Four recommendations for Obama's common-ground talks.

Science, technology, and life.
June 4 2009 12:01 PM

Let's Make an Abortion Deal

Four recommendations for Obama's common-ground talks.

Today, President Obama gave an important speech in Cairo to try to bridge the gap between the United States and Muslims abroad. It's a huge, difficult, and brave undertaking.

Meanwhile, at the White House, Obama aides have convened meetings between pro-choicers and pro-lifers to seek "common ground" in the abortion debate. Already, the two sides are sniping in the press and refusing the simplest concessions.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Some of the people involved in the abortion meetings are my friends or acquaintances. They all mean well, and I'm glad they're participating. But they aren't trying hard enough. They should watch the president's Cairo speech. He's making serious concessions and taking real risks. They should do the same. Here are four recommendations to start with.

1. Abortion reduction. Wendy Wright, the pro-life president of Concerned Women for America, describes one of the abortion meetings in an article in Human Events:

Two days before President Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame, I was at the White House for one of the meetings that he spoke about.  About twenty of us with differing views on abortion were brought in to find "common ground." … Melody Barnes, the Director of Domestic Policy Council and a former board member of Emily's List, led the meeting. … Melody testily interrupted to state that she had to correct me.  "It is not our goal to reduce the number of abortions." The room was silent. The goal, she insisted, is to "reduce the need for abortions."

In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten and Robin Abcarian confirm  this basic description of Barnes' views:

Barnes said in an interview last month: "Our goal is to reduce the need for abortions. ... If people have better access to contraception, that's a way of addressing the issue at its root, rather than do a tally of abortions."

Dear Ms. Barnes and other pro-choice participants in these meetings: Please give up this distinction. No ordinary person sees a difference between reducing abortions and reducing the need for abortions. You just look like you're refusing to admit that abortions are worth reducing. Yes, in theory, "reducing abortions" can be used as a rallying cry for restrictions you oppose, whereas "reducing the need for abortions" can't. I see your point, and I've argued it before. But most Americans and the politicians who represent them have been simultaneously uncomfortable with abortion and with government interference in abortion for a long time. A semantic concession won't change that. Furthermore, any "reduction" effort will be judged by abortion statistics, whether you like it or not. So let's focus on reduction through voluntary means and stop quibbling over how it's described.

2. Contraception. Richard Land, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tells the Times that the common-ground talks may be doomed: "We are not going to support the providing of contraception to minors at government expense. That's an absolute nonstarter for us."

Dear Dr. Land and other pro-life participants: You say that life begins at conception and that millions of unborn lives are stake. Back up those statements. Decide whether you're going to be anti-abortion or anti-contraception. And please don't retreat into side arguments that you're just against "taxpayer-funded" contraception or that contraception somehow causes abortions. Next to abstinence, contraception is the surest way to prevent abortions, period. Save your scruples about taxpayers' rights for an issue where nobody's dying.

3. Extremism. The Times report includes this comment from a pro-choice participant:

Tiller's death is a "massive setback" in the search for common ground, said Cristina Page, a New York City author and abortion rights advocate. "It's sort of like having a family member murdered and then being asked to make nice with the assassin's family. It's unnatural."

Dear Ms. Page and other pro-choicers: Imagine some lunatic going to Kansas and murdering the head of a pro-life pregnancy center. Imagine reading in the newspaper that the pro-lifers you've been meeting with are now reluctant to "make nice" with you because, they say, the murderer is part of your "family." You would go ballistic, and rightly so. Please show the other side the same fairness you would expect.

Look at the president. Instead of portraying Muslims as family members of terrorists, he's reaching out to them so that they won't become or support extremists. You would do well to treat pro-lifers the same way.

4. Financial purism. According to the Times, "Already, those who oppose abortion say that Obama's rhetoric on compromise has been undercut by his actions, including the appointments of high-profile abortion supporters and moves that include restoring U.S. funds for foreign groups that do abortions."

Dear pro-lifers: A ban on funding reproductive health groups that perform abortions is too much to demand. If you want to fight direct funding of abortions, fine. But the indirect funding Obama restored is hardly radical. The ban he overturned blocked funding of any organization that even answered women's questions about how or where to get an abortion. You can't stop government funding of anybody who's connected to anybody who does abortions. It's impossible. Stop quarreling about indirect funding, and focus instead on the most direct question: preventing abortions. You might even discover that the most efficient way to prevent abortions in the long term is to fund the family planning organizations you keep trying to defund.

These four points won't settle the abortion debate, but they'd be a good start. Take a cue from the president, and give it a try.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The dawn of cyberwar. 2. Don't smoke pot; vaporize  it. 3. An ad for drinking recycled urine.)

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