The right-wing assault on abortion reduction.

Science, technology, and life.
July 27 2009 8:01 AM

Culture of Death

The right-wing assault on abortion reduction.

A new fault line has opened in the abortion debate. The fight is no longer between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. It's between militants and pragmatists.

While some extremists have been raising hell and shooting doctors, pragmatists have been hashing out common-ground legislation. Their latest bill, introduced Thursday, is the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act. If that sounds like a jumble of ideas from both sides, it's because lots of bargaining went into it. Among other things, pro-choicers got money for contraception and sex education. Pro-lifers got abstinence-friendly curriculum, a bigger adoption tax credit, and financial support for women who continue their pregnancies.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

The two sides talked, listened, and compromised. Pro-lifers couldn't stand postcoital birth-control pills, fearing they might kill early embryos. The fear was unwarranted, but pro-choicers agreed to leave the pills out. Pro-choicers couldn't stand even the vaguest legislative description of what doctors should tell patients. That anxiety, too, was unnecessary, but pro-lifers agreed to drop the language. Pro-choicers hated abstinence-only education but agreed to fund "evidence-based programs that encourage teens to delay sexual activity." Pro-lifers wanted women to see prenatal ultrasound images but settled for money to make the machines more widely available.

Each side faced the other's truths. Joel Hunter, an evangelical minister and former president-elect of the Christian Coalition, endorsed the bill's provision of "better access to contraception." So did two other pro-life theologians. Frances Kissling, who served for 25 years as president of Catholics for Choice, embraced pregnancy-prevention efforts that "meet women's own goal of avoiding abortion where possible." Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the bill's principal pro-choice sponsor, said at a Thursday press conference that "we all want to see fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions" and that "we must also foster an environment that encourages pregnancies to be carried to term." Such statements are forbidden among pro-choice groups: You're supposed to endorse reducing the "need" for abortion, not abortion itself, and you're never supposed to concede that financial support for childbearing should influence abortion decisions. But DeLauro blurted it out. That's what happens when you open your mind.

For pro-choice groups, embracing abortion reduction wasn't easy. Only two of them, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Catholics for Choice, supported the bill three years ago. This time, the rest came on board. Some of them resent or distrust parts of the bill, but they've accepted it. The National Abortion Federation, a "professional association of abortion providers," issued a supportive statement even though the legislation explicitly aims to shrink the abortion market. Try getting any other medical lobby to bless a bill targeted at its livelihood. That's real courage.

Hunter and other pro-life pragmatists signed on, too. But the militant old guard of the pro-life movement didn't. The militants, led by the National Right to Life Committee, call the bill a "scam." According to NRLC Legislative Director Doug Johnson, the bill's real goal is "financial gains for the abortion industry." How could abortion-reducing legislation help the "abortion industry"? By funding contraception. If you run an organization dedicated to avoiding unplanned pregnancy but in 3 percent of cases you provide abortions to women who ask for them, you're the "abortion industry." And any bill that funds your pregnancy prevention services, even with the legal understanding that you're forbidden to spend the money on anything else, is a "bailout for the abortion industry."

It's hard to take this argument seriously, since the militants don't live up to such scruples themselves. NRLC, for instance, spends lots of time and money fighting campaign finance reform and cost controls on prescription drugs, even as it tells potential donors that their money will "support the life-saving work" of "people dedicated entirely to protecting life." Either NRLC is lying to its donors, or it's holding birth-control providers to a standard of purity it doesn't respect enough to practice.

Since none of the bill's money can legally be used for abortions, the militants extend their objection to abortion "advocacy." The bill subsidizes people who are "advocating for abortion," says Johnson. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says the bill fails to prohibit its beneficiaries from "promoting or referring patients for abortion." David Brody, the White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, adds that the bill would fund "pro-choice groups who either perform abortions or don't discourage them." By this standard, the government can't fund contraception programs run by anyone who thinks abortion should be legal. Which rules out nearly every contraception program in the world.

On the off-chance that you're a pro-lifer who runs a contraception program, the militants are against funding you, too. Perkins opposes the bill on the grounds that its birth-control and sex-education programs would "encourage promiscuous sex." Focus on the Family warns that it would promote "increased access to contraceptives and expanded Medicaid family-planning coverage." Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, objects that it would subsidize "programs such as 'comprehensive sex-ed.'  "

Don't bother pleading that your sex-ed program promotes abstinence. That isn't good enough. Focus on the Family, under the headline "Anti-Abstinence Education Measure in Congress," says the bill would "increase funding of sex education without a major abstinence component." Perkins says it "contains no funding for abstinence programs nor anything to encourage teens and young adults to refrain from risky sexual behavior." How can the militants say such things about a bill that explicitly requires grantees to "encourage teens to delay sexual activity"? Because the bill also requires grantees to provide "information about the risks and benefits of all contraceptives." Abstinence has become a code word for blocking any discussion of birth control.

Ultimately, the militants don't care what's in the bill. The mere fact that some pro-choicers support it is, by their reckoning, grounds to oppose it. Johnson scoffs that the bill was drafted "under the direction of [a] career pro-abortion activist" (Rachel Laser of Third Way) and her congressional "sock puppet" (Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio), who's trying to hide "his close collaborative relationship [with] key pro-abortion groups." Never mind that Laser has put in years of work, antagonized her friends, and risked her career as a pro-choicer for Johnson's cause. Never mind that Ryan has stood up for unborn life, vote after vote after vote after vote, in a party committed to legal and publicly funded abortion. Any pro-lifer who collaborates with pro-choicers is a traitor, any pro-life bill involving a pro-choicer is a "scam," and any Catholic who supports such a bill is a "fake" Catholic. Common ground is impossible. In the name of life, we must fight to the death.

Pro-life pragmatists take a different view. They sought, won, and commend the bill's emphasis on abstinence and parental involvement in sex education. They welcome its voluntary approach to abortion reduction even as they seek the procedure's abolition. And while some of them oppose contraception or doubt it will help, they think the bill is still worth supporting because, on balance, it will lead to fewer abortions.

I prefer the pragmatists. How about you?

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) China's new two-child policy. 2) Baseball and DNA testing. 3) Don't authorize torture till you've seen it.)

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