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Strategies to break abortion stalemate

If the United States is to move beyond the stalemated extremes of the abortion debate of the past 30 years, our political leaders and those most heavily invested in the debate must finally resolve to engage in new strategies.

Protecting the vulnerable, whether women or the unborn, has too often been sacrificed to the all-or-nothing ideologues of left and right. It is time to acknowledge the lingering uncertainty in science and medicine in this area and to recognize that perhaps the legal arena is not the best place to settle the dispute over when life begins and what status it should be accorded.

Little movement has occurred one way or another since the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Realists on both sides of the divide expect little to change in the way of abortion availability even in the extremely unlikely case of that decision being overturned. Still, abortion has remained in the background of our politics, with the most extreme voices on either side always a threat to hold hostage this vote or that election.

A strong case can be made, at least in theory, for deciding abortion policy questions at the state or Congressional level. Democracies should, by and large, decide their views of such contested social problems democratically, and not by judicial fiat. But that day is gone. Roe v. Wade, as even Bush judicial nominees acknowledge, is “settled law.”

Bottom line: abortion is, and will remain, legal in the United States.

As a country, things are not much different 30 years after the Roe decision; as Catholics, 30 years after Roe, we are in a somewhat sorry state. The laity is no more accepting of the church’s teaching on abortion -- and no less likely to undergo such a procedure -- than anyone else in our society. As a community, we’ve failed to convince our sons and daughters that fetal life is not simply another commodity that we choose to buy or discard. And the recent scandals, sadly, have done little to bolster the teaching authority of our shepherds.

For the past 30 years, the bishops have freely and almost exclusively spent their political capital on this issue, lobbying fiercely for antiabortion legislation. They have received almost nothing in return. At the same time, by virtue of the candidates they implicitly supported in pursuit of antiabortion strategies, the bishops gave up any chance of making significant headway on the rest of their social agenda.

In no small measure that lack of success comes from the bishops’ demand that everyone accept the church’s conviction that life deserving of full constitutional protection begins at the moment of conception. It doesn’t take a theologian or Solomonic jurist to ask, “What about the millions of spontaneous abortions that occur each day?” Experts estimate that from 25 percent to 50 percent of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, at a very early stage of pregnancy, and that in many of those cases women are not even aware that a spontaneous abortion has occurred.

One can understand the church’s caution in including life from its very beginning as protected. But that point of view has proven an impossible argument in both the courts and legislative corridors.

A bright spot: The day-to-day work of the church’s most able social workers, pregnancy counselors, Project Rachel volunteers, and ministers is praiseworthy beyond words. Far from the bellowing debates, they bring a true choice -- the choice of life -- to tens of thousands of women facing a crisis pregnancy. There are theories as to why the abortion rate has taken a considerable drop over the past decade, and these folks surely account for some of that.

A few recommendations for the next 30 years:

  • When it comes to politics, the Democratic Party must be open -- really open -- to those who do not favor abortion rights. The national party is dogmatically pro-choice, a captive of single-issue interest groups unwilling to accept the notion that people of goodwill might favor restricting a practice they find akin to murder. (Recall the embarrassing episode when one of the more distinguished Democratic governors, the late Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, was denied the chance to address the 1992 Democratic National Convention because he was against legal abortion. The latest victim of this trend, pro-choice Sen. Mary Landrieu, was denied the financial contributions of Emily’s List, the pro-choice political action committee, because she voted to ban partial birth abortion.) Tolerance, acknowledging that differences may exist on the issue, would have the added benefit of helping the party at the polls, which, God knows, it could use.
  • The bishops should find a way to work productively with pro-choice Catholics in high office. Politicians like Sens. Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy and Rep. Nancy Pelosi should not face banishment from public events held on Catholic soil because of their public policy views, nor should they fear refusal at the Communion rail. There’s a lot of good work that can be done outside the abortion arena, and quiet respect, not burnt bridges, is both the prudent and productive course of action.
  • Principled pro-life Republicans should reexamine their antipathy to government programs. Only the government has the means to provide the assistance needed to give lower income women a true choice -- and to the degree that government spending is necessary to promote that option, pro-life conservatives should endorse it. Life trumps ideology.

Finally, all of us -- those for and against legal abortion -- need to take a cue from the Public Conversations Project in Massachusetts (see Page 7). For too long, the abortion debate in this country has been conducted at the bumper sticker level. We should put the days of “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries” and “Baby Killer” behind us. The understanding achieved through genuine dialogue won’t necessarily result in agreement -- in fact, it most certainly won’t. But it might, just maybe, result in fewer abortions, a goal shared by all Americans of goodwill.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003