The Common Good
June 2009

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

by Julie Polter | June 2009

A promising new movement leaves the bumper-sticker platitudes behind and offers the potential to actually reduce abortion.

On April 3, the Obama White House held a brief but potentially historic conference call to kick off its abortion reduction initiative. The invited listeners (only administration officials spoke) reportedly were dozens of leaders from the pro-choice and pro-life movements. Their names were not released, but those who have self-identified include people with such divergent views as Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, and Wendy Wright, president of the pro-life, conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America.

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Describing the administration’s plans were chief domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes; Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; and Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. According to participants, Barnes made it clear that no one was expected to change her or his mind about abortion and no one was being asked to compromise on core principles.

Instead, the goal was to find common ground on ways to prevent unintended pregnancy, reduce the need for abortions, provide economic and health care supports for struggling families, and promote adoption. The White House asked for examples of community-based programs already succeeding in these areas and announced a series of meetings over the next few months that would include advocates from both the pro-choice and pro-life movements, as well as representatives from government agencies and Congress. The desired result? Concrete legislative proposals, projects that could be included in the 2011 budget, and examples of successful local abortion-reduction programs that might be replicated.

No one can predict the success or failure of this process. It may smother itself in bureaucracy, be forced off the common-ground path by partisan or advocacy politics, or explode in spectacular life-vs.-choice fireworks once participants are allowed to talk.

If the Obama White House manages to draw the best out of a potentially volatile mix of people and to produce viable proposals that reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. through means acceptable to many on both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life divide, it will be nothing short of groundbreaking.

THE LAUNCH OF THIS initiative gives the first legs to a series of statements and gestures President Barack Obama, and before that candidate Obama, has made that lifted up the concept of common ground. In August 2008, with his support, the Democratic Party included in its convention platform—along with unequivocal affirmation of a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion—the declaration that family planning and education “reduce the need for abortions.”

Additionally, the Democrats included a new reference that reflects a fuller understanding of “choice”: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.” This was significant because it implied that “reducing the need” includes not just contraception, but also economic and other supports for women who are already pregnant, which are key demands of pro-life Democrats.

In the third presidential debate in October 2008, Obama pushed the issue further when he stated, “But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, ‘We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred … providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.’”

As a Democratic president, Obama has also made the executive gestures that are expected of him as the member of a party that is majority pro-choice (such as rescinding the “Mexico City Policy” that barred U.S. aid to overseas facilities that perform or promote abortion). But that is in the context of a president who has, in an unprecedented way, committed White House resources and political capital to the pursuit of common ground related to abortion, a controversial endeavor at best.

THIS WILL NOT BE, however, the first time staunchly pro-life and staunchly pro-choice partisans have had civil conversations about areas of potential agreement or even common action. In the 1980s, Andrew Puzder, a pro-life lawyer, helped write an abortion-restricting Missouri law that was ultimately up­held by the Supreme Court in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. B.J. Isaac­son-Jones, then director of one of the largest abortion clinics in the country, was a plaintiff in that case.

In 1989, soon after the Supreme Court’s decision, Puzder wrote a St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed drawing a connection between Missouri’s high poverty rate among women and its high abortion rate. He urged pro-life and pro-choice forces to focus more on working together to help impoverished women and children and less on attacking one another. A few days later Isaacson-Jones called Puzder to say she was willing to talk.

This unlikeliest of pairs was the start of a St. Louis group of pro-choice and pro-life leaders who met regularly to talk about where they might find common ground. Topics included making adoption an easier option, preventing teen pregnancies, and supporting low-income women who chose to continue their pregnancies.

Similar “common ground” groups soon emerged in other cities. In 1993 several local groups loosely affiliated into the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, under the umbrella of a D.C.-based conflict-resolution organization, Search for Common Ground. Until it disbanded in 2000, the network sponsored national conferences and published papers co-authored by pro-life and pro-choice members about common-ground strategies on teen pregnancy, adoptions, and even the ethical dimensions of activism outside of health clinics that provided abortion services.

In the mid-2000s, a variation of this common-ground thinking reemerged in, of all places, the U.S. Congress. In 2006, pro-life Democrat Tim Ryan and pro-choice Democrat Rosa DeLauro first introduced the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act.” This legislation would join together programs aimed at preventing unintended pregnancies (funds for sex education and expanding Medicaid and Title X coverage for family planning services) with programs focused on assisting women who chose to carry their child to term (increased funding for health care for low-income women with children, free nurse visits for first-time mothers, child care for parents in college). In a recent interview, Rep. DeLauro told Sojourners that sponsors hope to reintroduce the bill for 2009 before the Memorial Day recess.

EVIDENCE POINTS TO an electorate ready for some sort of common ground. In a May 2008 Gallup poll, when asked “With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” a small majority of Americans, 50 percent, responded pro-choice, 44 percent pro-life.

But when pollsters get into the details, a more complex picture quickly emerges. As Gallup summarizes, “When asked in the most general terms whether abortion laws should be stricter, many do not want the laws to be stricter. Yet, when they are asked whether abortion should be legal in all cases, most cases, only a few cases, or no cases, more than half choose one of the latter two categories.” Views vary on the question of legality depending on why or during which trimester an abortion is being performed.

A July 2007 poll commissioned by Third Way, a progressive-leaning policy think tank, confirmed that many Americans’ beliefs about abortion don’t fall neatly into either the pure pro-life or pure pro-choice camps. Seventy-two percent of respondents believe that the decision to have an abortion should be left up to a woman, her family, and her doctor, but 69 percent believe that abortion is the taking of a human life. Sixty percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, but 68 percent believe abortion is always, mostly, or sometimes morally wrong.

A November 2008 post-election survey sponsored in part by Sojourners and conducted by Public Religion Research found that 83 percent of voters agree that “elected leaders on both sides of the abortion debate should work together to find ways to reduce the number of abortions by enacting policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption, and increase economic support for women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term.”

Third Way’s Culture Program director, Rachel Laser, sees such poll numbers as pointing to a desire for new ways of talking about and approaching this thorniest of issues. Third Way rejects criminalization or coercion to reduce abortion, but supports abortion reduction through pregnancy prevention and supports for pregnant women and new families. When an alternative to the traditional two camps is offered—one that focuses on reducing abortion by addressing its root causes—Laser believes “people will flock to that place,” she told Sojourners. Laser, who is pro-choice, sees great potential in the combination of what she called Obama’s “intuitive desire to find common ground on divisive cultural issues” and “the fact that the country is tired of the fighting and the polarization—the stalemate.”

OF COURSE, FORGING true common-ground initiatives will require increasing participation by leaders of the significant minorities who self-identify as unequivocally pro-life or unequivocally pro-choice. A major challenge of these efforts resides in the fact that, by definition, they require the bringing together of two causes fueled with passionate, principled, and often completely antagonistic fervor.

For both sides, framing the abortion debate as a noble battle has been a tried-and-true way of motivating the base and raising funds. Consequently, internal critics in both movements are challenging the “common ground” concept of reducing the number or need for abortions, calling it a diversion from nonnegotiable core principles.

Nonetheless, cautious support for the pursuit of common ground has come from some leading pro-life and pro-choice advocates. This move is pragmatic as well as principled. If most of the country is not quite “life” and not quite “choice,” then meeting people where they are may be the only way to convince them to lean your way.

But pro-life activists open to common-ground work also see the goal of reducing the number of abortions as intrinsic to their calling. They believe that the single-minded pursuit of legal restrictions on abortion has had only a negligible effect on the abortion rate. Working to prevent unintended pregnancies and lobbying for systemic supports for women who feel pressured into abortion by poverty or lack of health care is seen as a way to address broader social justice concerns and to immediately save lives.

Writing on the blog of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute, described a split in the pro-life movement between what he calls the old light approach, which sees abortion as “single issue politics,” and the new light approach, which sees “abortion as a concern integrally joined with a much broader concern about the common good.”

The “old light approach, after 35 years of trying, has gone nowhere,” Schneck wrote. “Through many of those years, the GOP controlled all three branches of government—and to what end? And, what policy changes has confrontation achieved? None.” He concluded, “By every imaginable measure the old lights’ efforts not only have failed, they have actually been counter-productive. They have undercut real opportunities to do something about abortion and all the critical life issues facing our generation.”

Ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College frames support for abortion reduction efforts as an ethical response in a world where justice is not fully realized. “In the real world,” said Cahill, “we have to seek to realize our ideals as well as possible, given concrete limits and opportunities. An important question is, what will be possible and effective in working toward our goals at the present time?”

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates say they are motivated to pursue common-ground options because of the effect of poverty and lack of health care on the abortion rate. A study of women obtaining abortions in 2000 and 2001 found that the abortion rate among women living below the poverty level is more than four times that of women who live above 300 percent of the poverty level. The Guttmacher Institute reported that between 1994 and 2001, unintended pregnancy increased by 29 percent among poor women while decreasing 20 percent among higher-income women.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the pro-choice co-spon­sor of the Ryan-DeLauro abortion reduction bill, told Sojourners that the goal she shared with pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan is to “focus on the need to reduce abortion in our country while also providing economic support for new parents to be able to strengthen their families.” She emphasized that the most effective method to prevent unintended pregnancies and abortion is to improve access to safe, affordable, effective contraceptive methods.

“I’ve said over and over again that people want to see fewer abortions, not more,” DeLauro said. “Nobody celebrates abortion. Our public policy has got to embrace an ethic of human life that begins helping women to never have to come to that decision.” When a woman of limited means is confronted with an unintended pregnancy, the pre- and post-natal economic and social supports in the bill are aimed, DeLauro said, “to reduce the economic pressures that can cause a woman to decide not to carry a pregnancy to term.”

THOSE WHO ARE considering the move into the complicated terrain of common ground can take strength from the experience of those local common-ground groups in the 1990s. Those groups learned that adhering to core principles is vital to the integrity and success of the common-ground process. From a place of mutual respect and careful listening, those groups tried to discover what they could agree on, while placing off-limits all that they could not.

Sociologist James R. Kelly has noted that the key characteristics of those earlier groups included that they “publicly distinguished common ground from moral compromise and political accommodation.” Participants also “loyally continued their adversarial abortion activities even as they agreed to cooperate on projects and policies aimed at reducing the pressures on women to abort.” Common ground, he asserted, “is not where principles are buried beneath compromises. On common ground, principles retain their luminosity and opponents their integrity.”

But even if the pro-life and pro-choice advocates who participate in the Obama administration process hold to these higher principles, can such integrity be maintained within the partisan and political pressure cooker of national politics? Putting core principles off limits, neither arguing about nor compromising on them, is an exotic approach in the political arena. And both Democrats and Republicans have a deeply ingrained habit of freely tapping the explosive energy of the abortion debate for their own purposes. Elevating the abortion discussion to the level of common ground—where nuance and details are essential—requires both sides to give up the firepower of bumper-sticker sloganeering, a difficult departure for those immersed in the politics-as-usual world.

This cuts both ways in Obama’s case. Some pro-choice elements in the Democratic Party are pressuring him to confine his “abortion reduction” efforts to pregnancy prevention only, while a smaller but vital bloc of pro-life constituents seeks to hold him to his stated intent to reduce abortion through economic and social supports for women who are considering carrying their child to term.

Those pulling for the success of common-ground efforts can only hope that enough politicians will rise to what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne described as their highest calling—“to seek practical forms of moral seriousness.” And that we Christians, whatever our stance on the legal status of abortion, will do so as well.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners. Assistant editor Jeannie Choi contributed research.

Making It Real: Congress and Abortion Reduction
What public policies might help prevent unintended pregnancies and provide support to women who want to carry their child to term?

Pro-choice advocates see preventing unintended pregnancies through contraceptives and education as the best ways to lower the demand for abortions. Many are cautious about abortion reduction efforts aimed at women who are already pregnant, lest this open the door to coercion or manipulation, or cede ground around the legal right to abortion. The Prevention First Act, sponsored in the Senate by Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and in the House by Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), includes:

• Increasing access to family planning services through the national family planning program (Title X) and Medicaid.

• Ensuring that private health plans offer coverage for contraception comparable to that for other prescription drugs and services.

• Expanded teen pregnancy prevention programs.

• State-level comprehensive sexuality education programs.

• Public education initiatives about emergency contraception.

Most pro-life advocates also want to prevent unintended pregnancies, but differ on acceptable means. Some exclusively support abstinence-only programs. Others support some contraception education and funding but reject emergency contraception, considering it a method of abortion. Pro-life abortion reduction efforts tend to emphasize assistance to pregnant women. The Pregnant Women Support Act, sponsored in the Senate by Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and in the House by Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), includes:

• Pregnancy counseling and child care on university campuses.

• Increasing and making permanent the adoption tax credit.

• Barring health insurers from considering pregnancy a pre-existing condition.

• “Informed consent” requirements for abortion services.

• Awareness about violence against pregnant women.

• S-CHIP coverage for pregnant women and unborn children.

• Free home visits by registered nurses for new mothers.

The Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act brings together elements of the pro-choice and pro-life approaches into one package, with the aim of drawing support from both constituencies. Sponsors Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) hope to reintroduce it this spring. —JP

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