In his speech at Notre Dame, President Obama called for all sides in the abortion debate to tone down the rhetoric, recognize that we will never fully reconcile our views, and agree to work together where we have common aims. Less than two weeks later, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in his church. In the escalation of words that followed and in the threats of violence by the most extreme anti-abortion advocates that appeared throughout the blogosphere, the President’s counsel could seem inadequate and naïve.
But, I hope that Dr. Tiller’s murder is not an end to calls for reaching across the divide on abortion to forge ahead toward goals that are surely common ground: first and foremost, to reduce the need for abortion by reducing the incidence of unwanted pregnancy. Surely we can also agree that such efforts must uphold the moral agency of women in making the decisions that are right for their individual circumstances, including providing financial and emotional support for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term and a loving community for them and their child. As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision states, "poverty, social inequities, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships" too often "render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely."
More than a decade ago, I was part of an intense two-day common ground initiative at the Wye River sponsored by the Aspen Institute. Religious leaders across the spectrum participated, and we agreed on where common ground could be sought. I encourage you to read the paper that came out of that dialog at the website of the Religious Institute; I reread it just a few minutes ago, and believe that it is as applicable today as when it was written. At that common ground meeting, diverse religious leaders with diametrically opposed views on abortion were able to agree that there were seven opportunities where concerns could be addressed together:
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- Promoting sexual responsibility
- Fostering equality and respect for women
- Strengthening parent-child communication about sexuality
- Working to reduce teenage pregnancies
- Improving prenatal and maternal care
- Supporting the choice of adoption
- Working together to reduce the conditions that lead to unplanned pregnancies.
It is interesting to note that a decade ago we knew that the focus must be on reducing unintended pregnancies not abortion reduction. The numbers of abortions could be reduced by making abortions harder to get through restrictions, threats to providers, and a lack of training. Surely we serve common ground better by agreeing in other words from the Open Letter: "The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly." What we must focus on are the means to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place — specifically, comprehensive sexuality education that helps young people delay premature sexual behaviors and includes information about contraception and condoms, universal access to contraceptive services, including emergency contraception, and education and employment opportunities for young women.
This is the real moral challenge we face. I’ve worked with thousands of women facing unintended pregnancies. They aren’t looking for "abortion on demand"; with only a handful of exceptions, these women sat with me (often with their partners or parents beside them), and they wept as they tried to decide what was best to do. Often they did have financial concerns — not so much about how they would pay for prenatal care or infant care, but about how they could afford to raise a child (or in many cases, another child) to adulthood. Too often, they did not have partners who they wanted to spend their lives with or who could support them. As one of my colleagues has said, such women have "too much responsibility already and too few resources, both personal and economic."
So here is my suggestion: Let’s stop talking about reducing abortions as a goal in itself. Let’s keep talking about reducing unintended pregnancies. This is not only the better public health position; it is a faithful and moral one as well.
Surely this is common ground where all of us can stand.