How's that "common ground" going?

A new bill on abortion reduction shows serious strain -- but also progress

Published July 23, 2009 3:24PM (EDT)

After four years of behind-the-scenes negotiating, pro-choice groups turned out in full force for the introduction of the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, the odd-couple legislation whose lead sponsors are pro-choice Rosa DeLauro and pro-life Tim Ryan. At a Capitol Hill press conference this morning, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Religious Coalition stood in close proximity to mega-church pastor Joel Hunter. The bill is bound to get good media coverage, as it fits nicely with the president’s “can’t we all get along” plea for common ground on abortion.

Apparently everyone could not get along, and the task of lining up supporters for the bill, which was led by the pro-choice Third Way Democratic think tank’s culture program director Rachel Laser, was a bruising experience. Pro-lifers were disappointed that contraception was included. Pro-choicers were concerned the language of the bill sent an “abortion is bad" message. It was a bitter pill for both sides to swallow, though, so far, no one has choked.

Frankly, it's the kind of bill that should have been passed 20 years ago -- what a shame that for women to get what they need, it must be framed in terms of reducing the need for abortion. But the bill expands Medicaid coverage for family planning for low-income women and increases support for the Title X family planning program; it breaks new ground in preventing teen pregnancy and launches a new initiative to involve parents in teen pregnancy prevention -- lots of those parents could use some sexuality education as well.

On the "support for pregnant women" issue, efforts are limited to pre- and post-natal care and the expansion of early childhood support. It's a first but weak step in testing the sponsors' belief that if we provide women with more assistance for carrying pregnancies to term, they will choose childbirth over abortion. (Though, when women say they are aborting because they cannot afford a child, chances are they're considering costs far beyond WIC and Head Start.)

The support statements from both sides of the abortion debate show the obvious gaps in common ground. Catholic groups almost universally mention the “tragedy of abortion” and ignore the bill's contraceptive provisions. Lisa Cahill, a feminist theology professor at Boston College who supports contraception, ignores that part of the bill and leads with the statement that, “Everyone can agree that abortion is a tragic decision.” Really? Take the statement of Kate Michelman, former NARAL president, who notes that, “As a practicing Catholic and young married woman I followed the position of the Catholic church and did not use contraception. I had three beautiful daughters in three years.” Michelman recounts a fourth pregnancy, followed by the rapid departure of her husband, and humiliating ethics committee meetings in which she had to plead insanity in order to get an abortion. She, meanwhile, stresses the importance of contraception.

One of the more thoughtful anti-abortion statements came from David Gushee of Evangelicals for Human Rights, who notes his strong opposition to Roe and, in his view, the regretful support for abortion that is part of the fabric of American law today. Gushee sees the bill as sending a “new kind of message” by supporting contraception and parenting; it restores “the conditions of genuine choice.” Now, pro-choice advocates would say if we only funded abortions for low-income women, then we might be able to say there was a level playing field.

Leading choice organizations, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, issued strong statements supporting the bill, making clear that they’ve been here for women all along -- whether women choose abortion or childbearing. Nancy Keenan of NARAL notes that extending family planning coverage as a way of preventing the need for abortion was first suggested by pro-choice Louise Slaughter and pro-life Harry Reid in the Prevention First bill and Cecile Richards in the Planned Parenthood statement stresses that “the root causes of abortion” include the absence of basic preventive healthcare for women.

Whether all this represents common ground is debatable, but it clearer represents renewed public attention on abortion, which is under attack by anti-choice members of Congress in the healthcare reform package. Two years ago, Rep. Ryan might have been one of those pro-life Democrats objecting to funding abortion. This year, he refused to sign on to these efforts and was kicked off the Democrats for Life of America board.

Let’s keep talking.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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