Putting an End to the Albatross Myth

Jessica Arons

Rather than becoming silent on abortion, as Melinda Henneberger suggests, pro-choice leaders must speak more clearly about the reasons in favor of legal abortion.

In her June 22nd New York Times op-ed, "Why Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats," Melinda Henneberger sends a mixed message to pro-choice politicians. She criticizes them for failing to address the complexity of the abortion issue, but she tells them instead of giving up on voters who consider themselves pro-life, they should give up on defending abortion rights. I don't think they have to give up on either.

As Shira Saperstein and I wrote in January 2005:

Instead of retreating from the perceived albatross of abortion (and further demoralizing steadfast supporters), the way for progressives and moderates to broaden their appeal and strengthen their ranks is to show leadership in this controversial area. Leadership requires grappling with difficult issues—not ignoring them. The divide this country faces regarding difficult issues like abortion presents an opportunity for those on the left to demonstrate leadership, not to show how well they can follow. Progressives must ask—and strive to answer—the hard questions, such as what is the proper balance to be struck between respect for fetal life and respect for women as moral decision makers? How can the government best support women in their decisions to have or not have children? How can we reduce the frequency of abortion in ways that preserve rather than compromise women's autonomy?

We agree with Henneberger that abortion discussed in isolation is a winning issue for conservatives. But if progressives and moderates can put abortion back in context and link it to a larger agenda, they may be able to get into some of that complexity that Henneberger rightfully notes is missing from the current debate:

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Leadership also involves articulating a vision. Progressives need to acknowledge that the conflict over abortion cannot be solved with simple solutions. Instead, a comprehensive plan to improve women's health and lives and give them real choices is necessary. Such an agenda would include not only legal abortion but also access to contraception, medically accurate sex education, pre- and post-natal care, child care, health care, paid family leave, job training, job protection, and a living wage. For until we as a society create a climate in which women have the social and economic means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to raise the children they want to bear, we are all responsible for every abortion that occurs.

However, Henneberger herself falls into the trap of oversimplifying the debate—criticizing the Presidential candidates who were dismayed by the Supreme Court's abandonment of a health exception requirement in abortion jurisprudence. Her characterization of their positions ignores the history of abortion in this country:

The public needs to be reminded that support for legal abortion and other reproductive rights comes from a specific and tragic history. Roe did not mark the beginning of abortion in this country. Illegal and unsafe abortions resulted in death, serious illness, and infertility for thousands of women, which provided much of the impetus for making abortion legal. When challenged by those who would criminalize abortion, progressives must remember this history and explain what they are about: protecting women's health and lives, ensuring that children are born into families that can care for them, and keeping women and their doctors out of jail. They must seek to fill, not create, a void in the current political landscape.

Rather than becoming silent on abortion, pro-choice leaders must struggle in this sound-bite-driven world to speak more clearly about the reasons in favor of legal abortion. And it would be nice if the media tried to do the same.

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