The Possibilities of Abortion Reduction
By Jonathan Merritt
September 21, 2009
If the abortion debate had a tagline, it might go something like this: "Dividing America Since 1973." That was the year of Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court case, which legalized so-called “abortion-on-demand” in the United States. From that decision until today, abortion has been a battleground for those fighting the culture wars.
Perhaps no social or political issue produces more anger, more animosity and more anguish. Just utter the word “abortion” in mixed company and see if it doesn’t ignite fiery arguments without warning. Today, about 42 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice” and 51 percent call themselves “pro-life.” It is an ideological stalemate.
But despite most Americans’ personal passion on the issue, many seem tired of the debate itself. The sound bytes are worn out and the rhetoric is often devoid of basic civility. “I think there is a lot of frustration that we don’t try harder to find common ground on abortion, and I think that there is some common ground even among many irreconcilable differences,” says Ron Sider, pro-life author of The Scandal of Evangelical Politics. “In general, there is a longing for people who listen to others who disagree with them and debate respectfully despite major differences.” Sider and others like him believe that establishing this common ground will allow for progress while our current abortion laws exist.
Surprisingly, there are many commonalities on abortion among Americans. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, even though most Americans soundly reject the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, a whopping 71 percent of Americans support some form of limits on abortion. And according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 66 percent of Americans support finding “a middle ground on abortion laws.”
Out of this hunger, pro-life Christians and pro-choice political progressives have struck a partnership. Their goal is to reduce the need for and occurrences of abortions in America, and their strategy includes providing additional aid for expectant mothers, increased access to contraception for low-income women and greater incentives for adoption. The “abortion reduction agenda,” as it’s called, is a new angle on America’s most vicious debate, and one that resonates with individuals on both sides of the issue.
“Americans are tired of the rancor and name-calling. It has not only become non-productive, but it has almost become boring,” says Joel Hunter, an abortion reduction proponent and pro-life pastor of the Northland megachurch in suburban Orlando. “People are not weary of the cause, but they are tired of the debate itself. Since overturning Roe v. Wade is not realistic in the foreseeable future, if you’re pro-life, you have to find different ways to combat abortion. I’ve always been a person that thinks that employing many methods toward the same goal is more effective than employing one method. Any progress we can make is still progress.”
Indeed, there is progress just in the breadth of support for the reduction agenda. On the one hand, conservatives like Randy Brinson of Redeem the Vote and Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary support the agenda. On the other hand, progressives like Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism support it.
Still, not everyone is equally enthusiastic. Some all-or-nothing advocates from both the right and left have responded with disdain. The founder of the Pro-Life Action League called abortion reduction a “sell out” and Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee called it the “burial ground” for the pro-life movement. Progressive writer Frank Clarkston claimed that the movement is rooted in “anti-abortion tactics” while Sarah Posner wrote in The American Prospect that it’s “incrementalism masquerading as progressivism.”
Abortion reduction proponents take exception with guilt-by-association comparisons as well as the idea that this common ground requires compromise. “A commitment to abortion reduction represents a tactical decision about the best political manifestation for the church’s unapologetic witness regarding the sanctity of all life,” says Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, who works to bring life issues to bear on foreign policy as director of the Two Futures Project. “To get things done in our deeply divided republic, people who disagree have to work together. Unfortunately, some Christians with a vested political interest in wedge issues seem to care more about the volume of their own polemic than they do about saving actual people—and that prevents a lot of the good that brothers and sisters could accomplish if freed from fear of demonization.”
“The criticisms of abortion reduction strategies are an extension of the archaic modus operandi of the Christian right,” adds Samuel Rodriguez, an abortion reduction supporter and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “It is a political ideology rather than a religious ethos ideology. The religious right became a de facto extension of the Republican party. As a result, anyone who is moved to work with those outside of that party is seen as acquiescing. I get attacked from the extreme right and they say I am selling out, and yet I am more committed to our values than ever. We can find common ground without compromising any of our core values.”
Despite the naysayers, most Americans support an abortion reduction agenda. According to a 2008 poll by Public Religion Research, 83 percent of all voters agreed that “elected leaders on both sides of the abortion debate should work together to find ways to reduce the number of abortions by enacting policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption and increase economic support for women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term.” The poll found similar percentages among “pro-life” voters, white evangelicals and Catholics.
“You don’t have just one side talking about it anymore,” Hunter says. “You have reasonable pro-life people and pro-choice people—including those in power—talking about it.” Hunter is a credible voice on what powerful people are talking about. He sits on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
While delivering Notre Dame’s commencement address this year, Obama’s speech seemed to indicate Hunter is right. “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions,” the president said. “So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”
The president’s opponents, however, don’t buy what Obama is selling. They claim this is mere lip service from a president who has done nothing but push a pro-choice agenda since he took office in January. Bolstering their skepticism is the president’s staggering record.
First, Obama repealed the Mexico City policy, which opened up American funding for international organizations that discuss, advocate and provide abortions. This proved to be the most unpopular decision of Obama’s first 100 days. Next, the president revoked the “provider refusal” rule, which supposedly protected any healthcare professional from being forced to provide services like abortion that violated their consciences. Then, Obama nominated Kathleen Sebelius to serve as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Sebelius is pro-choice and a Catholic, who has been condemned by her bishop for her positions. Finally, Obama reversed the Bush policy on embryonic stem cell research, which will permit the destruction of untold numbers of embryos in the name of science. This record doesn’t scream “bridge-builder” and leaves many people skeptical about Obama’s sincerity.
Yet in the face of all this, Christians can still have hope for and work toward life-affirming, abortion reduction policies under this administration. Obama is speaking about this in ways that are unprecedented for a pro-choice president. He has begun to refer to the unborn as “children” rather than “fetuses.” And he has surrounded himself with pro-life advisors. “The bottom line is that there is a lot of pressure inside his administration to get something done on this,” Hunter says. “He has fulfilled to our disappointment some of his campaign promises. But one thing about President Obama is that once he makes a promise, he does everything he can to fulfill that promise. And he has made a promise to work toward abortion reduction.”
If Obama fulfills this promise, it could revolutionize the conversation. There are powerful implications to abortion reduction. For those who support abortion rights, it gives them a moral umbrella under which to stand. For those of us who are pro-life, it says our position is more than just the sum of our talking points. We must now begin working with people who are on the ground—real people in real communities—to do all we can to protect the unborn. Simply saying we’re “pro-life” and voting accordingly is not enough—it’s the easy way out. The hard work is translating belief into action, putting feet to our faith, transcending rhetoric and seeking solutions.
Finding common ground while still working to completely abolish abortion is something all pro-lifers should agree on. While our current laws exist, why not work to save lives? As Hunter says, “People who in the past have only been concerned with women’s rights to choose are now willing to talk about reduction. I think that is a godsend.”