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Prevention Drives Today’s Prochoice Agenda

After decades on the defensive, prochoice leaders decide that searching for common ground is better than losing ground

By Jodi Enda
Winter 2006/07

When Senator Hillary Clinton, a longtime supporter of abortion rights, marked the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January 2005 by suggesting that abortion was a “sad, even tragic choice” and that it was time to seek “common ground” with opponents, the prochoice community responded with a collective gasp. Less than two years later, other Democratic lawmakers and prochoice leaders aren’t gasping at all; in fact, they are saying much the same thing as Clinton.

They haven’t had a change of heart. But they are changing, or expanding, their focus. It is, leaders and lawmakers say, both a matter of necessity during an era of conservative, Republican dominance and an opportunity provided by an overreaching administration.

After decades of battling strictly for abortion rights, after struggling to fend off restrictions and filing suit upon suit in court, after enduring repeated defeats at the hands of state and federal lawmakers and suffering setbacks in the court of public opinion, prochoice leaders have decided that common ground is better than losing ground. So they have settled on a new tack: prevention. The best way to reduce the need for abortions, they remind us, is to prevent unintended pregnancies.

While family planning always has been central to those who are prochoice, it has taken a back seat to abortion for more than a generation—since the Supreme Court made contraception a right of privacy, first for married couples in 1965, and then for single people in 1972. During that time, birth control has been used by the vast majority of adults and accepted as part of the everyday landscape of America. Without a controversy, there was until recently no need to talk about it, certainly not to defend it. But the Bush administration and Republican-dominated state legislatures have changed that, prochoice leaders say. When they stressed abstinence over contraception and sex education, when they waffled over emergency contraception, when they championed state bills that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions, Republican antichoicers turned back the clock and helped galvanize the prochoice community anew behind the need for family planning.

“It’s not a change in the prochoice community, it’s a change in the climate of the nation,” Nancy Keenan, president of naral Pro-Choice America, told me. “We now have the forum by which we can broadly talk about what it means to be prochoice.” Until now, she said of abortion-rights opponents, “They controlled the turf. They now have overstepped the bounds. They provided us the means to talk about this.”

Conservatives have, in essence, provided prochoicers and some progressive abortion opponents with a muchneeded opening to reshape the debate. Politically, they needed it. The so-called partial-birth legislation in particular cast prochoice groups in a negative light. Although the act did not stop a single abortion, because it was struck down by the courts, it did manage to portray prochoicers as unreasonable fanatics who would support abortion anytime, anywhere, anyhow. For antichoicers, it was a public relations coup. By shifting their public image from “abortion banners” to “abortion regulators,” antichoice conservatives “have been able to win the battle of reasonableness and frame the prochoice side as out of touch with the moral complexities most Americans associate with abortion,” write leaders of Third Way, a progressive strategy group.

By focusing on preventing the need for abortion, prochoicers hope not only to make solid legislative headway and help women in the process, but to win back a public that largely supports abortion rights but does not see the issue as black and white.

Prochoice leaders in Congress have teamed up with a handful of antichoice Democrats to introduce two pieces of comprehensive legislation and some narrower bills that aim to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies. They propose to do this with a number of measures— things like mandating family planning services under Medicaid, increasing funding for Title X (the federal family planning program), providing accurate sex education and access to emergency contraception and requiring health plans that cover prescriptions to include prescription contraceptives. One bill also proposes to help pregnant women who want babies to have healthy ones, then to rear them or put them up for adoption.

They do something else: The measures broadcast a new message to America from the prochoice community and, by and large, from Democrats. They say that it is prochoicers and progressive antichoicers who really want to reduce the need for and, therefore, the number of abortions performed in this country.

“We realize that we’ve been defined and were just starting to realize that the Democrats have really been defined in some quarters as pro-abortion, desiring of abortion, thinking that abortion is a good thing,” said representative Tim Ryan, a prolife Democrat and cosponsor of a bill to prevent unwanted pregnancies and help families with children. “It’s not true. We were a little bit asleep at the switch when this was going on.”

The bills—some of which have languished in committees for months and years, the victims of a conservative Republican Congress—have no chance of passing this year, their sponsors readily admit. Ryan’s bill, the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, was not even introduced until mid-September, in the waning weeks of this Congress. But immediate passage is not the point (though sponsors certainly will have more luck if Democrats take control of one or both houses on Congress in January). With the move toward prevention, the prochoice community no longer has its back against the wall. It isn’t simply battling to save unpopular procedures and practices. It is on the offensive. Finally.

“When you’re placed in that defensive posture and the only option open to you is to respond to extremism—late-term abortion and other issues like that—you’re constantly placed in a position where you look like you’re defending the indefensible. There became the desire to get out from under that negativity and to recapture the vision and values that motivated the movement from the beginning —to be on the side of the angels,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “Let the other side defend against being for those measures that would prevent unintended pregnancies and abortions.” The prochoice movement, she said in an interview, will take “the moral high ground.”

Ryan and Democratic representative Rosa DeLauro, a prochoicer from Connecticut, cosponsored the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, which has become known as the Ryan Act. Both DeLauro and Ryan said it was an attempt to move beyond the familiar, polarizing and increasingly unpopular debate on abortion to something that might unify people around a common goal.

“Above all, what we wanted to try to do was to move forward beyond the question of legality and toward reducing the need and the rate of abortion,” DeLauro told me.

“I think we’re really moving into a new era,” Ryan said in an interview. “We’re kind of just breaking through the old labels. Everyone’s prolife. Everyone honors life…. The issue has been obscured, and it’s been politicized, and it’s really gotten to the point where you’re on one side or the other. There are a few of us who can see both sides. I think average Americans can see both sides.”

But average Americans don’t make policy. As a number of prochoice leaders concede, common ground is nice in theory, more difficult in practice. The conservatives and religious leaders who dominate the antichoice movement do not officially condone birth control, leaving little hope they will mobilize around either the Ryan Act or the Prevention First Act, introduced during the past two Congresses in the House by Louise Slaughter, a prochoice Democrat, and in the Senate by Harry Reid, the antichoice Democratic leader (Clinton has been a vocal supporter and sponsor of the latter bill). On the contrary: A new bill introduced in September by Rep. Lincoln Davis, an antichoice Democrat from Tennessee, and supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other high-profile antichoice organizations, claims that it would reduce the abortion rate by 95 percent in the next decade by supporting women during and after their pregnancies. It does little to help them economically once their babies are born. And it does not mention contraception, which the prochoice community considers key to decreasing the unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion. But it does give antichoice politicians, faced with “common ground” bills that have the same goal in mind, away to say they are trying to do something to solve the problem.

Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers might be hard-pressed to explain to their constituents why they are not backing legislation that makes birth control and sex education, both widely accepted among the general population, more central to the effort to reduce abortion. “Frankly, there’s no reason that anybody in Congress should not be able to support this bill if they want to reduce abortions,” Slaughter told me, after saying that her bill is “stuck in committee and will stay there” for the duration of this Congress.

The situation raises the question of why the bills were introduced in such a hostile Congress. Backers offer several explanations, ranging from the tactical (we’ll be ready if Congress changes hands) to the political (we have to shine a light on the other side’s opposition to birth control) to the practical (we can’t ignore a growing problem) to the painfully obvious (we needed to improve our image). Mostly, they say it is common sense. “Obviously, Planned Parenthood as a service provider has prevented more abortions than any antichoice member of Congress—without making a big deal about it,” Kissling said. “Women don’t want to need abortions. If we are truly responsive to what women want, then an important component is to enable them to avoid having to make this decision.”

Jodi Enda is a Washington writer who was formerly a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder.