Ryan-DeLauro’s Common Ground on Abortion is in Religious Territory

If politics, as the saying has it, is the art of the possible, then agreement is the first step toward the realization of possibility; each side has to give its blessing to an endeavor. But does this blessing need to be, literally, a blessing? The circumstances surrounding the introduction of a long-awaited bill show us just how entangled religion and politics are where women’s health is concerned.

There were abundant blessings for this week’s triumphant rollout of the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, also known as the Ryan-DeLauro bill, after its two chief sponsors in the House, Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). These two legislators, who disagree on the question of whether abortion should be legal, worked with the centrist think tank Third Way’s culture program to find common ground among supporters of reproductive rights and opponents of legal abortion. The result, though, is pretty much what NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and other reproductive health advocates have been arguing for years: prevent unintended pregnancies through comprehensive sex education and birth control, and support economically struggling women and their families.

The Ryan-DeLauro bill now has the support of the major reproductive rights groups, a blessing the effort had previously lacked. Two years ago, Third Way unveiled “Come Let Us Reason Together,” (CLURT) which argued for common ground between progressives and evangelicals on contentious issues like abortion and gay rights. It endorsed (at least in spirit) the then-existing version of the Ryan-DeLauro bill, and touted the blessing of evangelical figures who said they were rejecting the single-issue, rancorous politics of their religious right brethren. They would, they pledged, abandon the trench warfare of Roe v. Wade, and instead try to find practical solutions for reducing abortions.

Stigmatizing Abortion?

The reluctance of reproductive health groups to sign on to CLURT, and to endorse the previous version of Ryan-DeLauro, stemmed in large part from what might broadly be called stigmatization concerns. The CLURT report, as Catholics for Choice former president Frances Kissling said last year, “confessed the sins of the left. But it never said and you, on the right, better get over your hostility to secularism.”

Use of terms like “moral tragedy” in discussions of common ground on abortion further rankled reproductive health advocates, and they worried that some provisions in the previous bill stigmatized women who chose abortion. While reproductive health advocates have argued for economic support for women and families, their framing is aimed at supporting women who plan or choose parenthood; on the anti-choice side the framing has been aimed at supporting women so they will choose to carry an unintended pregnancy to term (implying that if they don’t, they’re perpetuating the moral tragedy).

But this week, Kissling gave her blessing to the Ryan-DeLauro bill, as did many others, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and Catholics for Choice. Why? For pro-choice endorsers, the new bill eliminates some of the troubling informed consent provisions contained in an earlier version, and makes ultrasound provisions less onerous. And it contains, essentially, much of what reproductive health advocates have more than blessed—they have defined it—for years. As Planned Parenthood’s vice president for public policy Laurie Rubiner said at the press conference, “Ninety-seven percent of services we provide are primary and preventative care to mostly low-income women.”

The new bill mirrors the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act, by authorizing funding for comprehensive sex education programs; it would reauthorize the Title X family planning program; and it would expand family planning coverage under Medicaid. It also includes other economic supports for low-income women and their families.

Without a doubt, the bill’s pro-choice endorsers have long advocated for the ground zero of reducing the need for abortion: preventing unintended pregnancies through comprehensive sex education and safe, effective, and affordable contraception. From the side that opposes legal abortion, though, there are many voices who are squeamish about contraception, sex education, or both, on religious grounds.

That’s why even though the bill received dozens of blessings from a wide range of religious and reproductive health groups, many of them came with caveats, or meted out blessings of certain parts of the bill but not others. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, for instance, noted that “preventing the tragedy of abortion requires elected officials to find common ground and support comprehensive efforts to help women and families choose life,” but did not mention contraception or comprehensive sex education, which the Catholic Church opposes. David Gushee, a leading voice in the evangelical center, and one of the early endorsers of CLURT, said in endorsing the legislation that its failure to challenge legal access to abortion “is regrettable from my own pro-life perspective.”

From the other side, SIECUS noted in its statement supporting the new version of the bill, “We recognize that the framing of this bill creates discomfort for some in its potential to stigmatize the legally recognized right to abortion. We share your concerns, but believe the important pieces of this bill warrant our support.”

The Ryan-DeLauro bill received many blessings this week, and Rachel Laser, director of Third Way’s Culture Program, noted that one quarter of President Barack Obama’s faith-based advisory council were among the supporters.

But what does it mean when a religious blessing is required to address an urgent public health issue? While it’s surely a positive development that some religious figures are shifting away from demonizing common sense, scientifically-driven reproductive health policy, the way the introduction of this bill has unfolded also speaks volumes about the escalating role of religion in shaping public policy. Will religious blessings be required to achieve the art of the possible, and will their absence make sound policy impossible?