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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005 04:05 am

On abortion, the new search for common ground


Thanks to Sen. Hillary Clinton for her recent attempt to reopen and reframe the abortion discussion. As a strong pro-choice advocate, she is looking for common ground with those who campaign against abortion rights. Both sides, she said, want to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, promote adoption, and, in general, to reduce the number of abortions.

“We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” Clinton said in a Jan. 24 speech. “The fact is the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place.” Her remarks were echoed by Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “There’s nobody who’s pro-abortion in America,” he said. “But we do believe that a woman has a right to make up her own mind.”

Much of what Sen. Clinton said is what family planning advocates have been saying all along — that prevention of unwanted pregnancies through education, abstinence, and contraception is the best way to avoid coming to the “sad, even tragic” choice. But her conciliatory tone is new. “There is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate,” she said. “We should be able to agree that we want every child born in this country to be wanted, cherished, and loved.”

These are new times. The recent election has Democrats looking for ways to reach out across the red state-blue state divide. But the Roe v. Wade decision, which extended reproductive freedom to all American women, is 32 years old now. For millions of women accustomed to the right to make their own decisions, there can be no turning back to the days when abortions were illegal, unsafe, or available only to the wealthy. So it is appropriate to lower voices, to avoid stridency, to look for what works, and to try again to build a consensus around prevention.

“Yes, we do have deeply held differences of opinion about the issue of abortion,” Sen. Clinton said. “And I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available.” She also praised groups that promote abstinence. “Research shows that the primary reason teenage girls abstain from early sexual activity is because of their religious and moral values. We should embrace this and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do; it is the right thing to do.”

Judith Barringer, the chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Springfield Area for the past 12 years, emphasizes that the clinic has always been primarily interested in family planning, not only abortion referrals. Last year PPSA provided a wide range of reproductive health services to 5,000 clients. In addition, it prevented unwanted pregnancies by providing emergency contraception, the so-called “morning-after” pill, to about 1,500 clients. Barringer hopes that this form of contraception will soon become widely available as an over-the-counter product in pharmacies. Planned Parenthood counselors have at times become advocates for young women who want to carry their pregnancies to term, sometimes against their parents’ wishes. “Our mission is to help support women’s choices,” she says.

There are practical ways to increase the use of contraception, which will do more than anything else to cut down on the number of abortions. The fact is the 7 percent of American women who do not use contraception account for more than half of all unintended pregnancies. Improved insurance coverage of contraception will make it more affordable. Proposed federal legislation would require private health plans that cover prescriptions to also cover prescribed contraceptives. Also, there are proposals to make emergency contraception automatically available to victims of rape, who now account for 15,000 abortions a year.

For many years battle lines have been drawn over whether abortion should be legal. Today’s debate should be widened to make room for those who are anti-abortion but pro-choice. It should hear the voices of women who want abortions to be legal, without government interference, but who would most likely choose not to have an abortion themselves. The new debate should recognize that every case is different, and that women need support as they make complex and difficult decisions. And the debate should be colored with compassion, both for women and for the unborn. Renewing the debate, while changing the terms, can hasten the day when abortions are safe, legal, and rare.

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