Courting Common Ground

Sarah Brown

In the struggle over abortion and, more recently, abstinence-only education, attention has strayed away from what the CDC recognizes as one of the 10 greatest public health advances of the 20th century- modern methods of family planning.

When our three girls were little, I took a firm, good-feminist stand against having any Barbie dolls and their related paraphernalia in the house. 
But one day, a neighbor
whose daughter was well into her 20s arrived on our door step with a
refrigerator-size box of uninvited hand me downs — 27 Barbies, 12 Kens, a more
or less intact Barbie Pool and Patio Set
plus at least 50 outfits, a workable Barbie car and numerous other plastic items whose shape and size I no longer remember even though for years I could identify each and every one.  

Our family, of course, immediately sank into a haze of Barbies and as horrifying as it all was to me–a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine–I found it very interesting to watch what my girls and their friends did with the piles of pink. 

In essence, they spent literally hours planning and negotiating a sort of scenario or playlet that was to occur between the plastic characters-that is, what shall Barbie and Ken do, as in, "let’s pretend that Barbie and Ken are on a date and then maybe they go to dinner…and then let’s pretend that he kisses her and then…"  Mind you, this was in a simpler time, before the era of random hook ups, sexting, and Twittering about, well, everything.  But I vividly recall that the actual acting out of the scene rarely happened.  Rather, all the energy went to setting the stage and, of course, dressing the leading lady.  When it was time to put the pedal to the metal–for Ken and Barbie to actually get in the Barbie car and head out–the enchantment faded and the game ended.

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I think of those days when I observe current efforts to build common ground in the midst of the abortion wars.  As in Barbie-land, the major players seem to be stuck in the start-up phase.  Long-standing positions are re-articulated, old wounds are revisited; words are parsed and scrutinized, and mutual distrust reigns.  To its credit, the White House has been asking the two sides to sit together and talk, just talk, although even that seems a stretch for some of the warriors.  The unconscionable murder of Dr. Tiller on May 31 is likely to make even this modest step more difficult.     

But I have yet to see a serious attempt to act on the possibility or promise of common ground-to even try a first date.  My suggestion for the inauguration of this common ground forum, therefore, is that we move quite quickly to a concrete step, having stipulated that the abortion disagreements are intense and long-standing and that minds are not going to change in the near term.  

Proposal: Contraception should always be used carefully and consistently by sexually active couples unless they are seeking pregnancy —  and, further, couples should seek pregnancy only when they are fully committed to each other and to the decades of devotion needed to raise the child they hope to create. I sometimes refer to this as "old-fashioned" family planning.  It is not abortion; it is going upstream from that most difficult step.  It is the poster child for prevention.  More than 95 percent of Americans have used some means to reduce their chances of pregnancy; family planning is practiced by people of all religions, income levels and race/ethnicities in the U.S. and around the world; and polls show that strong support for it is widespread.  Even so, there is a certain timidity about supporting family planning, even in the current push for health care reform which is really quite remarkable given all the lip service to prevention by leaders who often seem to have, surprise surprise, only two or three children at most.    

My tentative explanation for this queasiness is that we have lost our common understanding of this oldest of interventions, whose roots go back to Cleopatra if not earlier.  In the struggle over abortion and, more recently, abstinence-only education, attention has strayed away from what the CDC recognizes as one of the 10 greatest public health advances of the 20th century, modern methods of family planning, which they place on a par with immunizations and sanitation.  They note, too, that the ability to control when to become pregnant may well be one of the most important contributions to the advancement of women worldwide. Family planning benefits future generations by increasing the chances that babies are born to couples who are up to the demanding task of raising children, which is perhaps the most important thing any of us do, except blog and Twitter, I suppose (just kidding).

So how about we take back the night?  Prevention (modern contraception) is not the same as intervention (abortion).  The inevitable testiness over "what about minors" or "what about Method X that I don’t like or approve of" remain side issues.  Our goal must be to work on a common, central cultural narrative that addresses the bulk of the population and the vast majority of situations.  Getting pregnant and/or causing pregnancy are momentous events and we need to take them far more seriously.  Women in America report that a full half of their pregnancies are unplanned and often deeply unwanted at the time of conception.  How about we reduce that number by 50% through a combination of responsible policies and responsible behavior?  Not such a scary thought, is it?  

Wow.  What a first date.     

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