The Call for Common Ground on Abortion

Some historic moments are short and sweet. That was the case last Friday with a call the White House organized on common ground in the abortion conflict. In a never before attempted event, the Obama administration merged dozens of leaders from the pro-choice and pro-life movements onto one conference call line and, wisely, muted us.

The team to which Obama has assigned the task of shaping a civil discussion and exploring common cause within the abortion conflict enthusiastically laid out a profoundly sensible plan forward. Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, kicked off the call explaining that their goal is not to change minds on the dug-in issue of abortion. Rather, she explained, the intent is to focus on the areas in which, theoretically, both sides share a common interest. And there are many: preventing unintended pregnancy (including teen pregnancy), reducing the need for abortion, strengthening supports for struggling families with wanted pregnancies, making adoption an option as accessible as any other, and saving lives by improving maternal and child health.

Barnes introduced the team that will help recruit people to the common cause: Tina Tchen, Executive Director of the Council on Women and Girls (she is also Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House) and Rev. Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Tchen explained that they would take the next few months to meet with leaders on both sides to discuss various common ground proposals and to gather new ones. They will focus on projects that can be funded in the 2011 budget, as well as legislation and grassroots efforts that could be duplicated elsewhere.

The 15-minute call concluded with Barnes explaining that the President believes in common ground. This is the post-rant and, supposedly, post-culture war president. Common ground has become his way of framing his approach, a fundamentally optimistic view that if people of goodwill come together they can find ways to work together. Only the future will tell if that will be. But clearly the eminently rational Obama is betting that if reasonable people use reason they can get somewhere.

They promised to be in touch. The nasal-y conference call operator voice came on to signify the end of the call and the culture warriors retreated to their bunkers, awaiting further contact.

Certainly the surveys show that American public pines for the kind of common ground effort Obama seems to believe in. And in the brief but pointed call the No Drama Obama team seems to have figured out where to begin. It's put off limits the dogfight issues, like restrictions on abortion. The Obama team has chosen to narrow the scope. It's a call-your-bluff moment. You say you want to reduce unintended pregnancy? Well, then here's a common sense way to move forward. There has historically been deep resistance on the right to many of the approaches Obama favors, and even some in the pro-choice community, which has largely supported the Obama agenda, appear to wonder about the wisdom of making common cause with groups seen as part of the problem. The Obama team must have wondered whether it will find willing partners for what's meant to be a shared journey. Luckily, for the moment, the mute button was pushed.

And that gave the Obama team a chance to lay out its focused definition of common ground, a vague term which had understandably been open to wide interpretation. Last Friday, in its signature all-business style, the Obama team came to the call with a meaningful, common sense agenda. They're not planning to solve the abortion conflict, and they're not pretending to be miracle workers. But they are hoping to find that, with some good will, there are the solutions to such fundamental issues as unintended pregnancy about which both sides ought not to disagree.

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