Busted: Melinda Henneberger

The former New York Times reporter and author of the new book, If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, talks about politics, abortion, and what women say in private about our political leaders

BustedHalo.com: Did you get the sense that a lot of the women you talked to think that overturning Roe v. Wade is the answer to their concerns?

Melinda Henneberger: The Republicans say, “If you stick with us, baby, we’re gonna overturn Roe for you next year, or the year after that, or the year after that.” It’s astonishing to me that people still believe these promises. I think there are some Republicans who are truly sincere on this issue, but do I think Bush wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned? Not for a minute.

BH: And yet that’s not perceived as cynical by the voters who have supported the Republican platform for years?

MH: That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the Democratic Party has such a hard time moving at all on the issue, or allowing dissent, or even entertaining the notion that it would not be cataclysmic to have some limits on abortion. I spoke to a woman the other day from Norway who said, “All over Scandinavia we consider ourselves pro-choice. It’s not a big deal in the first trimester. But it’s shocking to me that you can have an abortion here at any point.” She told me that they have to go to a court to get special permission after a certain point in the pregnancy.

BH: What then do you say to all the people who tell you, “Don’t be naïve; putting limits on abortion is the first step down a slippery slope toward a total ban on abortion rights”?

MH: There’s remarkable similarity between the true believers on one side, who tell you we should not have abortion even for rape and incest, and the true believers on the other side, who tell you that if abortion is not fully available during every moment of pregnancy then a woman’s reproductive health is threatened. They all make the same slippery slope argument.

BH: Do you offer a prescription in your book?

“My deepest hope for this book is that people will read it and say, “Hmm. Here’s somebody I completely disagree with. I’m not persuaded by her point of view, but I can see why she feels the way she does.”

MH: My deepest hope for this book is that people will read it and say, “Hmm. Here’s somebody I completely disagree with. I’m not persuaded by her point of view, but I can see why she feels the way she does. I think that would go a long way toward easing the polarization. Because a lot of us don’t even dare talk about politics. Women in particular often don’t feel competent to talk about it. But if we don’t talk about these things with people we disagree with, how can we even know what we ourselves think?

BH: To do that, you really need to be able to say, “I want to hear what you have to say, rather than listen to myself tell you what I think.”

MH: The thrill of this book was seeing that attitude in action. My group of friends from high school had not talked about politics before, and they didn’t all agree, but they were so respectful of each other. It was an exotic and mesmerizing thing in this culture to watch them instinctively reach for the position, “Okay, I’m not with you here, but I am with you here, and here’s the common ground.” Common ground is a phrase that we hear quite a lot these days, but we don’t see it in practice very often. It was a beautiful thing to see in practice, and I think it’s something that everyone can reach for.

BH: That’s an idea that both political parties, and the media too, really need.

MH: If you have no practice speaking respectfully with people you don’t necessarily agree with, then when it comes time to talk you don’t know how to do anything other than keep silent or scream.

BH: Do you think that people in the Catholic Church might also be better off with a different tone of discussion, especially on the issue of abortion?

MH: Sure I do. Tone matters a lot. Tone is everything.