Common Ground? The Evidence, Please

There have probably been more than enough articles on
RH Reality Check on "common ground" on abortion. I am loathe to add one more, but
motivated by the kind words my colleague and friend Rachel Laser had to say
about my support for the Ryan-DeLauro bill – the Reducing the Need for Abortion
and Supporting Parents Act – I thought I’d better weigh in.

These days just about everything that has anything to do
with family planning or government support for pregnant women is deemed "common
ground." This is an inaccurate use of the term. For example, I support the Ryan-DeLauro
bill, not because it brings together opponents and supporters of the right to
choose abortion (and it is a stretch to claim that it has done that) but
because it contains many provisions that would help women and girls avoid
pregnancy when they want to and expand benefits for women who want to continue
their pregnancies. The bill is not perfect; it is not comprehensive and it is
by no means model abortion rights legislation. Neither is Prevention First, a
similar bill that is the brainchild of Rep. Louise Slaughter and former Sen. Hillary
Clinton; Prevention First does more than Ryan-DeLauro to
provide contraception to women, but it does not include support for women who
wish to continue their pregnancy. But no bill needs to do everything, and
either or both these bills, if they ever made it to committee hearings and the
floor of the Congress, would represent substantial improvements in meeting
women’s needs.

The choice community is more favorably inclined to
Prevention First because it avoids the "Reducing the Need" framing, which is not
contextualized from a woman’s rights perspective. Ryan-DeLauro also includes
some troubling provisions around expanding the availability of medically unnecessary ultrasounds and
providing less than objective assistance to women who are carrying fetuses diagnosed
with abnormalities. (For example, Ryan-DeLauro does not mention abortion as one of the appropriate
choices a woman might make if she finds out through ultrasound or other
diagnostic tests that she is carrying a fetus with disabilities.) And there is specific
concern that anti-choice groups who operate crisis pregnancy centers have used
ultrasound manipulatively and will now get government money to expand that practice.
The bill tries to protect against such use by setting criteria for grantees
such as the provision of objective and scientifically accurate information, but
we all know that there is a gap between how legislation is written and how it
is regulated. (When proponents and opponents of comprehensive sexuality
education participated in a Ford Foundation common ground project, they could
not even agree on what constituted factually accurate information or objective
research findings.)

I have chosen not to quibble and to ardently support both
bills. I wish Prevention First also addressed women who need help continuing a pregnancy,
but not all things are possible.  I think
it is urgent that the pro-choice community, which has been the major advocate
of the range of reproductive choices and needs, do more. But it is hard to
claim that those opposed to abortion have been advocating for
comprehensive sexuality education, reducing maternal mortality or providing
family planning in the US or overseas.

We can do all of this as pro-choice people and
organizations. We can do it without making common cause with those who disagree
with us on the underlying principles that inform positions on all the
reproductive health issues. In fact, there is something to be said for parallel
tracks on the family planning issue: with those who support family planning
because it is a woman’s right to control her fertility making clear and
separate values arguments, while those who support it because they want to see
fewer abortions making their case. We don’t even agree on whether or not there
is ever a need for abortion. Rev. Jim Wallis, one of the most widely-quoted spokespeople claiming that we have found common ground on reducing abortions, objects to
language that says we should reduce the need for abortion and believes there is
never a need for abortion other than to save a woman’s life.  Can we truly say we have found common ground
on family planning when all we have done is found a few people who disagree
with us on reproductive rights as human rights are able to support a bill that
provides family planning funding?

And we really want to be sure that people don’t
think such narrow and heavily caveated support for family planning is "new
ground" for us. Along with many supporters of abortion rights, I fought against
welfare reform, which took women away from their children or denied them
support. I worked for family planning, comprehensive sexuality education and
economic justice and jobs for women. I never needed to stand next to the
Catholic bishops or any other anti-choice group in order to be effective, although I respect them when
they work for things that help women.

After reading Rachel’s article, which situates Ryan-DeLauro
as a common ground bill, I looked at the record on the legislation’s supporters
in Congress and among interest groups. The article mentioned a link that would provide
me that information, but it wasn’t there when I looked. Rachel, it would be great if you could provide more specific info about
the way in which Ryan-DeLauro has added a significant number of supporters for
family planning to the field.
Frankly, I just don’t see it.

Let’s take a look at who in the House has supported the
bill. And let’s remember that in spite of all the hype from the Third Way,
Faith in Public Life, Sojourners and the Catholic Alliance for the Common
Good, the common ground advocates who support all or part of the bill, the bill
which was first introduced in 2005/6 has not gotten a hearing or vote in the House
Health Education and Labor committee to which it has been assigned, has not
made it to the house floor and has no companion bill on the Senate side. I
point these things out reluctantly as I adore Rosa DeLauro and Tim Ryan, but
the facts are the facts. Nor has the bill gained the support of even a handful
of heavy hitter anti-abortion members of Congress.  It
has not a single co-sponsor who is a Republican. Of the 27 out of 435 members
of the house who support it, four have mixed records on abortions, four are
anti-choice and only one, Dale Kildee, opposed family planning before he signed
on to this legislation. Not much progress here.

If Ryan-DeLauro were being actively or passively supported
by organizations opposed to abortion or more accurately opposed to family
planning and economic justice for mothers and children, I’d count that as another
indicator of success. If those new groups got off their butts and away from the press releases praising themselves for ending the nonexistent abortion war long enough to hold lobby days, issue
written statements of support or visit Republicans and anti-family planning
members of Congress to get them to sign on, that would be progress. In fact
that is not the case. In 2007, Third Way circulated a list of "supportive
organizations" behind Ryan-DeLauro (it seems to be the most current list, but
updates appreciated). Enumerating "supportive organizations" is a smarmy way a
group that doesn’t have full support or written statements sometimes tries to
beef up its list of sponsors. I don’t know the full story behind this list, but I do know that
one of the groups listed, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, is so far
out of the mainstream of Catholic practice that it only supported those parts of
the bill that provide support for women who continue pregnancy and not for family
planning. If the common grounders can’t convince social justice Catholic groups
to take the position about 95% of Catholics hold on family planning which is
that it is moral and should receive government support then I am not sure they
have found much common ground, nor are they very effective lobbyists. Listed as
supporters are some major choice groups such as NARAL, RCRC, CFC and the
Religious Institute and Protestants for the Common Good. Of course Third Way,
which is pro-choice, is also listed. I am not sure why PPFA and other pro-choice
groups are not listed. It is not clear if they have endorsed the bill or if Third
Way feared that a list that included all the pro-choice groups would appear unbalanced.
Anti-abortion groups that support the bill are few and it is not clear how much of the bill they actually support.
Three anti-abortion groups are listed: Sojourners, Redeem the Vote and the
previously mentioned Catholics in Alliance.

Rachel also argues that Rev. Joel Hunter, a courageous evangelical
pastor who stepped down as head of the Christian Coalition because he was seen
as "too liberal" on poverty and the environment and has emerged as a leader in
evangelical circles, supportive of Obama and member of the President’s Council
on Faith Based and Neighborhood partnerships, changed his position on family
planning and sex education, but she provides no citation to back this up nor
does she give any specifics. Now, let’s be clear – among Christians, only the
Catholic Church is opposed to the use of contraceptives by married couples. So
I really need to know: what is different about Joel Hunter’s position,
especially given his opposition to lifting the global gag rule? And if there
are others who have changed their position precisely what is the change?  I am scouring the web sites, including that of
Hunter’s church, Northland, and I’m not seeing anything that indicates a shift on
the issue. I raise these issues not to denigrate the work Third Way and others
are engaged in, but to hold them to the standard of evidence we all apply when
we are evaluating the success of a political effort. I want examples and data,
not just press releases with vague claims of having changed many minds or made

So far I don’t see evidence of success.  I would respectfully suggest that those who
are pushing Ryan-DeLauro or the general theme of reducing the need for abortion
as an advance in ending the war over abortion have a lot of work to do before
they set themselves up as the new change agents on the issue – and certainly
before they criticize the strategy of the pro-choice movement.

There are serious analytical questions that have not yet
been answered by those who urge a common ground agenda on abortion or
reproductive health – and that includes the President. The definition of common
ground is weak. Common ground on abortion seems to mean ignoring abortion.

I find my reactions to this current effort somewhat ironic.
From my first days at Catholics for Choice, I reached out to those who disagree
with me. I invited those opposed to abortion to the office to discuss the issue
and present their views; I supported the Public Conversation Project efforts to
bring pro-choice and pro-life people together and even dialogued with their
facilitation with a colleague on the other side. I think it is those
experiences that make me wary of the current effort and somewhat disappointed
in the rather shallow approach to common ground that is being fostered
especially by religious groups.

Anyone who has seriously engaged the "other" knows how hard
it is to really find common ground. It is facile to say, "We all agree that
reducing the need for – or number of – abortions would be a good thing" and
conclude that therefore we have common ground. We may not have common ground at
all. If one set of people believes that the reason to reduce the number of
abortions is because abortion is murder and the other believes the reason to
reduce the need for abortion is because women prefer to prevent pregnancy
rather than to have an abortion, although abortion is a morally justifiable
act, we do not have common ground.

Perhaps those who think they have found common ground on
abortion have actually found common ground on political expediency. They want
to take abortion out of the political arena – some because they want to talk
about other more "important" issues and some because they think abortion is a
political loser. The reality is we need more talk about abortion, not less.
Moreover, while we could do without a culture "war" on abortion we cannot do
without an ongoing cultural debate about abortion, however annoying it may be
to candidates for public office. There are important values at stake in the way
we think about and what we believe about abortion. Whether or not we change
anyone’s mind, coming to understand our differences and respect them is a good thing.
It is not however common ground. It is rather common decency. Struggling for
public policy that reflects our values rather than sweeping them under the rug
is the principled course of action for both those who support the right to choose
and those who oppose it.

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  • marysia

    Frances writes:
    “But it is hard to claim that those opposed to abortion have been advocating for comprehensive sexuality education, reducing maternal mortality or providing family planning in the US or overseas.”

    Frances, I am opposed to abortion and I have been advocating for precisely these things for years, in whatever small ways a person of my limited energy and funds can. There are others like me, too.

    But we are rendered invisible because religious and political conservatives don’t like to be challenged to respect life after birth. And many in the prochoice movement assume we can’t *possibly* genuinely advocate for *any* reproductive justice issue because our stance on abortion somehow, supposedly invalidates the rest.

    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • invalid-0

    Marysia, I have followed your comments on this site and I appreciate your many attempts to highlight your own views. There are individuals and some smaller organizations of those who are “opposed to abortion” who favor family planning, etc. However, we need to be clear that the largest organizations from the Catholic church to Focus on the Family, etc do not support family planning ( the Catholics church for no one and various evangelical groups only for married couples.) or other services and choices we would call reproductive freedom.

    I would really like to see you tackle this in your posts. You no longer need to let us know that you are for family planning, etc. We know that. You have made that point over and over again. Go deeper and deal with the fact that you represent a very small minority of those opposed to legal abortion.

    It might also be useful for you to explore why this is so. Why is it that the majority view of those opposed to legal abortion or who believe that abortion is immoral also oppose sex out side of heterosexual marriage and birth control. Why is it that they oppose all these things? Do you think they are opposed to abortion only because they think the fetus has a near absolute right to be born or do you think there is intense hostility to women’s sexuality and a desire to control women’s lives? It would be great if you would start exploring the motivation of those in your movement who are opposed to the full range of reproductive rights and choices.

  • colleen

    “Of course Third Way, which is pro-choice, is also listed.”

    What does this mean? What about Third Way is pro-choice?
    Third Way lists it’s federal politicians as Honorary Senate Chairs and Honorary House Chairs. Of their Senate Chairs (where anti-choice Democrats can and will do the most damage) all but one, Claire McCaskill has what they call a mixed voting record and Mark Pryor is actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights (which is to say that he believes like most of the GOP and the odious Bob Casey that women should only be allowed legal abortions in cases of rape, incest or to save her life)
    The House list is somewhat better but there are a couple of men on that list (Crowley and Davis) who are anything but pro-choice. The Senate list concerns me a great deal.
    If the organization is ‘pro-choice’ why aren’t the politicians supported by the organization ‘pro-choice’? How much ‘common ground’ are pro-choice women going to find with Mark Pryor or a think tank which tells us we’re behind the times and then does not bother with a response or any real particulars?

    I was very uncomfortable with the essay from ‘Third Way’, I don’t believe that welfare deformation was a great success if the needs of women and their children is of any concern and have never forgiven the Democrats for their part in it. This sounds like a repeat of the horror of that piece of legislation which took me 5 days to read because I kept crying. At some point this country is going to have to stop treating poor women like trash.

    I think it’s a given that religious groups don’t want any common ground, they want money and thjey want power over others. Indeed a defining characteristic of present day Christianity is controlling women and they’re not going to stop until politicians stop enabling them.

  • amanda-marcotte

    And even then, you’ve shown up on this site trying to discourage women from using effective contraception.  So far, I’ve been batting 0 when it comes to anti-abortion advocates who fully, completely, and actually support effective contraception.

  • invalid-0

    I doubt that after 30 years of polarization from both the far left and far right on abortion that anyone has found common ground, yet.

    This piece seems to pour water on the notion it is possible. As someone who is adamantly pro-choice, that is too bad. We have an opportunity to get beyond the narrow beltway mentality that says this is all about politics and policy, and remember that for the vast majority of Americans, a common sense approach that supports family planning, womens rights and seeks to help people make good choices BEFORE having sex, is the best course. Polemics haven’t gotten us anywhere for 30 years, they won’t get us any where now. I read this site because it gives me hope that common ground can be found.

    No, there is isn’t common ground yet, but how refreshing it would be to see people open up to the possibility instead of throwing their weight around trying to prevent a conversation from even starting. President Obama is seeking common ground not because he is caving to the right, but because he understands the middle. The left should open its eyes and seek to grow their support in the middle instead of alienating everyone because they know best. That’s the sort of elitism that always gets the left in trouble.

  • marysia

    Frances, I am all too aware that views like mine are not represented by the Catholic Church or other conservative groups.  I am all  too aware of that hostility towards women and sexuality that you describe.  And I have challenged these attitudes, both publicly and privately, perhaps more often than you seem to know.  For example, I have challenged Feminists for Life on its refusal to engage with the issues of prevention and contraception.

     Frankly, I do not identify myself or other prolife progressives with "their movement."  I cannot be held responsible for "their movement."  But I do have a responsibility to challenge everything I believe it does wrong, and I have, and I do.  

     In the space of RHRealityCheck, there is such a widespread assumption that  all abortion opponents are alike, that the motive is hostility to women rather than concern for the fetus.  I feel as if I cannot even begin to engage with prochoicers here unless I first address these stereotypes.  So that has been my emphasis and my contribution here.  I hope you can understand this.



    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • marysia

    Amanda, you are either not understanding or you are willfully misrepresenting my position on fertility awareness.  You can try all you want, but you cannot make me into something I am utterly not just by the force of your will.

     I actively advocate for ALL methods of pregnancy prevention and freedom of choice among them.  I do *not* discourage women from using methods other than fertility awareness.  

    Fertility awareness is one method and one choice among many forms of contraception.  There are *prochoice* women on this site who have spoken about its potential benefits for *some who choose it.* 


    There is a lot of misinformation out there about it, so I’m glad people spoke up about it.  Not because I want to repress other methods, but because people should have full and free information about *every* method.  People on this site have also challenged the right-wing myths about condoms and emergency contraception, and that’s good, too.


    As for effectiveness…If you look at Family Planning: A Global Handbook for Providers–the secular, evidence-based manual used by the World Health Organization––the effectiveness compares favorably with that of the diaphragm, male condoms, and female condoms. 

    Of course one must practice fertility awareness diligently and careful for it to be as effective as possible in preventing pregnancy, and be thoroughly educated about the method.  But that is true of any method one chooses. 


    Also, there’s a critical difference between fertility awareness and natural family planning as it is taught by the Catholic Church.  fertility awareness teachers are open to teaching single people and lesbians about it, and speak of resorting to barrier methods and forms of sex other than penis-vagina intercourse during the fertile period.  nfp teachers often restrict their students to heterosexual married or about-to-be-married couples, and vaguely counsel them to "find other ways of loving each other" during the fertile period, or forbid resort to "sodomy" then.


    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • marysia

    Beautifully said!


    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • invalid-0

    Dear Susan, I really agree with you that if we are to find common ground it is going to be as a result of sharing our values and beliefs about abortion itself, women’s rights, the concepts of choice and life. It is not likely to be found in the political realm. However, it is in the political realm that those who are currently the most ardent supporters of common ground want to play, thus, this piece analyzes that effort.

    In this political approach I am afraid we cannot let our president and his staff off the hook. If they seriously want to find common ground, they need to bring in the expertise of those who have done that work. They cannot say as they have to date, that talking about abortion is off the agenda. Common ground for the administration means agreeing to disagree about abortion and talking about other things. Now I am so invested in common ground that I think we can talk to people we disagree with about abortion and we might find some common ground about abortion itself.

    This is much harder than covering over differences and stressing shallow apple pie agreements that often fall apart when we try to apply them. It also takes tremendous commitment of time and resources which neither the administration nor various current common ground groups are willing to invest. The Public Conversation Project (check out their web and articles) spent two years meeting with just eight local activists in Boston who held different views on abortion. Their goal was not common ground but mutual understanding of the other. That gives you a sense of the kind of investment we need to make.

    Let me also pitch where a very lively discussion of common ground is going on.

  • marysia

    Frances, I also want to say this to you: while I disagree with you about abortion, I am deeply grateful for your enduring commitment to the "other choices."   And as someone who may myself need a kidney transplant–hope your health is improving.



    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • jodi-jacobson

    Hi Susan,

    I did not read Frances as rejecting common ground, at all.

    Instead, as she has not ed, there is a difference between talk and reality, and the devil of these details is in the actual policies and programs and funding streams that come out of these types of efforts, about which I have beforeand am now again writing myself.


    The issue is: "what does common ground" mean very specifically among people many of whom don’t even agree on the definition of what is a "contraceptive"? if in fact there were a group of people from different sides who came together and said, ok, we realize that women need to be able to choose to terminate a pregnancy and will protect that right, but we want to do everything we can to ensure all people are informed and empowered to have healthy, safe sexual lives, and have all the tools they need, and one outcome among many good ones of this would be a reduction in unintended pregnancies, then we could move forward.But it is astonishingly difficult even to agree on whether non-married sexually active people should be "allowed" to be sexual and have access to services.

    I have been in 4 different common ground exercises in the past 15 years, on reproductive health and HIV and AIDS issues.  What is striking is that we all want to feel good about agreeing that "we all care about people." but the reality is, some see the definition of "caring" for people as enabling them to make their own choices safely, and others see that as making sure they make only the "right" choices as defined by a specific subset of people.  In other words, "caring" comes to mean controlling according to a certain ideology.


    This issue is like "bipartisanship." You can’t make compromise the ultimate goal because you never serve anyone. You need to focus on your values and goals, see where there is some overlap and if a compromise is possible, but realize this is a political issue involving real funding, real policies, and real lives and that is where I think this examination of "common ground" is so very critical, because instead of serving the needs of the very people who seek services, we instead serve the needs of politicians and lobbyists.

    Best wishes and thanks for engaging the debate.  I hope you will continue to engage it.   Jodi

  • amanda-marcotte

    How people who are hostile to abortion are routinely fanatical about the wonderfulness of the least effective form of contraception out there.  It’s consistent with a general hostility to women having sex without "consequences" more than it’s consistent with a genuine commitment to the wee lives of fertilized eggs.


    In fact, if fertilized life is a major concern, you should be hostile to NFP, which most likely results in more fertilized deaths than any other form of contraception.


    But if you were motivated by a discomfort with female sexuality and a desire to make sure that women risked turning their lives upside down with undesired child-bearing every time they had sex, you’d be 100% behind promoting the least effective contraception out there.

  • invalid-0

    It’s consistent with a general hostility to women having sex without “consequences” more than it’s consistent with a genuine commitment to the wee lives of fertilized eggs.

    So very, very yes, Amanda. Though it’s rarely stated directly, in what I’ve seen of the whole abortion/contraception/sexuality debate, the greatest bete noire of the “pro-life” community is a woman who openly relishes sexual pleasure, responsibly and lovingly indulges her desires without kowtowing to the “proper” social arrangements (read: marriage), holds her head high with indomitable confidence and self-assurance, disregarding their moralizing as utterly irrelevant and vapid—and suffers none of the so-called “consequences” that they believe she deserves, be it [an unwanted] pregnancy, STDs, or a loss of self-respect.

    Not to go all the other way and say that all women can or should be like that, but in that fictitious, idealized person, you see everything that our opponents fight against. Everything that keeps them up at nights and drives their campaign of misogyny.

    (I don’t know what kind of symbolic value such a character might have to others, but for me, it’s a touchstone. So much of society is terrified of a woman like this, and I ask myself, why? Why should I be afraid of her? Why should I not embrace and celebrate her? It brings to the surface all the hidden assumptions and beliefs that I’ve held, and lets me examine them.)

  • marysia

    But this kind of argument is not the only one for so called "natural methods."  It is not the particular argument that I have presented you with.  You are not dealing with or engaging with the particular argument I’ve presented you.

    You are resorting to a logical fallacy of "guilt by association" that presents itself as a QED proof that anyone who opposes abortion must therefore be a rank, sex-hating, life-disrespecting hypocrite.

    I just presented you with scientific evidence that FAM can be as effective as other, well-respected methods of contraception.  I can supply you all the evidence in the world that these are not the reasons why I and others, some prochoice and even some prolife, advocate FAM as a *choice among other choices.*  Some women speak of getting to know and love your sexual body better as an advantage of FAM, especially through practicing other forms of sex than penis-vagina sex during the fertile period.


    Is this woman-hating fanaticism?  or is it addressing misinformation about one choice among many and therefore seeking to *expand* informed choice and freedom of conscience?


    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • marysia

    a large majority of people who identify as "prolife" also support contraception.  The problem is that others hostile to contraception have largely hijacked any agenda of real concern for pregnant women and fetuses.

    There are many more people who oppose abortion and yet support other aspects of reproductive justice .  Sometimes movements don’t really do a good job of representing the people they are supposed to represent: case in point.

     And anyway, just because someone’s in a "tiny minority"–assuming for the purposes of argument that people like me are–that doesn’t in and of itself invalidate our position.  The validity of a position cannot be properly determined merely through a popularity contest. There are other considerations.

     And I’m already in a lot of "tiny minorities." So be it.  For example, I am a longtime vegetarian.  I.e., in large swathes of US culture, people find me bizarre and unsettling, even though I am not militant about how I eat.  But I have had people go off on me for example just because I have taken a plate of nonflesh foods only at a picnic, and I haven’t said a word or done anything to call attention to the diference in what we’re eating.

    But just because other people eat lots of meat, and get upset with me cause I don’t—that doesn’t in and of itself determine whether flesh eating is valid behavior, i.e. harmless or constructive behavior.


    Nonviolent Choice Directory,

  • invalid-0

    I did feel as though Frances was offering little hope of finding common ground. I’m not sure what reason is used by anti-choicers signing off on a bill that will help provide contraception. I don’t care why they do, as long as they do it.

    No, I don’t see why these Christian crisis centers should need to have ultra-sound equipment provided for them. But if you think the bill is good enough that you can hold your nose and support it as a positive thing then I don’t/won’t care if they get what they want.

    There’s got to be some way to dial down the rhetoric between the two sides. Seems like pushing contraception is the way to go. It’s sad that even this pathetic bill hasn’t been brought out of committee. Members of Congress obviously don’t want to touch the topic. As someone said it all comes down to not respecting women and their choices.

  • realturk
  • realturk