"What can we do now to reduce abortions?"

With Obama in the White House, pro-lifers consider tactical changes.

By Amy Benfer

Published January 30, 2009 4:08PM (EST)

In theory, 100 percent of us, regardless of our position on who gets to decide what and when, fully agree that we’d much prefer no woman would have to get an abortion in the first place. Things get pretty murky from there on out. But since November, when voters elected Obama and defeated all three pro-life ballot initiatives, we’ve been hearing rumors that some parts of the pro-life movement have made the pragmatic choice to take a more moderate position. In her story "Pro-Lifers in Obamaland," Newsweek’s Sarah Kliff takes a close look at some of these rumors.

The piece kicks off with a quote from Sister Sharon, a pro-life activist for two decades, who has come to believe that overturning Roe v. Wade is not a realistic goal. "So much time has elapsed since Roe. I think among veterans, like me, few if any think the Supreme Court is going to overturn it," she says. "We need to start thinking in practical terms: what can we do now to reduce abortions? And I think that’s very pro-life, if we can lower the numbers."

To that end, Sister Sharon has taken to marching with a group called Catholics United under the banner: "Congress: Support Pregnant Women and Reduce Abortions Now!" This new emphasis on "reducing" abortion, rather than banning it outright, amounts to "heresy" in some sectors of the pro-life community, according to Kliff. (And the National Right to Life Foundation has already disputed her reporting in an open letter on their site.) Others voice a bunker mentality that may not be unfamiliar to pro-choice activists still weary from the Bush years. "He’s got the House, he’s got the Senate, so I think we may go back to more guerrilla warfare, or go back to working harder on your own abortion clinic in your town," says pro-life blogger Jill Stanek.

According to the Third Way foundation, 72 percent of Americans support "reducing abortion by preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term." But even that seemingly benign statement is open to partisan bickering: In her article, Kliff describes the foundation as a "non-profit think tank that promotes bi-partisan co-operation," while the NRLC calls it a "liberal think tank" staffed by "veteran pro-abortion strategists."

But she has found several organizations that are willing to give this new tactic a try, including Faith in Public Life, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and RealAbortionSolutions.org (whose slogan is "come together based on results, not rhetoric"). Jim Wallis, the director of Sojourners, described as a "progressive evangelical group," sounds eminently reasonable when he says, "Let’s look at results. How do you really reduce abortion? You promote women’s health care, you promote involved fatherhood. I think those programs are significant if you’re saving unborn lives." Other totally smart initiatives discussed in the piece include supporting anti-poverty programs, increasing funding for food stamps and Medicaid, providing access to prenatal healthcare and insurance for women and children, and creating parenting programs and educational grants to help mothers get through high school and college.

When I hear of conservative groups supporting legislation to help out pregnant women and their children, it actually makes me think that some compromise may be possible. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the right to begin, continue or end a pregnancy is absolute. But I also have no problem understanding why other people, even other women, believe otherwise. And while I’ll happily fight those same people tooth and nail to keep abortion safe and legal for all women, regardless of their age and financial situation, I’d consider it a huge accomplishment if we could at least make policy on the parts we agree on.

The legislative cornerstone of this alleged "third way" of pro-life thought, according to the article, is the Support Pregnant Woman Act, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Unfortunately, it’s still not quite there. In general, writes Kliff, "pro-choice legislators push for access to contraceptives, while those on the pro-life side vote for increased funding to pregnancy-support programs." NARAL Pro-Choice America opposes the act, according to policy director Donna Crane, because of "the absence of important pieces, like contraception, and the presence of some parts tinged with anti-choice values." I couldn’t find a copy of the Support Pregnant Woman Act online, but I did find the Pregnant Women Support Act, introduced by the Democrats for Life (the only reference to the former is Kliff’s article, so they may be more or less the same thing).  There's plenty to like: funding for daycare on university campuses and for programs to prevent domestic violence, mandated health coverage for pregnant women and for their newborns through the first year of life. There’s also plenty that offended my own pro-choice sensibilities: stricter enforcement of parental notification laws, education and counseling on the "effects" of abortion (which are rarely neutral) and an emphasis on adoption (which, while a perfectly acceptable choice, is not at all the same as abortion, to my mind, given that it requires a woman to go through nine months of labor and delivery).

Still, it’s tantalizing to imagine what genuine "third way" legislation would look like. I’m absolutely not suggesting that those of us who wholeheartedly support abortion rights become apologists for our positions or accept compromises we don’t agree with. But if we likewise were willing to draft and support a bill that leaves out the parts that would be objectionable to those who oppose abortion (leaving that fight for other bills, not abandoning it altogether), it seems absolutely possible that we could do a better job of preventing unintended pregnancy and making things easier for pregnant women and their children.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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