Considering the interest in
President Obama’s remarks at Notre Dame, it would seem he has found
a solution to the bitter controversy over abortion. But in fact his
address was not about abortion. It was about dealing with conflict in
a democracy – and it avoided the central question in the conflict
over abortion: how do those with diametrically opposed views live peacefully
together when one wants to vanquish the other? It’s not a new question,
but President Obama is seeking a new direction, which may be troubling.
The president asked:
citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous
debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight
for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly
held convictions on the other side?
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And he gave this answer:
…open our hearts and our minds to those
who may not think like we do or believe what we do [because] that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
My experience of 13 years in
the pro-choice movement is that "common ground" has become another
term for compromise on reproductive choice. In other words, achieving
common ground will be accomplished by diminishing the ability of women
to make decisions about abortion, whatever the personal cost. That’s
It’s unacceptable for even
one woman to suffer in order for opponents of abortion to be appeased.
In our democracy, we believe
in standing up for the rights of the disenfranchised, the vulnerable,
those without power; we don’t compromise them away. We should not sacrifice
women’s lives in the service of calming controversy and tempering anger
over an issue that has become political.
When I, a pro-choice Christian
pastor, counsel a woman about abortion, I try to help her search for
the decision that is right for her and, if she wishes, others in her
life. Her decision is private and individual, a matter of conscience,
personal circumstances that she knows best, and medical facts that only
she and her doctor know. The last thing on my mind is "common ground."
The President rightly wants
us to lower the decibel level of the debate over abortion, to stop using
loaded terms such as "right-wing extremist" and to treat each other
with fairness and civility. But he also acknowledged that, "at some
level," there were "irreconcilable differences" over abortion
between the "two camps." Now, if you accept that women are full persons
in the eyes of God and the law and if you understand justice to include
equality, then you cannot stop working for women’s control over childbearing.
"Irreconcilable differences" over abortion are just that – and
the question now, as the Obama administration attempts to work out policies
to reduce unintended pregnancy, is how to reach a respectful agreement
that honors these differences, not how to back down gracefully.
President Obama’s call for
reducing abortion by reducing unintended pregnancies and making adoption
more available ignores the complex emotional and psychological reality
of sexual relations and personal decisions. Finding common ground about
abortion is not the same as finding common ground about global warming
or economic stimulus. Abortion is about an individual woman’s life
– her decision, her destiny – and there can be no compromise when
it comes to her conscience.
The President went to Notre
Dame to promote understanding and cooperation and he openly addressed
the issue of abortion while anti-abortion demonstrators protested outside.
He spoke to the United States and to the world about finding a way "to
live together as one human family." That’s admirable, but he should
have also recognized the individual woman who stands alone, needing
to make a decision of conscience. For her, there is no question of easing
tensions between opposing camps. There is only her decision – and
that is what we must honor in any attempt to find common ground on abortion.