You could say this is a story
about the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the
The rise of the concept of
"abortion reduction" as a worthy policy goal, currently being promoted
by some in the Democratic Party, has generally tracked the rise of the
Party’s fortunes over the past few years and the accompanying
decline in the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe
v. Wade. The Democrats’ ascent, and Roe‘s resilience,
has been a tough reality for antiabortion leaders to face, but they
are not out of strategic and tactical options. Politics is the art of
Abortion reduction, currently
being sold as the "common ground" between the pro-choice and anti-abortion
camps, has its roots in anti-abortion strategy developed over several
months in 1996 by a coalition of 45 anti-abortion and religious right
America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern was also signed by several Democratic-leaning
activists, most significantly, former Governor Robert Casey Sr. of Pennsylvania
(father of the current Senator Robert Casey Jr.). The manifesto
was published in the May 1996 issue of the flagship journal of Catholic
neoconservatism, First Things (edited by the late John Richard
Neuhaus); in The National Review; and on the web site of Priests for Life, headed by the
militant Fr. Frank Pavone. The source of the opportunity to reduce
abortions, they found, resided in the holdings of 1992 Supreme Court
decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania,
named for the former governor.
Among the forty-five were also
some of the leading proponents of abortion reduction ideas now ascendant
in Democratic Party circles: Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Professor David
Gushee, then of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Ron Sider
of Evangelicals for Social Action.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Subscribe to our daily or weekly digest.
"Now, as pro-life leaders
and scholars," they declared, "we want to propose a program of action…"
And the core of that program was abortion reduction by erecting barriers
to access to abortion "in all 50 states" and creating incentives
for women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term.
While the signers agreed that
the regulations upheld in the Casey decision "do not afford
any direct legal protection to the unborn child," they emphasized
that "experience has shown that such regulations–genuine informed
consent, waiting periods, parental notification--reduce abortions
in a locality, especially when coupled with positive efforts to promote
alternatives to abortion and service to women in crisis." [Emphasis
Abortion Reduction and Criminalization
This was, however, cast in
the context of the wider goal of criminalization. Having declared abortion
to be among other things, child killing, an act of "lethal violence,"
and a usurpation of the rule of law, the signatories added: "Any criminal sanctions considered in such legislation [then being
considered by Congress] should fall upon abortionists, not upon women
in crisis." They further urged Congress to "recognize the unborn
child as a human person entitled to the protection of the Constitution."
They believed that "a broad-based
legal and political strategy is essential," and therefore, found "no
contradiction between a rigorous adherence to our ultimate goal and
the pursuit of reforms that advance us toward that goal."
"Legal reforms that fall
short of our goal," they concluded, "but which help move us toward
it, save lives and aid in the process of moral and cultural renewal."
Other prominent signatories,
led by host George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (the
official biographer of Pope John Paul II) included Catholic legal scholar
Robert P. George of Princeton; Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon,
(whom George W. Bush would appoint as Ambassador to the Vatican), James
Dobson of Focus on the Family, Ralph Reed of the then-powerful Christian
Coalition, law professor Michael W. McConnell of the University of Chicago;
Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America; William Kristol then
of the Project for the Republican Future, now a contributor to Fox
News, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher at the University
of Chicago, and currently a co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and
While this top drawer coalition
of antiabortion leaders of the day did not mention sexuality education
and contraception as legitimate means of preventing unwanted pregnancies
(and thus "abortion reduction"), at least three of them went on
to play prominent roles in the development of the "common ground"
agenda on abortion reduction recently announced by the Democratic Party-aligned DC think tanks, Faith in Public Life and Third Way, in their
Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda to End the Culture
This document highlighted sexuality education (with an emphasis on abstinence),
access to contraception, and economic supports for adoption, as areas
of "common ground" on abortion.
CLURT did not mention erecting
further barriers of the sort legitimized in the Casey decision. Nor did it address the need to provide for better access
to abortion care, which unavailable in 87% of the counties in the United
States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Among the seven principal authors
of CLURT, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action also signed the
1996 antiabortion manifesto; while David Gushee, now of Mercer University
states in his curriculum
that he "participated in the drafting" of the document.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners signed both.
"Public policy has its limits,"
Gushee declared at the January 15th press conference
announcing CLURT. "We call for abortion reduction. I support this
because I believe that one of the things that must not be done to human
beings is to abort them; and yet those facing crisis pregnancies need
help to create the conditions in which they can sustain and protect
the lives for which they are now responsible."
Abortion Reduction Reductionism
What is remarkable is how one
of the signature antiabortion tactics of the 1990s has now migrated
into the Democratic Party under the guise of offering "common ground."
Abortion reduction was once a matter of preventing people from exercising
their right to receive and to provide abortion care. Now a few politically
savvy Protestant evangelicals and an apparently growing number of Democrats
pols are willing to redefine historic ideas of the role of sexuality
education and family planning in terms of abortion reduction.
Used in this way, along with
economic supports for pregnancy and adoption, pro-choice politicians
including President Obama use the term and its close variants to show
pro-lifers that they can better reduce the number of abortions than anti-choice
It is clever politics. But
there is more to it. There are profound differences just underneath
the surface of a seemingly minor tug of war over semantics. These differences
are blurred by the invocation of common ground language. The difference
was cast in sharp relief last year during negotiations over the wording of the Democratic
Party Platform position on abortion. Prolife
evangelicals led by Jim Wallis (and CLURT co-author Joel Hunter) disagreed
with pro-choice leaders over language that sought to reduce the need
for abortion as distinct from the number of abortions. In the
end, the platform unambiguously supported Roe and recognized the need
for abortion. In exchange, the platform also called for greater support
for women who seek to carry their pregnancies to term and for the adoption
option. But the platform avoided the term "abortion reduction."
But have Gushee, Wallis and
Sider changed their views? In 1996 they believed that there is never
a "need" for abortion; rejected the idea that it is ever a moral
choice; and unequivocally stated that criminalization was a goal of
antiabortion legislation — even while they also pursued abortion reduction
tactics under the rubric of Casey. Today, they face different
political circumstances and the Democrats have made some accommodations
in the platform that will likely be implemented in legislation.
The CLURT statement joins a
few pro-choice think tankers with a few prominent moderate evangelicals
in agreeing on broad principles related to sexuality education and family
planning. But that’s it. Why then, is it important?
It is important because of
the prominence of these groups in seeking to define what a faith-based,
common ground "governing agenda" might look like. But it is
significant also because of what it does and what it does not do.
First, in its summary language,
CLURT seeks to have it both ways, papering over vital differences with
the slight of hand of language.
(reducing abortion through reducing unintended pregnancies, supporting
pregnant women, and increasing support for adoption)" [Bolding in
Second, the pro-choice agenda
has always been about expanding access to abortion such that everyone
who needs one can get one; and emphasizing that there should be comprehensive
sex ed and access to contraception so that women and girls can control
their own reproductive future and will not have to make the
choice between termination and carrying a pregnancy to term. But unlike
the Democratic Platform, there is nothing in the CLURT statement that
acknowledges the right to or need for abortion — let alone that universal
access is a dream that is far from realized.
Third, there is nothing in
the CLURT document that suggests that Gushee, Wallis and Sider and their
ant-iabortion allies will not pursue Casey-based policies that
erect obstacles to abortion in the name of reduction, in those states
where it is politically possible to do so.
That these leaders were able
to agree in principle on sexuality education and family planning is
no small thing. But it is not the same thing as finding common ground
on abortion nor does it reflect a commitment to reducing barriers to
abortion or in any way increasing access.
The concept of "abortion
reduction" as a public policy has come a long way since 1996, and
at the same time, no distance at all.