Common Ground? The Evidence, Please

Frances Kissling

Can we truly say we have found common ground on family planning when all we have done is found a few people who disagree with us on reproductive rights as human rights are able to support a bill that provides family planning funding?

There have probably been more than enough articles on
Rewire on "common ground" on abortion. I am loathe to add one more, but
motivated by the kind words my colleague and friend Rachel Laser had to say
about my support for the Ryan-DeLauro bill – the Reducing the Need for Abortion
and Supporting Parents Act – I thought I’d better weigh in.

These days just about everything that has anything to do
with family planning or government support for pregnant women is deemed "common
ground." This is an inaccurate use of the term. For example, I support the Ryan-DeLauro
bill, not because it brings together opponents and supporters of the right to
choose abortion (and it is a stretch to claim that it has done that) but
because it contains many provisions that would help women and girls avoid
pregnancy when they want to and expand benefits for women who want to continue
their pregnancies. The bill is not perfect; it is not comprehensive and it is
by no means model abortion rights legislation. Neither is Prevention First, a
similar bill that is the brainchild of Rep. Louise Slaughter and former Sen. Hillary
Clinton; Prevention First does more than Ryan-DeLauro to
provide contraception to women, but it does not include support for women who
wish to continue their pregnancy. But no bill needs to do everything, and
either or both these bills, if they ever made it to committee hearings and the
floor of the Congress, would represent substantial improvements in meeting
women’s needs.

The choice community is more favorably inclined to
Prevention First because it avoids the "Reducing the Need" framing, which is not
contextualized from a woman’s rights perspective. Ryan-DeLauro also includes
some troubling provisions around expanding the availability of medically unnecessary ultrasounds and
providing less than objective assistance to women who are carrying fetuses diagnosed
with abnormalities. (For example, Ryan-DeLauro does not mention abortion as one of the appropriate
choices a woman might make if she finds out through ultrasound or other
diagnostic tests that she is carrying a fetus with disabilities.) And there is specific
concern that anti-choice groups who operate crisis pregnancy centers have used
ultrasound manipulatively and will now get government money to expand that practice.
The bill tries to protect against such use by setting criteria for grantees
such as the provision of objective and scientifically accurate information, but
we all know that there is a gap between how legislation is written and how it
is regulated. (When proponents and opponents of comprehensive sexuality
education participated in a Ford Foundation common ground project, they could
not even agree on what constituted factually accurate information or objective
research findings.)

I have chosen not to quibble and to ardently support both
bills. I wish Prevention First also addressed women who need help continuing a pregnancy,
but not all things are possible.  I think
it is urgent that the pro-choice community, which has been the major advocate
of the range of reproductive choices and needs, do more. But it is hard to
claim that those opposed to abortion have been advocating for
comprehensive sexuality education, reducing maternal mortality or providing
family planning in the US or overseas.

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We can do all of this as pro-choice people and
organizations. We can do it without making common cause with those who disagree
with us on the underlying principles that inform positions on all the
reproductive health issues. In fact, there is something to be said for parallel
tracks on the family planning issue: with those who support family planning
because it is a woman’s right to control her fertility making clear and
separate values arguments, while those who support it because they want to see
fewer abortions making their case. We don’t even agree on whether or not there
is ever a need for abortion. Rev. Jim Wallis, one of the most widely-quoted spokespeople claiming that we have found common ground on reducing abortions, objects to
language that says we should reduce the need for abortion and believes there is
never a need for abortion other than to save a woman’s life.  Can we truly say we have found common ground
on family planning when all we have done is found a few people who disagree
with us on reproductive rights as human rights are able to support a bill that
provides family planning funding?

And we really want to be sure that people don’t
think such narrow and heavily caveated support for family planning is "new
ground" for us. Along with many supporters of abortion rights, I fought against
welfare reform, which took women away from their children or denied them
support. I worked for family planning, comprehensive sexuality education and
economic justice and jobs for women. I never needed to stand next to the
Catholic bishops or any other anti-choice group in order to be effective, although I respect them when
they work for things that help women.

After reading Rachel’s article, which situates Ryan-DeLauro
as a common ground bill, I looked at the record on the legislation’s supporters
in Congress and among interest groups. The article mentioned a link that would provide
me that information, but it wasn’t there when I looked. Rachel, it would be great if you could provide more specific info about
the way in which Ryan-DeLauro has added a significant number of supporters for
family planning to the field.
Frankly, I just don’t see it.

Let’s take a look at who in the House has supported the
bill. And let’s remember that in spite of all the hype from the Third Way,
Faith in Public Life, Sojourners and the Catholic Alliance for the Common
Good, the common ground advocates who support all or part of the bill, the bill
which was first introduced in 2005/6 has not gotten a hearing or vote in the House
Health Education and Labor committee to which it has been assigned, has not
made it to the house floor and has no companion bill on the Senate side. I
point these things out reluctantly as I adore Rosa DeLauro and Tim Ryan, but
the facts are the facts. Nor has the bill gained the support of even a handful
of heavy hitter anti-abortion members of Congress.  It
has not a single co-sponsor who is a Republican. Of the 27 out of 435 members
of the house who support it, four have mixed records on abortions, four are
anti-choice and only one, Dale Kildee, opposed family planning before he signed
on to this legislation. Not much progress here.

If Ryan-DeLauro were being actively or passively supported
by organizations opposed to abortion or more accurately opposed to family
planning and economic justice for mothers and children, I’d count that as another
indicator of success. If those new groups got off their butts and away from the press releases praising themselves for ending the nonexistent abortion war long enough to hold lobby days, issue
written statements of support or visit Republicans and anti-family planning
members of Congress to get them to sign on, that would be progress. In fact
that is not the case. In 2007, Third Way circulated a list of "supportive
organizations" behind Ryan-DeLauro (it seems to be the most current list, but
updates appreciated). Enumerating "supportive organizations" is a smarmy way a
group that doesn’t have full support or written statements sometimes tries to
beef up its list of sponsors. I don’t know the full story behind this list, but I do know that
one of the groups listed, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, is so far
out of the mainstream of Catholic practice that it only supported those parts of
the bill that provide support for women who continue pregnancy and not for family
planning. If the common grounders can’t convince social justice Catholic groups
to take the position about 95% of Catholics hold on family planning which is
that it is moral and should receive government support then I am not sure they
have found much common ground, nor are they very effective lobbyists. Listed as
supporters are some major choice groups such as NARAL, RCRC, CFC and the
Religious Institute and Protestants for the Common Good. Of course Third Way,
which is pro-choice, is also listed. I am not sure why PPFA and other pro-choice
groups are not listed. It is not clear if they have endorsed the bill or if Third
Way feared that a list that included all the pro-choice groups would appear unbalanced.
Anti-abortion groups that support the bill are few and it is not clear how much of the bill they actually support.
Three anti-abortion groups are listed: Sojourners, Redeem the Vote and the
previously mentioned Catholics in Alliance.

Rachel also argues that Rev. Joel Hunter, a courageous evangelical
pastor who stepped down as head of the Christian Coalition because he was seen
as "too liberal" on poverty and the environment and has emerged as a leader in
evangelical circles, supportive of Obama and member of the President’s Council
on Faith Based and Neighborhood partnerships, changed his position on family
planning and sex education, but she provides no citation to back this up nor
does she give any specifics. Now, let’s be clear – among Christians, only the
Catholic Church is opposed to the use of contraceptives by married couples. So
I really need to know: what is different about Joel Hunter’s position,
especially given his opposition to lifting the global gag rule? And if there
are others who have changed their position precisely what is the change?  I am scouring the web sites, including that of
Hunter’s church, Northland, and I’m not seeing anything that indicates a shift on
the issue. I raise these issues not to denigrate the work Third Way and others
are engaged in, but to hold them to the standard of evidence we all apply when
we are evaluating the success of a political effort. I want examples and data,
not just press releases with vague claims of having changed many minds or made

So far I don’t see evidence of success.  I would respectfully suggest that those who
are pushing Ryan-DeLauro or the general theme of reducing the need for abortion
as an advance in ending the war over abortion have a lot of work to do before
they set themselves up as the new change agents on the issue – and certainly
before they criticize the strategy of the pro-choice movement.

There are serious analytical questions that have not yet
been answered by those who urge a common ground agenda on abortion or
reproductive health – and that includes the President. The definition of common
ground is weak. Common ground on abortion seems to mean ignoring abortion.

I find my reactions to this current effort somewhat ironic.
From my first days at Catholics for Choice, I reached out to those who disagree
with me. I invited those opposed to abortion to the office to discuss the issue
and present their views; I supported the Public Conversation Project efforts to
bring pro-choice and pro-life people together and even dialogued with their
facilitation with a colleague on the other side. I think it is those
experiences that make me wary of the current effort and somewhat disappointed
in the rather shallow approach to common ground that is being fostered
especially by religious groups.

Anyone who has seriously engaged the "other" knows how hard
it is to really find common ground. It is facile to say, "We all agree that
reducing the need for – or number of – abortions would be a good thing" and
conclude that therefore we have common ground. We may not have common ground at
all. If one set of people believes that the reason to reduce the number of
abortions is because abortion is murder and the other believes the reason to
reduce the need for abortion is because women prefer to prevent pregnancy
rather than to have an abortion, although abortion is a morally justifiable
act, we do not have common ground.

Perhaps those who think they have found common ground on
abortion have actually found common ground on political expediency. They want
to take abortion out of the political arena – some because they want to talk
about other more "important" issues and some because they think abortion is a
political loser. The reality is we need more talk about abortion, not less.
Moreover, while we could do without a culture "war" on abortion we cannot do
without an ongoing cultural debate about abortion, however annoying it may be
to candidates for public office. There are important values at stake in the way
we think about and what we believe about abortion. Whether or not we change
anyone’s mind, coming to understand our differences and respect them is a good thing.
It is not however common ground. It is rather common decency. Struggling for
public policy that reflects our values rather than sweeping them under the rug
is the principled course of action for both those who support the right to choose
and those who oppose it.

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