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Caveat Emptor: Roe v. Wade at 36

Frederick Clarkson

A new, shiny packaged document promoting "common ground" between the pro- and anti-choice movements is missing something critical: abortion. It's an important concept to discuss on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The Religion Industrial Complex– that sprawling array of political manufacturers and journalistic conveyor belts that deliver their products to market from Inside the Beltway recently produced a document they called Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda. The product was bright and shiny and was pleasing to the eye, what with that heart strings appeal to Common Ground, who could help but fall in love with it. But when I took it out of the package, it proved to be defective.

The document, a product of Inside the Beltway think tankery claimed to have found some of the elusive "common ground" between progressives and evangelicals on among other things, abortion. I might have said to myself, "Oh happy day!" and raised my coffee mug to toast their acheivement.  But I confess:  I was suspicious. Truth be told it was that language about "abortion reduction" that tipped me off.

Nevertheless, as we approached the 36th anniversary of Roe, and the inauguration of a new president and the beginnings of the new Congress, it seemed like a good idea to see what the Democratic Party alligned shops, Faith in Public Life and Third Way that had produced the manifesto, were up to.

I read it. There was something wrong. I reread it. But I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They wrote that their common ground governing agenda was going to be all about promotion of comprehensive, medically accurate, age appropriate sexuality education. Check. The emphasis was to be on abstinence. That’s pretty normal. Check. They would also advocate support for families in ways that would encourage carrying a pregancy to term and better adoption services. OK. Check. And yet and yet, there was something missing.  Journalists and bloggers were writing all kinds of critical things about it. But there was something else. Something missing… What the heck was it?!

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Finally it hit me.  What was missing was abortion. It was then I saw clearly the ring of common ground stamped down hard all around the gaping hole where  a discussion of abortion should have been. Maybe the gaggle of Beltway Insiders and the white evangelical guys they had rounded up for the occasion, had played ring a round the rosie a few times. But my best guess is that they just stood around and gawked before they walked away, abortion reduction talking points in hand.

Two veteran prochoice leaders I talked to in preparation of an article about the "Governing Agenda," helped me to see it all more clearly. In Rev. Anne C. Fowler, the current chair of NARAL of Massahucsetts and Melanie Zurek of the Abortion Access Project I found people who are unafraid to discuss abortion with a breadth and depth of knowledge of a sort that we should expect would be leading responsible conversations about abortion and abortion policy in America. Over an hour or two on the phone, they helped me  tear up the Religion Industrial Complex-generated talking points about  "abortion reduction" (in a cyber kind of way)  — and outlined where the discussion really needs to go.

I wrote up what I learned for the web zine Religion Dispatches just in time to be published on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade – a constitutional advance that the proponents of abortion reduction wish to undermine by distracting us from the reality that a right that cannot be reasonably accessed by everyone, is in fact a privilege accorded to a relative few.

Here are a few excerpts from Shhh…Don’t Think of Abortion, Roe v. Wade At 36:

Rev. Anne C. Fowler, Rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts told me a story about a Catholic nun who once told her that she didn’t know about the morality of abortion, but if we were going to have the right to abortion, then everyone should have access.

The moral of Rev. Fowler’s story cuts to the core of the politics of abortion in America. Though nominally a right under Roe vs. Wade, decided thirty-six years ago today, the reality is that there are many obstacles-some insurmountable-to both receiving and providing abortion care in the United States. And yet, strange as it may seem, there remains a steady silence about abortion which, according to pro-choice leaders, is party due to the stigmatization of abortion. The result is
that much of what passes for discussion is really just an elaborate avoidance of the subject.


Fowler, who has been a long time leader in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and has served on the board of Planned Parenthood adds that, "what is missing from this document, is any acknowledgment of women’s moral agency and their capacity to make honorable sacred decisions for the welfare of their families and for themselves."


Melanie Zurek, executive director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project also hears the silence that surrounds abortion. While she also welcomes the possibility of expanding access to excellent sexuality education, she says that "abortion needs to be part of the conversation." But she avers that it
is also necessary to "remove the stigma against abortion that prevents that conversation from taking place."

But the notion of "abortion reduction" as presented by Third Way, Faith in Public Life and their evangelical allies, presumes that abortion is analogous to a dread disease, the incidence of which must be "reduced." This recasting of the language of antiabortion moralism into something akin to epidemiology, stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream religious traditions of tens of millions of American
Christians, Jews, Unitarians and others which teach that abortion is often a moral choice, and that in any case women are fully capable of deciding when and under what circumstances to make that choice without direction from the state or other uninvited agencies. In short, abortion reduction is a term that is imbued with the very stigma that Fowler and Zurek say is a principal obstacle to engaging in a coherent conversation, even in disagreement.


In addition to the silence in the political arena, Zurek points to the silence in the health care system in which abortion is not integrated into the training of health care professionals; "because it is so stigmatized," she says. This same culture of stigmatization causes many patients to avoid even talking with their regular physicians about it, preferring instead "specialized settings" like Planned

As a result, access to abortion care is a significant problem of health care delivery in the U.S. A major study by the Guttmacher Institute found that some 87% of counties in the U.S. lack a single abortion provider. The study notes a long term decline in the rate of abortion in the U.S. but could not determine whether this was because of increased access to and use of contraception, or the lack of access
to abortion providers. And yet, even of the competing plans to reform the health care system currently being debated, and of the many ideas being discussed, Zurek says: "I don’t know of any agenda that proposes to better integrate abortion into the health care system."