When the Supreme Court set standards for legal abortion in all 50 states 34 years ago, no one expected the marches on the mall and demonstrations on the courthouse steps to last this long.
But abortion still regularly makes the news—around votes on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures or for state ballot measures, mostly on proposals to ban certain aspects of the procedure. Then there's the obligatory Sunday morning talk show question to everyone running for office: where do you stand on abortion? Rudy Giuliani gets it every time: "Can a Republican who supports abortion make it through the primary?" It's as though abortion were the only important social issue we face.
But we all know that it isn't. What about other important life decisions we all make every day related to our reproductive health?
For starters, there's sex education, birth control and family planning, the cervical cancer vaccine, and emergency contraception. Movement on many of these issues is being stalled, some might even say hijacked, by the relentless focus on abortion.
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Is this what American voters want? We really didn't think so. And to prove this, last year the Women Donors Network along with the Communications Consortium Media Center (with generous funding from several foundations including The David and Lucile Packard Foundation) set out to understand what voters really think about some of the important issues I listed above.
In short, we wanted to know if it would be possible to broaden the national discussion to a larger agenda without stepping back from support for abortion rights.
We worked with Republican and Democratic pollsters, both liberal and conservative. We enlisted linguists, social workers, reproductive health leaders, religious leaders, think-tank specialists and many others to help us understand the values debate. Harris Interactive then coordinated on-line focus groups, focus and dial groups, and voter surveys.
Some areas showed no surprises and align with many of the polls conducted by leading reproductive health organizations: Americans value personal responsibility—taking charge of one's life and family and helping to make the world a better place. They want a responsible government to focus on safety, affordability and access to information and services. They affirm respect, protection, prevention and planning as values in this discussion. People believe that important life decisions can only be made responsibly if they have access to information and options.
So, you may be wondering: do our findings indicate a potential for the country to move past abortion politics?
For sure they do. We found that 81 percent of voters agree with this: "The current debate focuses on abortion, but there is a much broader discussion that needs to happen that includes issues such as birth control, emergency contraception, comprehensive sex education, stem cell research, end of life decisions and the HPV vaccine, that are just as important."
The same proportion, 81 percent agrees with this: "I may have one position on birth control, another on abortion and still a third on end-of-life. Others have their own opinion which may be different than mine. We should each appreciate and respect our individual opinions. Sometimes, we just must agree to disagree."
In the end, movement on these issues may be as simple as recognizing individuals' determination to have the freedom and opportunity to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. You can read up on all our findings by visiting our web site www.movingforward07.org.
Congress is finally starting to understand the dynamics. As you may know, the Prevention First Act was introduced in January in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid. It was introduced the next month in the House by Congresswomen Louise Slaughter and Diana DeGette. The focus is a larger agenda: family planning, sex education and other ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Let's hope America can now move forward on some of the other pressing reproductive health issues that people face each day.