Can Common Ground Prevail?

Cristina Page

When it comes to the abortion conflict in the U.S. a fascinating new consensus is emerging: the need for common ground. And while the common ground movement has yet to formalize there are signs of its potency, to be sure.

When it comes to the abortion conflict in the US a fascinating new consensus is emerging: the need for common ground. Americans, it seems, are weary of the acrimony, the endless fight. People want pro-choice and pro-life advocates to work together to reduce the need for abortion. Pro-choice groups have for years pushed measures designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. They have promoted social programs that support poor pregnant women who are forced to make decisions based on economic need. They have pushed prevention over punishment, a mainstay of the traditional pro-life agenda.  Surprisingly, after decades of resistance, some in the pro-life movement are stepping forward in support of these pro-choice goals, even if that means jeopardizing their standing in the established pro-life community.

According to Faith in Public Life Poll, the vast majority (83%) of voters, including white evangelicals (86%) and Catholics (81%), believe elected leaders should work together to find ways to reduce the need for abortion. Interestingly, the time may be ripe for a spirit of cooperation. Barrack Obama, with his promise of a new era of post-partisan politics, may be just the leader to promote this cause. When asked about abortion in the third debate, Obama predicted, "we can find some common ground." Indeed, the abortion conflict may emerge as an early test case of Obama’s idealism, his belief that cooperation can prevail.

The key development, the one that may make common ground possible, is the emergence on the pro-life side of willing partners in this venture. In fairness, many pro-choice leaders have been cynical about the possibility of cooperating with opponents they often see as irrational and unbending. After all, their only response has been to try to outlaw abortion—a goal that has proven to have little impact on the prevalence of abortion. Ironically, it has been the pro-choice agenda that has lowered unwanted pregnancy and abortion rates worldwide. Primarily that has been through the dissemination of methods of birth control, something not a single pro-life group has supported.

Recently, several daring pro-life leaders have publicly announced a shift in their focus. Instead of seeking bans and restrictions on abortion, which have proven to have little effect on abortion rates, they are now supporting at least some of the proven effective ways to make abortion less necessary. A new breed of pro-life activist, catalyzed by this election, appears to be motivated more by results that timeworn rhetoric.

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Take Douglas Kmiec who has impeccable pro-life, Catholic, and republican credentials. Kmiec has served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was the former Dean of the law school at The Catholic University of America. He also started "Pro-Life, Pro-Obama." Kmiec, like all of this new breed, still opposes abortion on moral grounds. He, like several other common ground advocates, has not identified an increase in the availability of birth control as area of common ground. But they have made a striking, and seemingly decisive break from their pro-life comrades. Perhaps most striking is the admission from their website: "Legal status of abortion does not necessarily impact abortion rates." Instead, Kmiec’s group has turned to prevention and, in particular, social programs that can affect decisions. "Studies show that economic support for women and families reduces abortion," announces one section of the website.

Catholics United is also a new pro-life group that’s calling for a common ground approach to the abortion conflict. James Salt, director of Catholics United explained, "People of faith are tired of leaders who wear the pro-life label without enacting policies that actually prevent abortions. It’s time for candidates and elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, to move from rhetoric to results by addressing a comprehensive strategy to address abortion in America." The group’s website lists as one of its top priorities "common ground abortion reduction initiatives," including moving, "beyond the angry rhetoric of the abortion "culture war" and enact policies that achieve actual results by addressing the root causes of abortion: lack of jobs, health care, and other economic supports for women and families."

Joel Hunter board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of one of the nation’s largest churches, explained, "We are not compromising our values, but at the same time we are finding a way we can all accomplish our agenda, or at least a piece of our agenda, together."

And while what might be called a common ground movement has yet to formalize, there is at least one signal of its potency. Common ground pro-life leaders have won the ire of the old guard, anti-abortion hierarchy. Indeed the traditional pro-life old guard, the one at the helm for decades, view this new approach as a type of treason, moral and political. In fact, several openly seethe over the calls for cooperation. Doug Johnson, of National Right to Life, called Obama’s common ground approach an "Abortion Reduction Scam." Last month, Joseph Schiedler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, told the Washington Post, "It’s a sellout, as far as we are concerned. You don’t have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions."

For people on both sides of this long- and hard-fought issue, and certainly for the public, it appears that a turning point may have been reached. Common ground is emerging as a platform on which to build a common sense approach to reducing unwanted pregnancy and the need for abortion, a goal shared by pro-choice and pro-life. Clearly, the sides will not agree on everything – indeed the initial areas of agreement may be small. Yet, it is apparent that many people who are genuinely pro-life want real results, and equally as clear to them is that the current pro-life establishment and the Republican party have failed to provide those. The facts show that the countries with the lowest abortion rates are those which promote prevention, and support for poor women who want, and need help, to continue their pregnancies; traditional pro-choice policies.

We on the pro-choice side are eager to have a willing partner, people who like us, seek progress on what has been, up until now, an intractable and divisive issue. Let us hope that the "pro-life" establishment doesn’t stand in the way of this nascent common ground movement.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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