Can Common Ground Prevail?

After decades of resistance, some in the pro-life movement are stepping forward in support of pro-choice goals, even if that means jeopardizing their standing in the established pro-life community.
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When it comes to the abortion conflict in the US a fascinating new consensus is emerging: the need for common ground. Americans, it seems, are weary of the acrimony, the endless fight. People want pro-choice and pro-life advocates to work together to reduce the need for abortion. Pro-choice groups have for years pushed measures designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. They have promoted social programs that support poor pregnant women who are forced to make decisions based on economic need. They have pushed prevention over punishment, a mainstay of the traditional pro-life agenda. Surprisingly, after decades of resistance, some in the pro-life movement are stepping forward in support of these pro-choice goals, even if that means jeopardizing their standing in the established pro-life community.

According to Faith in Public Life Poll, the vast majority (83%) of voters, including white evangelicals (86%) and Catholics (81%), believe elected leaders should work together to find ways to reduce the need for abortion. Interestingly, the time may be ripe for a spirit of cooperation. Barrack Obama, with his promise of a new era of post-partisan politics, may be just the leader to promote this cause. When asked about abortion in the third debate, Obama predicted, "we can find some common ground." Indeed, the abortion conflict may emerge as an early test case of Obama's idealism, his belief that cooperation can prevail.

The key development, the one that may make common ground possible, is the emergence on the pro-life side of willing partners in this venture. In fairness, many pro-choice leaders have been cynical about the possibility of cooperating with opponents they often see as irrational and unbending. After all, their only response has been to try to outlaw abortion--a goal that has proven to have little impact on the prevalence of abortion. Ironically, it has been the pro-choice agenda that has lowered unwanted pregnancy and abortion rates worldwide. Primarily that has been through the dissemination of methods of birth control, something not a single pro-life group has supported.

Recently, several daring pro-life leaders have publicly announced a shift in their focus. Instead of seeking bans and restrictions on abortion, which have proven to have little effect on abortion rates, they are now supporting at least some of the proven effective ways to make abortion less necessary. A new breed of pro-life activist, catalyzed by this election, appears to be motivated more by results that timeworn rhetoric.

Take Douglas Kmiec who has impeccable pro-life, Catholic, and republican credentials. Kmiec has served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was the former Dean of the law school at The Catholic University of America. He also started "Pro-Life, Pro-Obama." Kmiec, like all of this new breed, still opposes abortion on moral grounds. He, like several other common ground advocates, has not identified an increase in the availability of birth control as area of common ground. But they have made a striking, and seemingly decisive break from their pro-life comrades. Perhaps most striking is the admission from their website: "Legal status of abortion does not necessarily impact abortion rates." Instead, Kmiec's group has turned to prevention and, in particular, social programs that can affect decisions. "Studies show that economic support for women and families reduces abortion," announces one section of the website.

Catholics United is also a new pro-life group that's calling for a common ground approach to the abortion conflict. James Salt, director of Catholics United explained, "People of faith are tired of leaders who wear the pro-life label without enacting policies that actually prevent abortions. It's time for candidates and elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, to move from rhetoric to results by addressing a comprehensive strategy to address abortion in America." The group's website lists as one of its top priorities "common ground abortion reduction initiatives," including moving, "beyond the angry rhetoric of the abortion "culture war" and enact policies that achieve actual results by addressing the root causes of abortion: lack of jobs, health care, and other economic supports for women and families." Joel Hunter board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of one of the nation's largest churches, explained, "We are not compromising our values, but at the same time we are finding a way we can all accomplish our agenda, or at least a piece of our agenda, together."

And while what might be called a common ground movement has yet to formalize, there is at least one signal of its potency. Common ground pro-life leaders have won the ire of the old guard, anti-abortion hierarchy. Indeed the traditional pro-life old guard, the one at the helm for decades, view this new approach as a type of treason, moral and political. In fact, several openly seethe over the calls for cooperation. Doug Johnson, of National Right to Life, called Obama's common ground approach an "Abortion Reduction Scam." Last month, Joseph Schiedler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, wrote an op-ed in USA Today arguing against common ground and told the Washington Post, "It's a sellout, as far as we are concerned. You don't have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions."

For people on both sides of this long- and hard-fought issue, and certainly for the public, it appears that a turning point may have been reached. Common ground is emerging as a platform on which to build a common sense approach to reducing unwanted pregnancy and the need for abortion, a goal shared by pro-choice and pro-life. Clearly, the sides will not agree on everything - indeed the initial areas of agreement may be small. Yet, it is apparent that many people who are genuinely pro-life want real results, and equally as clear to them is that the current pro-life establishment and the Republican party have failed to provide those. The facts show that the countries with the lowest abortion rates are those which promote prevention, and support for poor women who want, and need help, to continue their pregnancies; traditional pro-choice policies. We on the pro-choice side are eager to have a willing partner, people who like us, seek progress on what has been, up until now, an intractable and divisive issue. Let us hope that the "pro-life" establishment doesn't stand in the way of this nascent common ground movement.

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