Grasping At Straws: The Problem with Common Ground on Abortion

Most Americans have tired of the public debate about abortion. The issue is complex, with good intentions on both sides of the question. We all respect life and believe that women have a right to decide about their bodies, lives and future—the autonomy principle. Abortion doesn’t lend itself to sound bites, and most pro-choice elected officials wish they’d never have to answer another question about it. At the same time, they are constantly seeking, and hoping for, a new sound bite that will just shut both sides up.

In 2004, a Democratic strategy shop, The Third Way, developed a new tactic for Democrats running in conservative “pro-life” districts. In a message memo called “Winning the Abortion Grays,” they suggested that candidates say “I will work to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America while protecting personal liberties.” The goal was tactical, not principled. It was not about preventing abortion; it was about getting Democrats elected.

Around the same time, pro-peace, anti-poverty, social justice Catholics and evangelicals wanted to challenge the religious right and elect progressives. They, too, wanted the abortion issue to go away. It is hard to enter progressive politics if you’re not pro-choice, and they were uncomfortable acknowledging their own positions on the issue. Mostly, they wanted to talk about war, jobs, and the environment, not sex and reproduction. After much pressure from both camps to be either pro-choice or pro-life, they adopted the first part of the Third Way message (abortion reduction), then ignored the second part by calling it “common ground.” For the most part, the two parties who have found “common ground” swim in the same pond—they are both opposed to legal abortion. The difference is narrow: one group has never made much of an issue of abortion, and the other has been actively opposed to legal abortion.

Other common-ground efforts on abortion have engaged in much more outreach, worked hard to understand those who were on the other side. Search for Common Ground, a prestigious DC conflict-resolution group that works extensively on peace issues, brought together people who truly disagreed to discuss the issue for several years and make some common policy proposals. The Public Conversation Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts facilitated many dialogues between pro-choice and pro-life advocates: PCP brought together prominent pro-choice leaders from Planned Parenthood and the Archdiocese of Boston (among others) for a two-year dialogue on abortion following the murder of a young receptionist at a clinic by an anti-abortion fanatic.

The current search for common ground seems far less serious about abortion. And so far it hasn’t resulted in peace. What it has done is some aggressive media outreach aimed at promoting its idea of common ground. We caught a piece two religious leaders in the movement published recently in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that exhibited a fairly belligerent style for “common ground,” especially given the fact that neither of these leaders has reached out to the pro-choice side of the debate. They claimed that since both liberals and conservatives “have sharpened their knives” against them, they are onto a good tactic. Sounds good at first blush, but when you look behind the words, it becomes apparent that we are dealing with classic smoke-and-mirrors politics.

In reality, the abortion-reduction position favored by the authors of the Plain Dealer piece is shared by only a small percentage of progressive faith leaders. The constituency includes evangelicals and Catholics whose only area of disagreement is how illegal abortion should be. Both authors come from Catholic groups that have no position on pregnancy prevention via contraception. One of the groups, Network, a lobby of Catholic nuns, has no position on abortion; the other, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, favors making abortion illegal, and only views reducing the number of abortions as an interim step toward that goal.

It is hard to take seriously a movement that thinks they can dramatically reduce the number of abortions while largely ignoring or denying the issue of access to contraception—including emergency contraception. One understands that they feel their hands are tied by the official position of the Catholic church against contraception, and by evangelical opposition to comprehensive sexuality education for adolescents and to sex outside of marriage. But it is hard to join a movement that fails to support the measures proven most likely to achieve their goals.

The abortion-reduction movement is thus left with the focus on taking action after women become pregnant rather than preventing unintended pregnancies. They emphasize helping women who are pregnant continue difficult pregnancies, and to either keep the baby or give it up for adoption. Even here, they fall dramatically short, offering only rhetoric, not a plan. According to the Guttmacher Institute, three-fourths of women who have abortions say it is in part because they cannot afford a child. That is about 800,000 women and girls each year. The only bill they support, The Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act, includes only a fraction of what would be needed for women to be able to provide for children. The bill was first introduced in 2006 and has never even made it to full committee consideration. None of the groups or individuals active in the common ground/abortion reduction movements have lobbied for the bill or urged its consideration.

As pro-choice religious leaders who have supported comprehensive efforts to provide contraception, a full range of benefits for pregnant women and families who need continuing help, and comprehensive sexuality education, the abortion-reduction movement would need to demonstrate a real commitment to this agenda before we could consider joining their ranks. We are interested in more than turning poor pregnant women into poor mothers.

On the topic of adoption, the movement presents no plan at all. According to these groups, what changes in adoption policy would lead more pregnant women to continue their pregnancies and give the child up for adoption? Have they studied the issue or relied on existing studies? And how many abortions a year do they think this strategy would prevent? Or is this just a nice idea? Have they talked to women who have given children up for adoption to understand from a pastoral perspective what effect this decision has on a woman’s life? Adoption can be a good alternative for some women, but it is not without pain.

The lack of a sensible legislative agenda on contraception, economic support for women who wish to continue pregnancies, and adoption reform is disturbing, but most disturbing is the fifth-century religious view of women that permeates the movement. Women are presented as victims, unable to make choices about what is best when deciding to be sexual and when they are pregnant. In the truly progressive faith community, we hold that women have a right as moral agents to decide what is best when they face unintended pregnancy, and we believe that women are not by and large victims—they are the authors of their lives. Given the history of religious oppression, a movement that speaks or advocates for women’s concerns needs to advocate for women as moral adults.

Religious leaders who respect women’s consciences, their dignity, and their human rights will find it hard to make common cause with a religious movement that does not lift up those values. We suggest that proponents of abortion reduction seeking common ground go back to the drawing board. They might actually try to talk to those in the religious community who are strongly pro-choice. They might even reach out to women who have had an unintended pregnancy; visit some teen mothers, women who’ve had abortions, and women who have given their children up for adoption. Former Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland did this and it changed his mind about number of things, including suggesting adoption so glibly. After really dialoging on the matter, they may find that the ground has shifted. After all, it was Thich Nhat Han who pointed out there is no reason to dialogue if you are not willing to change your mind.

We’d be happy to meet any time.

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[See also Fred Clarkson’s Four Canards about Abortion Reduction, Mark Silk’s Commongroundniks and Digby’s Compromise for more perspectives. —ed]