A Step Forward on Abortion

By Jim Wallis 8-14-2008

Abortion is a moral issue, felt deeply on all sides of the debate. That debate has also been deeply divisive, becoming a "third rail" of American politics. It often influences outcomes of elections, and therefore the direction of the country in other important policy areas. Consistent polling shows that most are between the polarized extremes, simplistically named "pro-life" and "pro-choice." A majority is both concerned, even alarmed, about the abortion rate in America, yet is hesitant to criminalize it. We have sorely needed new common ground that focuses on reducing the need for and number of abortions. Such common ground could be supported by both sides and affirmed by many in the middle.

This past weekend, the Democratic Party's 2008 platform language was approved. Many have been waiting to see their language about abortion for this election season. The 1996 and 2000 Democratic platforms contained a clause that read, "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party." The draft language of the 2008 platform builds on that clause by supporting two choices that a woman might make--both of which the Democratic Party "strongly supports."

First, the platform states that the Democratic Party "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe vs. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." That traditional position of the Democratic Party was to be expected.

Then the platform says the Democratic Party "also strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions."

The platform takes a significant step forward in affirming those whose moral convictions lead them to make a different decision than abortion. It reads, "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." That position will help make room for people, especially in the religious community, who have strong moral convictions about abortion. Many pro-life Democrats (and there are many in the party) have been looking to be heard, respected, and given a valued space in their own party (as pro-choice Republicans have in their party).

There is indeed some chance for common ground here in the mutual respect for different moral convictions and a shared desire to decrease the need for abortion. There is also a deep and growing conviction among evangelicals and Catholics that the "life issues" also extend to the 30,000 children who die globally each day from poverty and preventable disease, issues of genocide in places like Darfur, human trafficking, the domestic issues of poverty and health care, the foreign policy issues of war and peace, and even in threats like climate change. This election provides us with a pivotal opportunity to transcend old polarities and attempt to bring people together on common ground in a "consistent ethic of life" across a range of issues.

There is a "parallelism of choice" here in the Democratic platform that is a good and new direction that will make many people feel more welcome. The party is now on record in "strongly" supporting both a woman's right to choose abortion or to decide to have her child with promised support, creating common ground in agreeing for the need to reduce abortions.

All that is a step in the right direction: supportive of individual conscience, of the different decisions a woman can make, and of reducing the need for abortions. By supporting the fuller range of women's choice, the Democratic Party would be empowering more women, including low-income women who might like to carry their child to term for personal or moral reasons, but often lack the support to do so.

The rate of unintended pregnancies among poor women (below 100 percent of poverty) is nearly four times that of women above 200 percent of poverty. The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300 percent of the poverty level. Three-fourths of women who have an abortion say a reason is that they cannot afford a child.

Policies and programs that focus on reducing poverty--also strong planks in the Democratic platform--would increase the economic stability of women and thus also help reduce the abortion rate. Policies that prevent unintended pregnancies through accessible family planning, including contraceptives, age-appropriate sex education-- including abstinence education--reducing teen pregnancy, economic support, accessible and affordable health care, adoption reform and incentives, are all critical and are pointed to in the platform.

The Democratic platform has taken an important first step. They took an important step beyond the traditional position on Roe vs. Wade by also supporting a woman's decision to have her child. They also sought and listened to input from moderate religious leaders.

Republicans have long made a strong opposition to abortion a central issue in their platforms and campaigns. Yet their symbolic commitment to making abortion illegal, even with a Republican in power, hasn't made any change in the rate of abortions in America. Religious leaders should also now urge the Republican Party to move forward. It's not enough to affirm their traditional support for making abortion illegal; they should also adopt the policies on reducing abortions. The bottom line for many Christians is how to save unborn lives.

Of course, it is now up to the Democratic candidate to interpret the platform and shape the issue. In an interview with Christianity Today, Barack Obama said, "I do think that those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren't expressing the full reality of it."

Acknowledging that abortion is a moral issue, no matter what side you are on, is a way to respect the moral convictions of both sides, and begin to find some common ground. We could truly make reducing the abortion rate in America a nonpartisan issue and a bipartisan cause. It is a common-sense approach that could unite the vast majority of Americans around a goal that leverages support for women, instead of coercion, to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America.

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