Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Common Ground


Ever since the Democrats started their search for "common ground" on reproductive rights, it's been a downright rhetorical roller coaster. I'm glad the Dems are trying to work it out, but I can't say the ride hasn't left me a little nauseated at times. First, we were all meant to agree that "preventing abortion" was a comprehensive reproductive rights platform that everyone could get behind — if, by comprehensive, you meant supporting everything but safe and legal abortion. Then, we were all gathered under the banner of "reducing abortions" — since we can all agree that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." Now, the rhetoric has shifted yet again, and it's all about "reducing the need for abortions." I like where we're going, but I'm still not sure where we're going to wind up.

Just the other week, the House accepted the Reducing the Need for Abortions Initiative (a modified version of pro-choice Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and anti-abortion Democratic congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH)'s Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act) as part of the FY 2008 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill. The Initiative is a $647 million package that includes the first funding increases in six years (since a certain special someone took office, that is) for the Title X federal family planning program, the Child Development Block Grant, and After-School Programs for kids; in addition to funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs that offer information about condoms and contraception as well as abstinence; new nurse home visitation program grants; an adoption awareness campaign at CDC; funding for a National Survey of Family Growth; and funding for domestic violence prevention.

I like the direction we're heading with the latest "reducing the need for abortions" strategy — away from restrictions on safe abortion, which not only breed injustice in access to health services but also fail in their stated goal of making abortion more "rare," and toward supporting a more comprehensive platform on pregnancy and parenting. The legislation is clearly good politics, and I wholeheartedly support the kinds of programs it funds: what advocate for reproductive justice wouldn't applaud an increase in funding for the Title X federal family planning program, more money for "medically accurate, age-appropriate approaches to preventing teen pregnancies" (including information about contraception), and more resources dedicated to childcare, after-school programs, and domestic violence prevention? The initiative seeks, laudably, to alleviate some of the conditions that make choosing to have a child so difficult for so many women. I disagree with Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who opposed the initiative because, in her words, "I don't believe any woman decides between having an abortion or not on the basis of ‘Is there day care available?'" In my experience, women do consider things like childcare, maternity leave, health insurance, housing, employment, and violence when they make their reproductive decisions — and, frankly, to assume they don't smacks of never having had to worry about such things yourself. If this legislative approach can get those who oppose abortion behind increased federal funding for stuff like childcare and family planning, then who cares how they get there?

Of course, building support for a common-ground approach in a media culture fixated on controversy and polarization is no small task. On July 26, Stephanie Simon covered the new legislation — which she considers evidence that Democrats "have begun to adopt some of the language and policy goals of the antiabortion movement" — for the L.A. Times. Her article ran under the following headline: "Democrats shift approach on abortion: As lawmakers and candidates appeal to religious voters, their language and policy goals on the issue have a ring of conservatism."

Okay. First, since when have increased funding for childcare and domestic violence prevention been policy goals of the antiabortion movement? Second, I know plenty of religious voters who are pro-choice. And third, have progressives in this country really ceded so much moral ground that the idea of supporting pregnant and parenting women now "rings of conservatism"? I think not. The vast majority of pro-choice women I know who help women make and process pregnancy decisions at the grassroots level see their work holistically, and — despite radical anti-abortion activists' claims that they pressure women into having abortions through deception, coercion, and misinformation (ever heard of projection, guys?) — none of them would count increasing or even maintaining the current abortion rate among their professional and activist goals. However, I don't think "reducing" the abortion rate is a major goal for them either — not because they want women to have abortions, but because the point isn't to get women to do any one particular thing. And I guess that's why, despite my support for the provisions included in this new legislation, I still have a problem with the fact that all of this great stuff comes under the heading of "reducing the need for abortion."

Maybe it's that I still don't trust the Democrats — I see how willing they are to use women's right to safe and legal abortion as a political bargaining chip, and I see how many of the compromises they have made in the past have left poor women, young women, and other marginalized women out in the cold. Maybe it's because I can't tell if they are offering up genuine options, or incentivizing childbirth at the expense of real choice. DeLauro and Ryan's press release would suggest the former, but Simon's article — where the CDC's adoption awareness campaign becomes funding to "counsel more young women in crisis to consider adoption, not abortion" — smacks of the latter. If the point of this legislation is to create a culture that says "We'll reward you, but only if you have a baby" rather than "We don't want having a baby to be a liability for you," I'm not sure I can get behind it.

I guess that's because I think that reducing the need for abortions is a good thing, but I don't think it's really the point. For me, the point is to create a culture that supports women and their partners to make whatever decision is best for them, backed up by real social and economic support for whatever decision they choose to make. Such a culture, in addition to providing people with all of the skills, tools, and information they need to avoid unintended pregnancies, includes safe, respectful, accessible, and affordable abortion services; quality healthcare for women during pregnancy and during and following birth; complete adoption information and services; paid maternity leave; affordable, quality childcare; and guaranteed health insurance for babies, children, and the adults that they will one day become (not to mention affordable housing, freedom from violence and discrimination, equal employment rights, and everything else that social justice involves). If we create that culture, I wouldn't be surprised if the abortion rate fell. But for me, reducing the abortion rate would not be the end goal of creating such a culture. The end goal, as I see it, would be to build a society that makes us all proud — one that puts its money and its policies where its mouth is during discussions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if that's not common ground in this country, we're in serious trouble.

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