor of Human Life Review, Maria Maffucci; plus Carol Crossed, founder of Feminists Choosing Life New York.

While all of us represent different political and religious persuasions, we are united in our shared hope of reducing and ending abortion in the United States and creating a movement that supports all women and their unborn children.

Although our conversation was wide-ranging, there were three big takeaways from the event that I believe are useful in moving us toward a more fruitful dialogue when it comes to the ever-divisive subject of abortion.

  1. Feminists can teach pro-lifers a lot about abortion

The values of non-violence, community, and equality are pillars of feminist philosophy and they should help shape the discourse around abortion. It’s for this reason that feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were vocal critics of abortion and saw the practice as anathema to the cause of improving the global status of women. In past decades, however, too many pro-lifers have either tried to distance themselves from the feminist label or have used language and arguments that alienate feminists from the cause of fighting against abortion.

But the recent success of the pro-life movement has occurred by championing both women and their unborn children—and here is where it should learn from feminist allies like Carol Crossed.

Pro-life feminism is rooted in its traditional values of equality, recognizing that all lives have equal dignity, but that does not mean all choices do. Hence, the choice for life relies on embracing another feminist value of non-violence and the recognition of all members of our human community, even prenatal children.

This consistent ethic, however, should be paired with a commitment to eliminating systemic injustices and make the choice of motherhood easier, which leads to the next point:

  1. Family Leave is essential to gaining across-the-aisle support

There are two areas in which the United States is radically out of step with the rest of the world: its abortion extremism and its lack of assistance to families who are welcoming new life. According to new data from the Pew Research Center, the United States is the only country among the leading 41 countries in the world not to mandate paid leave for new parents. Similarly, the United States is only one of seven countries to allow for abortion past twenty weeks of pregnancy—the other countries include leading human rights violators such as China and North Korea.

Fortunately, there are those that want to remedy both problems. Last September, a bi-partisan coalition in the U.S. Congress sought to pass a bill that would ban abortion after twenty weeks, while also linking it with mandatory paid family leave.

Writing in support of the bill at the time, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed: “This strategy gives real substance to the inherent connection between the pro-life and pro-woman message, and it reaches out to form coalitions across party and ideological lines.” While this particular effort failed, it sets a precedent that anyone opposed to abortion would be wise to follow. 

  1. Pro-lifers should listen as much (if not more!) than they speak on this issue

The research of psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been revelatory in helping us understand why people have certain moral convictions and how certain values are held, formed, or can change.

In his important book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he writes: “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

Over the years, pro-lifers have tirelessly spoken out for the cause of life—from protesting in front of abortion clinics to the countless congressional committee hearings on abortion related matters. And while such witness is necessary, too often we’ve been tone deaf to the teenage girl facing an unexpected pregnancy, the woman facing a potentially high-risk pregnancy, or a young woman facing the prospect of raising a child without the support of a partner or family.

For every picket sign we raise, we should also be spending time volunteering at our local crisis pregnancy center and meeting and hearing from those facing this grave decision. And rather than just dismissing certain members of our community as “pro-choice” and unreachable on this issue, we should engage them with humility to understand what’s motivating their support of abortion. More often than not, we’ll find a common shared value—such as equality or fairness—that creates a bridge for conversation…and potentially conversion.

Back to that Vice Presidential debate last week: If one thing was clear it was that our leading politicians from both parties seem intent on promoting a debate about abortion that relies on binary thinking and heated disputes over substantive dialogue. Such an approach may help particular parties or advocacy groups fill their coffers, but one thing it doesn’t do is change anything.

But thanks to folks like my fellow panelists that represent an ever-growing and diverse coalition of people that are more interested in better policies, a new course for building a robust pro-life, pro-woman movement is being chartered.

When this disastrous election cycle comes to a close next month, it will be all the more evident that the future of the pro-life movement is in need of serious rehabilitation. Yet at the same time, what’s been revealed is the possibility of a new partnership of people of goodwill who are willing to look past party affiliation in search of a new beginning.

[Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA]