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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

A new approach to reducing abortions

Speaking at the Riverside Church Aug. 29, former president Bill Clinton said he has “never met anybody that was pro-abortion, and that’s not what pro-choice means. It just means we don’t criminalize mothers and the doctors.”

Clinton’s got a good point. Whatever their view of the legal and political issues associated with abortion, most Americans see the procedure as a failure, a necessary evil, not a moral good.

Our political elites, however, both pro-life and pro-choice, know something they don’t frequently share. The prospect of recriminalizing abortion in the United States is astonishingly small. President Bush, to his credit, has said as much, noting that liberal abortion laws won’t be overturned without a significant change in culture, something that seems unlikely anytime soon.

Meanwhile, that reality has not kept him from using the issue to his advantage whenever possible. Our politics have been hijacked by the issue. The extreme right, aided and abetted by a few bishops whose tactics are aimed at holding Catholics hostage to a single issue, have made abortion the only moral measure of a candidate’s worth. That means, of course, that many other compelling moral issues, not least an ongoing unilateral war that has claimed uncounted thousands of civilian lives, are shoved to the sidelines.

On the other side of the abortion issue, the well-funded lobbies of such groups as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America also have an interest in perpetuating the fear that abortion rights hang by a thread. As does John Kerry, who, on the rare occasions that he raises the issue these days, warns ominously that Bush is an imminent threat to a hard-won right.

In fact, of all the liberties Americans enjoy today, the right to terminate a pregnancy is one of the least jeopardized.

Bush nominees to the federal judiciary -- including those filibustered by Democrats -- routinely declare Roe v. Wade to be “settled law.”

Insiders agree that abortion will remain legal (a constitutional right, in fact) in this country for the foreseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean that it must continue to compete with laser eye surgery as the most common surgical procedure performed in the United States. There are concrete steps our political leaders can take that would reduce the seven-figure abortion rate.

For instance, the 1996 welfare reform bill (currently up for renewal) allows states to impose a “family cap” on welfare benefits -- meaning that benefits would not increase for additional children born into a family on welfare. Twenty-three states eventually enacted the cap.

A wide-ranging coalition -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, American Civil Liberties Union, American Life League and others -- argued against the cap. They said it would lead to more abortions.

They were right. Rutgers University researchers, among many who have looked at the phenomenon, said the abortion rate among welfare recipients went up 14 percent in New Jersey as a result of the family cap. Many poor women facing crisis pregnancies, it seems, made a not surprising choice when faced with the prospect of an extra mouth to feed without the resources to provide for another child.

The conservative Institute for Policy Innovation, on the other hand, claims, “There is very little evidence that denying benefits for additional children will significantly increase the rate of abortion.” Of course, “significantly” is a relative term and perhaps without meaning to the child aborted or the mother who faces a difficult choice.

Even if the institute’s claims are true, they are easy to discount when considered in the context of political debate where abortion is made the measure of a politician’s morality and a voter’s intent. The willingness of so many in the pro-life camp to leap over the issue when it comes to denying benefits puts the lie to the assertion that abortion trumps all other considerations. Despite strong evidence that family caps lead to more abortions, antiabortion legislators enacted the caps. It was a cold political calculation: The lives of the unborn are expendable for reform of the welfare system. It appears certain legislators would rather hold out the fanciful notion of overturning Roe than actually do something about cutting the number of abortions.

It is time to move the “pro-life” issue from the all-or-nothing, overheated abortion rhetoric of the campaign trail into the realm of the possible in the real world give-and-take of our legislative halls. In other words, it is time to raise the issue in a place and in a manner where something might actually get done.

Why not require that every piece of social welfare legislation Congress considers be subject to a “pregnancy impact statement”? Such studies would seek to answer one question: Will the legislation in question make it more or less likely that a woman will carry her child to term?

Such a requirement would not end debate, but frame it.

For instance, would increasing the minimum wage add to family incomes (and thus make abortion a less attractive option) or increase unemployment at the low-end of the wage scale, making pregnancy termination more likely? Let’s get some solid analysis and debate it.

If such a question were asked, the debate over extending Medicaid coverage (many states are cutting back because of tight budgets) to pregnant women and young children above miserly federal poverty measurements would be about more than the budgetary bottom line. Increased daycare assistance for those in poverty would be an explicitly pro-life issue. Nutrition and health programs for expectant mothers could not be viewed solely as “government handouts.” And so on.

The current presidential campaign carries on a loud but fairly empty debate over the term “pro-life.” The phrase has been stripped of any richness of meaning. For certain politicians, it is cheap grace -- a promise about a single issue that they’ll never have to fulfill but from which they stand to reap considerable benefits.

It is time to require those who are “pro-life” and others who want to see abortion become “rare” to put more than words on the line.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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