When I was about 10, Sunday school classes at our Baptist church were replaced for a month by a series of talks about abortion. It was the first time I had ever heard that word; I barely knew how babies were made, much less aborted. Along with my classmates, I was treated to photos of fetuses and to testimonies by church members who had marched in front of abortion clinics. But far from being inspired to sign up for the next protest, my reaction to all of this was skepticism. I just couldn’t believe that women and doctors were running around killing babies for no reason. There had to be another side to this story. It couldn’t be that simple.
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My reaction wasn’t much different 12 years later when, as a young Senate aide working on abortion policy, I listened to the arguments of abortion rights lobbyists. Women only sought late-term abortions, they insisted, when something went terribly wrong with their pregnancies, when their fetuses developed severe abnormalities that put their lives at risk. But it couldn’t be that all abortions were absolutely necessary, that no woman ever had an abortion for anything other than the most noble and heart-wrenching reasons. It couldn’t be that simple.
It’s not that simple. And yet for 30 years, abortion politics has required Americans to choose sides. You are either pro-choice or pro-life. If a politician supports a parental notification law, he or she is labeled pro-life by abortion rights supporters. But if the political leader also opposes a “partial-birth abortion” ban, the anti-abortion side will tag him or her as unacceptably pro-choice. There is no word for a middle-ground position in American politics.
That’s unfortunate, because polling consistently shows that more than two-thirds of Americans fall into that middle area, believing that abortion should be available in some, but not all, circumstances.
Despite this fact, voters have aligned themselves with either the pro-choice or pro-life position, not as a way of signaling that they think one side is more likely to solve the issue of abortion, but because—in face of a seemingly intractable problem—choosing a label is simply a way of making a statement. In the binary world of politics, “pro-choice” means you support women; “pro-life” means you think a potential person is more than just a choice.
From time to time, one of the sides succeeds in shifting the balance between choice and life. In the late 1980s, the abortion rights movement did this with a “Who Decides?” campaign that stressed the libertarian point that government should not be allowed to weigh in on such a personal decision as abortion. A decade ago, anti-abortion groups regained the advantage by using the issue of “partial-birth” abortion and the disturbing description of an abortion procedure to shock Americans with details of how abortions are actually performed. More recently, debates have flared up around two much-trumpeted, but still-unproven, “epidemics”: girls getting abortions without their parents’ permission and pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions on religious grounds.
None of these issues actually involves an effort to reduce abortion rates, but then again, they weren’t intended to. Instead, they are causes that can spur fundraising and mobilize voters while keeping the abortion issue active. While those voters are, for the most part, genuinely motivated by respect for life or respect for women, these flashpoints rarely give them anything but the shallowest of venues in which to express those moral concerns.
Now, however, some influential voices are starting to speak up and state the obvious: We don’t have to pick sides. There are ways to dramatically reduce abortion rates—as the stunning recent success with teen pregnancies has shown—without outlawing abortion or putting women at risk. We can take the issue out of the political shouting arena, tackle it at a policy level, and move on to other pressing concerns. Pro-choice or pro-life? Why not “all of the above”?
Although these voters in the middle want abortion to be legal—just more rare—they have cast their lot with Republicans in the past three presidential elections. Forced to make a stark choice, they have opted to express their disapproval of abortion rather than their support for the right to abortion. Recognizing this, some leading Democrats set out following the 2004 election to make clear that pro-abortion-rights doesn’t have to mean pro-abortion. Shortly after the 2004 election, John Kerry told a gathering of Democratic activists, according to Newsweek, that “they needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party.” (The reaction in the room was reportedly a gasp of horror, but—displaying more chutzpah than he did during the campaign—Kerry refused to back down.) Hillary Clinton addressed a pro-choice rally last year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and suggested that abortion was a “sad, even tragic choice.” Howard Dean, then the presumptive chair of the Democratic National Committee, told NBC’s Tim Russert, “I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats.” To cap off the year, pro-life Democrat Tim Kaine won the gubernatorial race in Virginia, while Republican Rick Santorum’s pro-life challenger in Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, led their race by double digits.
But while it’s a good—if overdue—step for Democrats to welcome pro-life voters and candidates into their party, it’s still at the level of labels. Even the Republican Party tacitly welcomes pro-choice voters: Pro-choice Republican speakers were featured on all four nights of the 2004 GOP convention; George W. Bush has refused to say that he would seek to overturn Roe; and one-third of Bush voters in the last election were pro-choice. At the end of the day, though, it’s understood that each party retreats to defend its own corner of the debate.
So the real surprise of the past year has been that Democrats like Clinton and Harry Reid (who is himself pro-life) have matched this new position of openness with policy proposals. At the beginning of a new Congress, each party introduces 10 pieces of legislation that usually reflect its top priorities. Last year, one of those Democratic bills was “Putting Prevention First,” which would make birth control more available and affordable. In addition, the organization Democrats for Life has partnered with politicians at the state and federal levels to develop “95-10” plans to reduce abortion rates by 95 percent within 10 years. Their approach focuses almost exclusively on abstinence education and support for pregnant women—which may limit its effectiveness—but the goal, and its embrace by some Democratic lawmakers, is a good sign for the party.
Not everyone is happy about this, of course. Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, decried this change as “I hate abortion” moralism and complained that “it is hard to find anyone who will say a good word in public for abortion rights, let alone for abortion itself.” She must have been watching a different Democratic Convention in 2004, because nearly every speaker there pledged support for a woman’s right to choose. But Pollitt is not alone in her concern.
Last summer, National Organization for Women President Nan Gandy called out Kerry and Dean by name, and declared: “If that’s what it means to have a big tent, if it means abandoning the core principles of our party, if it means throwing women’s rights overboard like so much ballast...then I say let’s keep the skunk out of the tent.” The political director of Emily’s List, the fundraising group that has been one of the biggest sources of support for many Democratic candidates, grumbled, “We fought like mad to beat back the Republicans. Little did we know that we would have just as much to fear from some within the Democratic Party.” Women’s groups have been in an uproar over the party’s support of Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, and NARAL Pro-Choice America even took the unusual step of endorsing Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee a full year and a half before the 2006 election. The message was clear: A pro-choice Republican is always preferable to a pro-life Democrat.
In the past, this kind of internal opposition might have doomed policy efforts to address abortion. During the 1990s, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle sponsored legislation that would have actually reduced abortion rates while providing protections for women’s health and rights. It was defeated after intense opposition from both anti-abortion and abortion-rights lobbies. (The measure—which, in the interests of full disclosure, I helped write—would have prohibited all abortions after a fetus can survive outside the womb, with exceptions to save a woman’s life or protect “grievous” threats to her health.) But voters are increasingly weary—and wary—of abortion slogans, and they’re looking instead for abortion solutions. Fortunately, in the past decade we’ve seen approaches that work.
As a case in point, look at pregnancy among teenagers. The U.S. still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. But that rate is 33 percent lower than it was in the early 1990s. In that same amount of time, the number of teenage abortions dropped by nearly the same percentage. What happened? According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, American teenagers are having less sex, but when they are sexually active they use contraception. In other words, teenage pregnancies are being prevented because of abstinence and birth control.
This is an answer that both abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists have a hard time accepting. Although many religious Americans consider abstinence to be an acceptable moral and personal choice, through the lens of abortion-rights advocates it is often seen as prudish and unnecessary. Last summer, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington held what was advertised as a “Screw Abstinence Party”; in 2004, the Pennsylvania affiliate urged members to send “chastity belts” to state legislators who were considering legislation to fund abstinence programs. At the same time, anti-abortion activists insist that increased access to birth control will lead to increased levels of sexual activity. But that fear appears to be unfounded, as fewer teenagers—even those with access to contraception—are having sex.
This is good news, and it’s a message that progressive religious groups are perfectly positioned to promote. It should not be oppressive or judgmental to say that it’s okay not to have sex. And while conservatives are limited by the strong anti-contraception beliefs of their right-wing supporters among evangelicals and Catholics, progressives can get behind improving access and affordability for birth control. Finally, we can show mercy and compassion by providing resources and support for women who choose to carry pregnancies that were not planned. All too often, conservatives condemn these women for the mistake of having sex while liberals condemn them for not “fixing” the mistake by having an abortion. Religious conservatives have already taken the lead in this area by establishing crisis pregnancy centers; there is no excuse for progressives to avoid joining them in encouraging—but not pressuring—women to consider alternatives to abortion.
Without a doubt, taking abortion off the table as an election issue would allow voters and policymakers to focus instead on the factors that make it difficult for women to consider raising a child and all of the other “life” issues that come into play once a child is born. This debate took place among the U.S. Catholic leadership in the 1980s, with some bishops—led by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin—promoting the idea of a “seamless garment of life,” and others elevating abortion as the primary litmus test. The single-issue advocates have been in the spotlight, but the overall public debate has not been settled—and the input of citizens is critical. Life issues can and will mean more than just abortion if we say they do.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear a challenge to the “partial-birth abortion” ban that became federal law in 2003. The law sets the dangerous precedent of letting Congress decide what medical procedures should be used by doctors. But the law is also a political football, intended to mobilize supporters and dollars (as the Supreme Court case will no doubt do once again) without providing a real solution to reduce some of the 1.2 million abortions performed in the U.S. each year. It would be a tragedy if a renewed fight about the law derailed the momentum gathering for a new strategy of prevention.
The idea of preventing abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies isn’t a new one. Abortion-rights groups have long endorsed it—although not with the vigor of other causes and campaigns—and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe has struggled for years to get her party’s leaders to back her efforts in this area. Now, however, may be the right moment. Americans are tired of choosing sides, and whichever party can be the first to move beyond politics to produce results will stand to benefit. Sometimes good politics happens to be the right thing to do. It is that simple.
Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.