Obama reaches across the aisle on abortion

The president is trying to find common ground between pro- and anti-choice factions. But can he accomplish anything without selling out women's rights?

Published May 7, 2009 1:19PM (EDT)

It sounds like a great idea: Pro- and anti-choice activists both (ostensibly) care about women's health, pregnancy and the rights of mothers. So why not bring them together to seek common ground, despite their obvious disagreements? In a series of meetings that, as the Wall Street Journal reports, began about a month ago and should continue for the next six to eight weeks, President Obama is attempting to do just that. And while I respect his intentions, appreciate that he's trying to make good on that promise to "reach across the aisle," and would love to be optimistic about these efforts, I just can't see them doing much for reproductive rights -- or women's health in general.

According to the WSJ, the White House "took off the table any discussion of whether abortion should be legal" (well, that's a relief) and "is interested in hearing ideas in several areas, among them: sex education; responsible use of contraception; maternal and child health; pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere; and adoption." And, on paper, the ideas sound promising:

Participants say that suggestions included: improving education about use of contraception; better access to emergency contraception (which can be used after sex); improving education about sex, relationships and the "sacredness of sex"; stamping out employment discrimination against pregnant women; improving family-leave policies; and encouraging adoption.

So what's the problem? As the WSJ reports, anti-choice factions are bringing to the table proposals to increase "support for pregnancy 'crisis centers,' which discourage women from having abortions. But abortion-rights supporters say these centers give out inaccurate information." (As many longtime Salon readers will remember, there is ample support for these accusations. Way back in 2002, Michelle Goldberg reported that these centers often disguise themselves as women's health clinics. "But instead of employing nurses or social workers," she wrote, "they're staffed by antiabortion activists who often make patients watch gory antiabortion videos, warn them about nonexistent health risks posed by abortion, and scare them with the threat of suffering 'post-abortion syndrome,' a psychiatric disorder that exists only in pro-life lore.") The WSJ goes on: "Abortion-rights supporters want more support for contraception, which some abortion opponents are unenthusiastic about." Uh, "unenthusiastic" may be the understatement of the century. In recent years, anti-choice activists have increasingly targeted access to birth control. And don't even get them started on emergency contraception, which many (incorrectly) believe is itself a form of abortion. 

Add to these seemingly unbridgeable differences the massive overlap between the anti-choice movement and the abstinence-only sex education camp and you'll begin to see the potential futility of Obama's efforts.

The WSJ does suggest one additional common goal the two factions might word toward: decreasing the overall number of abortions in the U.S., "such as a 25% reduction in four years." While even us pro-choice baby-killers would prefer that abortion be safe, legal and rare, it's unclear how we might work toward fewer abortions with the full support of the anti-choice lobby and without infringing on reproductive rights. Better sex education and cheaper, easier access to birth control and emergency contraception would be great, but since anti-choicers tend to support neither, that doesn't seem particularly likely. (For more on the implausibility of a "middle ground" on abortion, check out this post by Lynn Harris.)

It's possible that the talks will result in an interesting idea or two on adoption, family leave or pregnant women's rights (but please -- let's leave "fetal personhood" out of the conversation). But, while I don't think the talks will harm reproductive rights, per se, I don't see them uniting  pro- and anti-choice groups in the spirit of cooperation, either. And you know what? Considering the seriousness of the issue dividing the factions, perhaps that's for the best. As Kim Gandy, president of NOW, told the WSJ, "There will still be women who need abortion and still groups trying very hard to prevent access to that right."

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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