More than 100 pro-life and abortion-rights activists gathered last month in Madison, Wisconsin, but instead of the harsh rhetoric and fevered emotions often present when the two sides meet, the mood was one of an almost eerie politeness and emotional vulnerability.

It marked the first national conference of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, a Washington D.C.- based organization designed to bring both sides together to know each other as people without compromising beliefs. The organization, formed in 1993, has had several local discussion groups around the country. Attendees included representatives of groups such as Planned Parenthood, Republicans for Choice, Feminists for Life, and various Catholic pro-life groups.

Most conference sessions taught a mediation skill called "active listening," in which people shared feelings on various related subjects in a nonconfrontational manner. Consequently, one abortion facility manager said she was astonished to discover that most pro-lifers denounce the use of violence, and that pro-lifers actually have a sense of humor. Another abortion-rights activist said she was surprised at the high level of concern pro-lifers have for all marginalized people in society.

The conference fell short in its stated goal of "joint action" on issues such as adoption, teen pregnancy, and postinfancy support for single mothers. Support of such ventures will be a determinant of whether the Common Ground movement actually accomplishes much in the long run. Representatives from both sides said they had been criticized for attending the conference.

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