Did Jackie Speier Shatter “Common Ground”?

California Democrat Jackie Speier’s riveting floor speech last week in opposition to the Republicans amendment to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s family planning services got me thinking: can we finally declare Democrats’ effort at “common ground” on abortion over?

I first started reporting on these “common ground” efforts in 2007, when the centrist group Third Way launched its “Come Let Us Reason Together” position paper on finding “common ground” with the religious right on all those peskily contentious “culture war” issues like abortion and gay marriage. If only all the equally culpable culture warriors on both sides would be more rational! was the tone.

Third Way was a driving force behind the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, also known as the Ryan-DeLauro bill, which was rolled out with much fanfare two years ago, only to languish.

Everyone knew at the time that the bill was going nowhere because it cost too much. It was about messaging, and not about actually doing anything. And if it cost too much in 2009, it certainly would cost too much in 2011 (particularly because some of its proposed funding was for Title X, which as we know bankrolls Planned Parenthood’s lucrative sex trafficking business — which is what you would believe if you listened to the right-wingers like Chris Smith (R-NJ)).

But I digress. The real issue with Ryan-DeLauro, which I wrote about here in 2009, is that it sought a religious imprimatur for what Planned Parenthood and other providers of and advocates for women’s reproductive health services have done for years: make it possible for women to access a range of life-saving services, including cancer and STD screenings and treatment, family planning, and pre- and post-natal services. All of that saves lives. It prevents unintended pregnancies. It helps women who choose to carry pregnancies to term.

The common grounders didn’t invent that stuff. But they wanted to own some moral high ground for preventing the “moral tragedy” of abortion. Yes, that was the language they insisted upon, and which one of Obama’s Catholic supporters, Doug Kmiec, has said Obama agreed with. So they were given huge credit, somehow, for moving off their efforts to ban legal abortion outright and bring some mythical end to the culture wars by coming together on “abortion reduction” instead.

The common grounders got credit for belatedly waking up to what Planned Parenthood had been doing all along, but Planned Parenthood didn’t get credit for actually doing it. What’s more, in the common ground rhetoric was what you might call feminist cognitive dissonance: the language both assumed and implied that abortion is an immoral choice, one that women would never make if they saw the moral light. That women need some help from (male) religious minds to make the “right” choice, and would be more likely to do so if they knew an army of LaLeche consultants, college campus child care, and streamlined adoption services stood waiting.

What was wrong with the common grounders was that they refused to acknowledge the essential work of the reproductive rights movement in preventing unintended pregnancies, and therefore abortions, and in keeping women healthy and alive through a range of services, including, yes, safe and legal abortion. The only statement Third Way could muster on last week’s House vote on Title X was that it was “divisive.” The Third Way press release didn’t mention Planned Parenthood, or its role in doing the daily work of Third Way’s once-vaunted “abortion reduction” strategy.

The common grounders also refused to acknowledge that women make moral choices when they decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. Speier wasn’t ashamed to talk about her own abortion on the House floor. Her moral choice. Her life. That is new. Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine a Democrat doing that, the party was so invested in looking good to the common grounders. But it was that very timidity — the fear of standing up and saying abortion is a moral choice, and women are moral agents with (if you must) God-given rights to make moral choices — that emboldened the right. Emboldened them to adopt a package of lies that Planned Parenthood gleefully rejoices in abortions.

Even the “centrists” courted by the Democrats on “abortion reduction” want to see abortion made illegal or at least effectively unavailable. As The Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, told me in 2009, “In the long term, I’m not sure we do ourselves any favors by stigmatizing abortion . . . . Do I think we going to defuse [the culture wars] to adopt some common [ground] rhetoric for a little while? No. I think we’re being seduced into thinking so that yet again we can move the center further to the right. They’re being very successful in seducing much of the left into doing that.”

Now Ragsdale looks downright prophetic. But so does Speier.