Abortion and the elusive common ground


It’s a tad puzzling that so many conservatives paint Barack Obama as an abortion-on-demand extremist; in Newt Gingrich’s characteristic hyperbole, Obama is "the most radical pro-abortion of any American president." Maybe they just feel compelled to keep waging the old culture war, given the fact that they have little new to say about much else. In the tradition of our polarized politics, there is comfort in caricature.

What’s ironic, however, is that Obama – far from being radically pro-abortion – has actually ceded ground to the opponents of abortion. The president has little interest in brandishing the traditional "pro-choice" banner; in a speech two years ago, he said, "Culture wars are so ‘90s." And as evidenced again on Sunday, during his commencement address at Notre Dame, he is more interested in a peace pact forged on what he calls "common ground."

The key passage: "So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term." (Italics are mine.)

Despite the right’s caricature of Obama as a pro-abortion extremist, he said nothing at Notre Dame that he hadn’t essentially said before. Last August, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he said: "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country." At a press conference three weeks ago, he said: "I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion, or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again."

The shorthand: Obama wants to reduce the number of abortions.

Moreover, as he indicated in the April 29 press conference, he has little interest in signing the Freedom of Choice Act, a proposed congressional measure that would essentially codify Roe v. Wade and erase federal, state, and local curbs on abortion. As a candidate, he vowed to sign such a bill. As president, he is essentially breaking a promise to the abortion-rights groups by indicating that the Freedom of Choice Act "is not the highest legislative priority." Rather than wage the old culture war, he wants to "tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue" by finding a middle-ground consensus - and a White House task force is working on that project, in part by reaching out to the anti-abortion camp.

Clearly, Obama wants both sides to work together on reducing the number of abortions, a goal that strikes me as being a sensible middle ground. But anti-abortion people are tempted to resist this overture, because right now they’re feeling good about a new Gallup poll which reports that, for the first time in Gallup history, more Americans identify with the "pro-life" label than with the "pro-choice" label. Why compromise with Obama on abortion if the public is trending "pro-life?"

I have no reason to question that Gallup poll, except to observe that the results were primarily driven by a firming up of "pro-life" sentiment among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – undoubtedly in reaction to Obama’s early executive decisions, some of which reversed abortion restrictions imposed by President Bush. And it’s important to remember that public attitudes on abortion are always nuanced and complex. Even as Gallup reports a 51 percent majority identifying with the "pro-life" label, a newly-released poll sponsored by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. finds that by a landslide margin of 68 percent to 30 percent, Americans oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Which is why opponents of abortion – most notably, the Catholic Church – might be wise to seriously consider Obama’s proposed compromise. With Obama new in office and several Supreme Court vacancies on the horizon, there is zero chance that Roe v. Wade will be wiped off the books. And that new label survey notwithstanding, Gallup also says that relatively few people support a total abortion ban. In a poll earlier this month, Gallup reported that 75 percent of Americans want abortion to remain legal in all circumstances or at least in certain circumstances. Nothing new there. Gallup asked the same question in April of 1975...and got the exact same result, 75 percent.

So perhaps, in the spirit of compromise, the anti-abortion camp should consider taking a half a loaf. Granted, abortion is going to remain legal; on the other hand, Obama, by stating his desire to reduce the number of abortions, is implicitly saying that abortion, from a societal perspective, is bad. Coming from a supposedly pro-abortion radical extremist, that’s a heckuva concession. Certainly, the anti-abortion camp can spin it that way.

But Obama’s concession is coupled with a challenge. He is essentially saying that if the moral absolutists truly want to reduce the number of abortions, they too will need to cede some ground – by endorsing some of the practices that effectively reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

In other words, contraception.

Would conservatives who support a government ban on abortion be willing to take a step back and support government contraception programs that would actually help reduce the number of abortions? And would anti-abortion Catholics be willing to do the same – despite the fact that church teaching (as codified in a 1968 encyclical letter) decrees it morally wrong to use contraception during sex...or, as Pope Paul VI’s letter put it, to take "any action" that would “render procreation impossible"?

I sensed, from Obama’s Notre Dame remarks, that he doubts the abortion foes will be willing to cede on contraception and meet him halfway: "No matter how much we may want to fudge it...the fact is that, at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case with passion and conviction."

Considering how tough it will be to forge a substantive middle ground, his fatalism may well prove justified.


In a speech today, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele is promising that Republicans "are going to take on this president with class; we are going to take this president on with dignity."

Class and dignity...Tomorrow, Steele's Republican National Committee will consider a resolution on whether, in the future, they should refer to Obama's party as "the Democrat Socialist Party."