Ground We’ve Already Covered


In his speech at Notre Dame, President Obama called for all sides in the abortion debate to tone down the rhetoric, recognize that we will never fully reconcile our views, and agree to work together where we have common aims.  Less than two weeks later, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in his church.  In the escalation of words that followed and in the threats of violence by the most extreme anti-abortion advocates that appeared throughout the blogosphere, the President’s counsel could seem inadequate and naïve.  

But, I hope that Dr. Tiller’s murder is not an end to calls for reaching across the divide on abortion to forge ahead toward goals that are surely common ground: first and foremost, to reduce the need for abortion by reducing the incidence of unwanted pregnancy.  Surely we can also agree that such efforts must uphold the moral agency of women in making the decisions that are right for their individual circumstances, including providing financial and emotional support for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term and a loving community for them and their child.  As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision states, "poverty, social inequities, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships" too often "render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely."

More than a decade ago, I was part of an intense two-day common ground initiative at the Wye River sponsored by the Aspen Institute. Religious leaders across the spectrum participated, and we agreed on where common ground could be sought. I encourage you to read the paper that came out of that dialog at the website of the Religious Institute; I reread it just a few minutes ago, and believe that it is as applicable today as when it was written. At that common ground meeting, diverse religious leaders with diametrically opposed views on abortion were able to agree that there were seven opportunities where concerns could be addressed together:

  • Promoting sexual responsibility
  • Fostering equality and respect for women
  • Strengthening parent-child communication about sexuality
  • Working to reduce teenage pregnancies
  • Improving prenatal and maternal care
  • Supporting the choice of adoption
  • Working together to reduce the conditions that lead to unplanned pregnancies.

 

It is interesting to note that a decade ago we knew that the focus must be on reducing unintended pregnancies not abortion reduction.  The numbers of abortions could be reduced by making abortions harder to get through restrictions, threats to providers, and a lack of training. Surely we serve common ground better by agreeing in other words from the Open Letter:  "The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly." What we must focus on are the means to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place — specifically, comprehensive sexuality education that helps young people delay premature sexual behaviors and includes information about contraception and condoms, universal access to contraceptive services, including emergency contraception, and education and employment opportunities for young women.

This is the real moral challenge we face.  I’ve worked with thousands of women facing unintended pregnancies. They aren’t looking for "abortion on demand"; with only a handful of exceptions, these women sat with me (often with their partners or parents beside them), and they wept as they tried to decide what was best to do.  Often they did have financial concerns — not so much about how they would pay for prenatal care or infant care, but about how they could afford to raise a child (or in many cases, another child) to adulthood.  Too often, they did not have partners who they wanted to spend their lives with or who could support them.  As one of my colleagues has said, such women have "too much responsibility already and too few resources, both personal and economic."

So here is my suggestion: Let’s stop talking about reducing abortions as a goal in itself.  Let’s keep talking about reducing unintended pregnancies.  This is not only the better public health position; it is a faithful and moral one as well.

Surely this is common ground where all of us can stand.

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  • invalid-0

    …stop talking about reducing abortions? Isn’t that a basic premise needed for common ground in the first place? Why can’t it be both/and rather than either/or?

    Also, if we are going to have common ground we have to face some realities honestly. For instance, a significant number of decisions to have an abortion (sex selection comes to mind) ARE made causally and without tears. This is why we should have the goal of reducing abortions as and end in itself…its bad…and, as our president said, a moral issue.

    Another reality that must be faced honestly is what the contraceptive reality does. It is well established that condoms, for instance, give people a false sense of security and they end up having risker sex with more partners and with those they have no intention of raising a child. In addition, it perpetuates the idea that one is not responsible for the results of sex because ‘I was responsible’ and used a condom. Contraception also helps spur the mentality that children are the tool of our will rather than gifts given to use with their own dignity which needs to be respected. Europe may have less surgical abortions than us, but this is largely because of the social structures in place for women and RU486…not because of promotion of a contraceptive mentality.

    Let’s focus on putting structures in place to help women and talking responsibility for one’s actions (for both sexes) instead of a mentality which will not lead to abortion reduction but in fact contributes to the attitude which makes abortion make sense.

  • chris-korzen

    I’m often struck by the importance of language in this conversation.  Folks seem to agree that something needs to be done, and they can even come to some general agreement about what needs to be done – as Debra rightly points out.  But when we start to talk about why something needs to be done, that’s when things get sticky.

     

    I think this is a clue as to why abortion is such a divisive issue, even through most Americans fall somewhere in the "middle" of the debate – it’s because folks have a certain longing for validation of their moral concerns, or at the very least not to feel that their concerns are being dismissed.  Hence, the fine distinction between "reducing abortions" and "reducing the need for abortions" has become extraordinarily significant.  Although abortion rights opponents and many abortion moderates are longing for the validation encapsulated in "reducing abortions," many believe this characterization dismisses the legitimate women’s rights concerns that are also at stake.  When we talk about "reducing the need" – well, then we have the opposite problem.

     

    Maybe the bottom line is that neither "reducing" nor "reducing the need" are going to work. We’re going to have to figure out a better way to talk about the "why."

  • jodi-jacobson

    Chris,

    I would have to strenuously disagree. If you look at the actual data on abortion trends in the United States, efforts to "reduce the need," i.e. provide women with essential primary prevention services including services that reduce unintended pregnancies are the single most important factor in the downward trend in abortions. the highest rates of abortions remain–not surprisingly–among those groups of women in the United States (and also internationally) with the least access to contraceptive services, information, and supplies.

    This is just a fact borne out by evidence.  We can not have a rhetorical conversation only without considering what the evidence tells us.

    Guttmacher has done an excellent job of making this information accessible to the public.  Common ground discussions should require some examination and acceptance of unbiased public health evidence.  Otherwise we are spinning our wheels to no one’s benefit.

     

    jodi jacobson

  • invalid-0

    Why would we stop talking about reducing abortions? Isn’t that a basic premise needed for common ground in the first place? Why can’t it be both/and rather than either/or?

    Because if you focus on simply reducing abortions, and not the need for them, that implies that some people who need abortions won’t be getting them. Which is unacceptable.

    For instance, a significant number of decisions to have an abortion (sex selection comes to mind) ARE made causally and without tears.

    Issues like sex selection need to be addressed in and of themselves. You don’t resolve that problem by putting obstacles to abortion, you resolve it by helping to get rid of the perception that values boys over girls in the first place.

    Another reality that must be faced honestly is what the contraceptive reality does. It is well established that condoms, for instance, give people a false sense of security and they end up having risker sex with more partners and with those they have no intention of raising a child.

    In other words, condoms protect against STD transmission and reduce the risk of pregnancy. Maybe you don’t like the idea of people having recreational sex, but that is your problem, and not a problem of public policy.

    In addition, it perpetuates the idea that one is not responsible for the results of sex because ‘I was responsible’ and used a condom.

    What is “being responsible of the results of sex?” Does having an abortion constitute being “irresponsible?” Because there are a lot of married women with existing children who had abortions who would disagree with you.

    Contraception also helps spur the mentality that children are the tool of our will rather than gifts given to use with their own dignity which needs to be respected.

    Buh? Whuh? Maybe contraception spurs that mentality for you. For most people, however, it’s about not getting pregnant when they don’t want to be. If you don’t like the idea of them not wanting this kind of “gift” at a certain point in their lives, that’s your problem.

    Let’s focus on putting structures in place to help women and talking responsibility for one’s actions (for both sexes) instead of a mentality which will not lead to abortion reduction but in fact contributes to the attitude which makes abortion make sense.

    I’ve got a better idea. Let’s do away with this idiotic notion that “being responsible” invariably means not having an abortion. Maybe that is true for you, and we will respect that view if you hew to it in your own life, but the moment you try to impose it on others is the moment we tell you to mind your own damn business.

    • invalid-0

      Isn’t it common sense to focus on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies for the good of the pregnant woman and the possible unwanted child. Think about it; what kind of life will an unwanted child have? If a woman has a child due to societal or religious pressures and not because she truly wants that child, it is a recipe for failure. I have known many young women and even some not so young who had children simply because they thought they shouldn’t have an abortion and because the RU486 method was not available. These situations did not work out well. You cannot force a mother to want a child. When the child is unwanted, they know it on a deep psychological level. These kids end up being society’s problems usually. Frequently they are neglected or abused and turn to drugs and other unhealthy ways of coping. Obviously not all unplanned pregancies turn out this way but too many not to have available to all citizens the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. No one is ever forced, nor should they be, to terminate a pregnancy. So, if your belief system tells you to have that child, then go ahead but don’t assume you have the right to control another’s life by forcing them to have a child they are unprepared to care for. Religion should not be part of our laws in this or any other issue. Women should have the right to terminate their pregnancy if they believe it is the right thing to do.
      When I was young and had little life experience, I believed that abortion was wrong. I’ve learned a lot along the way and I know that no one can make this decision for another. As long as we each have the freedom to decide for ourselves the best result will follow. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot in my life and I know that each person has to make their own decision. Termination of a pregnancy is not the worst thing that can happen. There are much worse things if the the child is not wanted. I don’t believe that a significant number of abortions are done casually and without tears; how would anyone know what a woman feels in her heart and does in the privacy of her own home. It’s absurd to make a statement like that.

  • invalid-0

    I think this is a clue as to why abortion is such a divisive issue, even through most Americans fall somewhere in the “middle” of the debate – it’s because folks have a certain longing for validation of their moral concerns

    Bingo. People care more about being right than actually taking real, proven measures to reduce abortion.

    I think this is ultimately what it comes down to. Even though the anti-choice side is desperate to reduce or eliminate abortion, they have other, unstated goals they are also trying to serve, and these are ultimately frustrating their stated aim. I honestly believe that if they could choose between our world, and a world where perfectly effective contraception grew on trees and unmarried/gay/etc. sex was endemic and unstigmatized, they would choose the former.

  • chris-korzen

    I apologize if my point wasn’t clear, so let me try again.  We need to find a way to avoid letting language get in the way of policies that find broad consensus.  I’m concerned with results, so personally I’m fine with either "reducing" or "reducing the need."  (Heck, you could call it the Kumbayah Plan for all I care).  But I recognize and respect the concerns that others have over the language we use.

     

    So.  Some believe that "reducing" carries a moral judgment;  others believe that "reducing the need" carries a different kind of moral judgment.  Insofar as these lables are problematic and a potential barrier to action, let’s put our heads together, think outside the box, and search for some common ground language that encapsulates shared values.

    • clydweb

      I think Chris’s comment about how using certain language carries a particular moral judgement is precisely the problem: the abortion reduction agenda, even the one that Obama promotes, carries the implicit assumption that abortions are somehow wrong. maybe they are wrong for some people, but they are absolutely right for other people and that decision should ALWAYS be left to the pregnant woman in question, because only she can know what is the morally, spiritually, psychologically and in all other ways ‘right’ decision for her.

      I think the fact that abortion is even debated as a public issue in this country speaks to the fact the we don’t trust women to make the decisions they need to make to live their lives according to their own vision and dreams. We don’t value or trust women’s ability to make moral decisions or be the primary moral agents in their own lives. When it comes to abortion, there is only one moral issue: whether or not women have the right to decide for themselves when and whether to have children. 

      Until we as society can affirm a woman’s fundamental human right to self-determination, there is no common ground.

       

      http://www.birthingjoy.net/blog

    • cristina-page

      Thanks Chris, this is such an important point. Semantics matter, but are also used by those opposed to common ground as a bear trap–keeping us trapped in the ethereal debate instead of exploring solutions. I think there are going to many different areas of common ground we will identify and many of these won’t have any bearing on reducing the need for abortion or reducing abortion–whichever way one prefers to put it. The fact that violence against women increases when they are pregnant should matter to both sides for example. That seems like a potential area of common ground that falls outside the "reducing the need for/reducing abortion" categories. Those who insist on seeing these efforts through that narrow lense risk eliminating many genuine areas of agreement. That’s why the phrase I find that works best is Common Ground, and it’s worth adding to that ‘without compromise.’ Although the Kumbayah Plan has a certain ring to it too.

  • invalid-0

    Why the condescending language? I thought this was an attempt to find common ground?

    I should have thought that my emphasizing ‘both/and’ was an argument that we should try to reduce unwanted pregnancies AND abortion. Why would you then respond by saying ‘if you only focus on reducing abortion’?

    Sex selection abortions, and the like, are evidence that many women have abortion casually. In fact, there are women on other threads making precisely this point…they object to others speaking for them and claim that it is a ‘hard choice for all women.’ For some, it is simply like getting any other kind of medical procedure. I think any common ground movement should call this kind of attitude into serious question.

    But contraceptives DON’T lower STD and unwanted pregnancy rates:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/14/AR2009031402176.html
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032702825.html

    Are you suggesting that contraception DOESN’T create the mentality that having a child is something you will rather than something you are given?

    If we cannot ‘impose our view onto people’ and say that abortions are bad on some level and ought to be reduced then I fear common ground is a lost cause. Standing up for justice (in whatever context) requires imposing our views onto people who aren’t interested in justice.

    • invalid-0

      I should have thought that my emphasizing ‘both/and’ was an argument that we should try to reduce unwanted pregnancies AND abortion. Why would you then respond by saying ‘if you only focus on reducing abortion’?

      Because many people take an “abortion reduction” agenda to include measures that impede access to abortion, which is unacceptable. We emphasize reducing the need for abortion because the work has to happen on the demand side, not the supply side. Focusing on the supply side is the tail wagging the dog, and will cause real harm to women who need an abortion but can’t get one.

      Sex selection abortions, and the like, are evidence that many women have abortion casually.

      “Many?” Where? India? China? It’s certainly not a significant issue here in the U.S.—and where it does come up, it’s usually immigrant families, still steeped in the values of their homeland.

      In fact, there are women on other threads making precisely this point…they object to others speaking for them and claim that it is a ‘hard choice for all women.’ For some, it is simply like getting any other kind of medical procedure. I think any common ground movement should call this kind of attitude into serious question.

      Why? How women feel about their abortions is closely tied to their beliefs, values, and life circumstances. Why do you want to tell women how they should feel? If your father were terminally ill and finally died, would you feel happy that his suffering has ended, or sad that he’s gone? Would you appreciate some stranger who doesn’t know you nor your father walking in and telling you how you should feel?

      But contraceptives DON’T lower STD and unwanted pregnancy rates:

      Where do the articles you linked back up that point? The first one tells of rising HIV/AIDS infections, which can very well be attributed to insufficient or incorrect use of protective measures. The second makes the trite point that condoms alone cannot address the AIDS epidemic in Africa (hint: no one ever said condoms alone would be enough).

      I’ll grant you that contraceptives don’t lower STDs, because by definition they reduce the risk of pregnancy. It’s barrier-method birth control that reduces transmission of STDs.

      Are you suggesting that contraception DOESN’T create the mentality that having a child is something you will rather than something you are given?

      Are you suggesting there is something wrong with taking measures not to have a child if you don’t want one? Make sure you tell that to any woman you ever get involved with.

      If we cannot ‘impose our view onto people’ and say that abortions are bad on some level and ought to be reduced then I fear common ground is a lost cause.

      So, imposing your view on people and saying “abortions are bad and should go away” is more important than actually reducing the number of abortions, by reducing unwanted pregnancies? I guess you’re not really serious about this whole abortion issue, then.

      Standing up for justice (in whatever context) requires imposing our views onto people who aren’t interested in justice.

      Al-Qaeda would heartily agree.

    • invalid-0

      Are you suggesting that contraception DOESN’T create the mentality that having a child is something you will rather than something you are given?

      Sorry to jump into your conversation but this particular statement seems to imply that WANTING to have children is somehow morally inferior to ACCIDENTALLY having children. To me, having a child because you actually want a child is far, far more healthy than being STUCK WITH a child because it is imposed upon you against your will and you weren’t able to avoid it. I have a suspicion that in the long run it’s a lot healthier for the child as well.

  • invalid-0

    So. Some believe that “reducing” carries a moral judgment; others believe that “reducing the need” carries a different kind of moral judgment.

    It’s not a matter of moral judgment, Chris. The former is the tail wagging the dog. If you focus on reducing abortions, but not reducing the need, that implies that people who need abortions won’t be getting them. Which is obviously missing the point.

    If you didn’t like heart-bypass surgery, what approach do you take? Do you close cardiac ORs? (Number of surgeries falls to zero, number of heart-attack deaths soar.) Or do you work towards getting people to exercise and eat healthily, so they don’t end up needing such surgeries later in life?

    It’s simple, straightforward, common sense. It’s obvious in the heart-surgery case, but abortion tends to make people not think straight, so applying the same logic somehow becomes this tempest in a teapot.

  • invalid-0

    Before responding to your other points (many of which simply aren’t responsive), let me pin you down on this one. Are you suggesting that we can never, in the interests of justice, impose a point of view onto anyone who thinks differently? If this is what you actually believe, there really is no point in going further.

  • invalid-0

    Grammy,

    Of course we should try to prevent unwanted pregnancies (though I fear the best way to do this isn’t the way you’d like it to be)…but we should also follow our President and try to reduce abortions. You could make the argument about ‘possible future poor quality of life’ at any stage of a child’s life. Why only allow killing them in their own best interests early in the lives…why not wait to make SURE their lives are terrible (say, at 3 or 4 years old) and kill them then? Perhaps you might respond that we need not kill them but could get them in a home or adopted. And my answer would be ‘exactly.’

    P.S. Why did you randomly bring up religion?

  • invalid-0

    Are you suggesting that we can never, in the interests of justice, impose a point of view onto anyone who thinks differently?

    Never? No. Always? Neither.

    Do you enjoy eating pork?

  • invalid-0

    the abortion reduction agenda, even the one that Obama promotes, carries the implicit assumption that abortions are somehow wrong.

    Why do you perceive that assumption? When your dentist admonishes you to brush your teeth and floss regularly, does that carry the implicit assumption that dental fillings are somehow [morally] wrong?

    There’s nothing problematic about saying that people would rather avoid abortion if they can help it. That does not detract in any way from the idea that if they ever came to need an abortion, they would have every right in the world to choose it and have it done.

  • invalid-0

    According the FactCheck.Org, Obama and the majority of Democrats voted against the Family Adoption Tax Credit in 2007. What hypocrisy from people who say they want “common groun” on abortion and desire to make it “safe, legal, and RARE.” The $11,000-deduction that the bill allows really helps middle class families–like my wife and myself–who are in the process of adoption and for whom the process entails very much financial sacrifice. On this issue, Obama and the Democrats have not been our friends and the concern is now that he will not renew the Republican enacted tax credit in 2010. Join me in fighting for adoptive families and children and against Democrats who say one thing and do another.

  • jodi-jacobson

    I’d be interested in knowing more about the bill before accepting such sweeping statements.

     

    While I well understand politicians often say one thing and do another, there also often are misleading aspects to these kinds of claims.  If, for example, said bill was laden with riders or amendments either not germane to this issue at all but carrying another political agenda, or if it included anti-choice language and restrictions, I would guess there are other issues there than the tax credit.

     

    I do not know.  I am just pointing out that such statements about votes on bills can be misleading.

     

    thanks much, and hope you are able to finalize your own process.

     

    jodi

  • invalid-0

    “It is well established that condoms, for instance, give people a false sense of security and they end up having risker sex with more partners”

    Here is an excellent example of one of the reasons why it is difficult to find common ground. This unsubstantiated statement purports to be ‘fact’ but MAY instead be a value judgment.

    The later use in the same post of the words “contraceptive mentality” are a red flag. What exactly does that phrase mean? ‘Sometimes when people have sex they don’t want to get pregnant’? If that is a BAD thing, why?

    It would be very, very helpful in the attempt to find common ground if there were a portion of this forum which contained scientifically agreed upon facts based upon actual research in the biological sciences rather than allowing each poster to include his/her own truthiness.

  • invalid-0

    Looking at senate.gov, Obama was not present during those votes, although Democrats did form the main opposition to extending the tax credit. Any comment on FactCheck.org on the tax credit is hard to find.

  • invalid-0

    Debra,

    With the recent stories about women flooding into abortion clinics as a result of the recession and the fact that poor women are 4 times more likely to have abortions than the national average, was there any discussion of economic issues (employment, equitable growth, tax policy, welfare reform, access to healthcare, among others) and their impact on abortion at Wye River?

  • invalid-0

    The vote in 2007 was not ‘yes let’s have an adoption credit’ or ‘let’s get rid of the adoption credit’ but instead about whether to make the adoption credit permanent law or to revisit the issue on the normal ‘sunset’ date in 2010. At this point the adoption credit is in place and there’s no reason to think it won’t be renewed next year.