My Common Ground Fantasy

Steven Waldman

My common ground fantasy involves both pro-life and pro-choice leaders taking certain premises of each other's movements more seriously in order to break the conceptual logjam we've created.

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly posted an earlier, unfinalized, draft of
this post. The final version is now posted. Some of the early comments
refer to sections of the draft that ultimately did not make it into the
final draft. We apologize to Steve for this mistake.

My “common ground” fantasy involves a pro-life leader standing
up and declaring, “We will be open to looking at family planning
efforts, including contraception, to reduce the number of abortions.”
This would be followed by a pro-choicer saying, “We accept that
society would be better if there were fewer abortions.” Let’s unpack why these sentences don’t normally get spoken, and why it’s important that they are.

you dropped in from another planet and were asked who would be the
strongest advocates for birth control, you might well say, “the people
who care most about eliminating abortion.”  Yet the opposite is the
case. Why?

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The pro-life movement, like any movement, is a
coalition.  The Catholic Church is hugely important player in the
pro-life coalition and, for reasons largely unrelated to abortion, they
oppose birth control. Conservative evangelicals often oppose family
planning for different reasons, a fear that it will lead to promiscuity
and a de-sacralization of sex.

I’m not minimizing their
reasons – the Church’s teachings on sex are thought-provoking, and as
the parent of teenagers, I find much merit in the Christian argument
about the dangers of casual sex. But they are not fundamentally about
abortion.  So pro-lifers need to decide which of their beliefs is more
important: their concern for the unborn or their concerns about the
nature of premarital sex.

Some pro-lifers try to avoid this
trade off by asserting that family planning wouldn’t be effective in
reducing the number of abortions — because contraception would
encourage sex, which leads to more unintended pregnancies and therefore
abortions. But this is a practical, not a philosophical view. So a
truly single-minded pro-lifer, who places reducing the number of
abortions above other coalition or philosophical considerations – would
say, well this may work or it may not work, but there are so many
babies’ lives at stakes, it’s certainly worth trying.

In other
words, what we need are pro-life leaders who are MORE single-issue
oriented, more focused on abortion, and able to disentangle their views
on abortion from their beliefs about sex or contraception. 

for pro-choicers, they’ve been all over the map on whether they want
fewer abortions.  Pro-choice groups cheered when Bill Clinton came up
with the “safe, legal and rare” formulation to defend Roe v. Wade. 

more recently they’ve resisted the idea of “abortion reduction.” Melody
Barnes, the domestic policy director, was quoted as saying those
seeking common ground should avoid using that language and focus
instead on reducing the “need” for abortion.  In an earlier interview,
Barnes said, “"Our
goal is to reduce the need for abortions. . . . If people have better
access to contraception, that’s a way of addressing the issue at its
root, rather than do a tally of abortions."

writers justifiably have called them out on the inconsistency. Why do
you want abortion to be “rare” if there’s never anything wrong with
them?  How do you propose to make them rare without reducing their

There’s also the small matter that these pro-choicers
are out of step with what Obama and Biden have promised.  During the
campaign, Obama said that dealing with unintended pregnancies is “the best answer for reducing abortions.” After his election, at Notre Dame, he said, “let’s
work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.”  Joe
Biden was even bolder: “What we’re going to be spending our time doing
is making sure that we reduce considerably the amount of abortions.”

are some pro-choicers resisting the abortion reduction language?  In
part, they feel  it is “stigmatizes” women, implying that abortion is
immoral. A few responses.

First, having the right to choose
does not mean you get to be insulated from the debate about whether
your choice is moral in every case. Let’s posit that there are some
women out there making immoral decisions on abortion – say, getting a
late term abortion because they don’t like the gender.  A pro-choicer
can look at that case and still argue simultaneously that a) her choice
is immoral b) she should have the right to make it and c) society
should try to convince her not to.  

Second, wanting to reduce
the aggregate number of abortions says nothing about the morality of
any individual’s decision.  It says that as a whole, society would be
better off if there were fewer of them – in part because of the reasons
that pro-choice activists have been highlighting: it’s crazy that a
woman’s choice of whether to have an abortion should be dictated
heavily by finances; it’s disturbing that so many teens have babies;
it’s strange that so many families who want to adopt must go overseas
at a time when almost a million women terminate their pregnancies. 
Those are all good pro-choice-friendly reasons why it’s morally
preferable as a society that there be fewer abortions. 

there’s a fear that if you accept abortion reduction language, it will
lead to efforts to restrict abortions through laws.  But Obama has
already dealt with that by declaring that outside the purview of the
common ground discussions.   

It’s hard for pro-choicers to take
pro-life “common grounders” seriously if they won’t budget on birth
control; it’s equally hard for pro-lifers to take pro-choice common
grounders seriously if they won’t accept the basic premise of the
exercise.  So who will be the brave souls to break that conceptual

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