For the President and Congress to achieve solid reproductive health care policy as a part of health care reform, the Obama administration will need to sideline a few of the professional wrestlers and sports announcers in the abortion rights contest. The ongoing face-off between the “Medical Right” and my pro-choice colleagues over access to contraception, comprehensive sex education, and legal access to abortion provides a dramatized competition that does not reflect the real lives of Americans. In their personal choices, citizens have accepted and embraced the right to informed consent on reproductive health issues. In this case, public policy should reflect private behavior.
Even American Catholics practice a fundamental, and not fundamentalist, right to reproductive self-determination. During the 2008 campaign, most Catholic voters ignored the sacramental threats of shepherds like Reverend Jay Scott Newman, who told his parishioners that their souls were at risk if they voted for pro-choice candidates. (Catholics voted for Obama with a 54 to 45 percent margin.) As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Patrick Whelan pointed out, voters may have noticed that abortion rates declined more under the Clinton administration’s policies than under Reagan’s or under either of the two Bush’s. Voters may have decided that there are higher priority pro-life issues; such as economic desperation, unending war, and global environmental degradation.
For some, positions on abortion and birth control are simply not susceptible to earthly persuasion. More than forty years ago, when a majority of a Vatican commission on birth control seemed ready to support a reversal of the church’s ban, Father Marcelino Zalba fervently asked the members what would happen "with the millions we have sent to hell" if previous teaching was invalidated. Commission member Patty Crowley responded: "Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"
Nancy Belden, a Washington-based public opinion researcher, recently showed that one side of the abortion debate is unlikely to change the hearts and minds of the other. Her polling demonstrated that support or opposition to legal abortion has moved a few polling points one way or the other in the last thirty-five years, but in 2007 56% favored legal access and 40% opposed – a return to 1973. American families have made up their minds and for the most part, they ignore the arguments and the arguers on the other side.
President Obama frequently demonstrates a pragmatic and realistic approach to reproductive health policy: rescinding the theological stem-cell federal funding restrictions; removing the ‘Global Gag Rule’ (Mexico City Policy) that penalized international family planning agencies for supporting reproductive rights, and; rolling back the Bush administration’s ideological 11th hour “conscience protection” regulations. While the President has reached out to listen to fundamentalist members of Congress and to interest groups who disagree, most of the time he has tried to set policy based on practical scientific decision-making instead of partisan crowd noise.
The new Congress and the new Administration must continue on this course of providing leadership on the principle that reproductive health care policy will be based on two foundations of American democracy – reason and science. We must not be distracted from that principle by battles over who holds the high moral ground. Instead, we must keep our attention on developing reproductive health care policy that is down to earth.