If you listen to the abortion debate long enough, you'll hear pro-lifers accuse opponents of being “pro-abortion.” The pro-choice side bristles, “We're not pro-abortion; we merely want abortion to be safe, legal and rare.” Then they resume screaming at each other.
If they could hold a real conversation they might find common ground. Without surrendering their most passionate arguments, both manage to claim they want fewer abortions. They're just not hearing each other.
Currently, one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. The vast majority of terminated pregnancies result from consensual sex. Half of the roughly 1.5 million women electing this procedure annually have had at least one prior abortion. Fewer educated and higher income women are having abortions, while the percentage of abortions by those less educated and wealthy is increasing.
Though they share the goal of reducing abortions, both sides get hung up on political maneuvering, or are frozen by fear that the smallest concession might erode their core position. Sometimes other agendas trump medical advances that incontestably would dampen demand for abortions.
Consider the controversy over emergency contraception, the “morning after pill.” This contraceptive is available over the counter in 30 industrialized nations, but not the United States. Despite the conclusion of the advisory panel to the Federal Drug Administration and the agency's professional staff that the pill is safe, the Bush appointees who control the agency won't budge. Their intransigence has nothing to do with women's health. Rather, they are driven by misguided puritanical notions that making it easier to prevent unwanted pregnancies—even if it means fewer abortions—could encourage increased promiscuity. This is the same sort of contorted—“sick” would be more accurate—reasoning behind the far-right's objections to a vaccine against the virus that causes cervical cancer. Some ideologues would actually rather see women die than eliminate a fatal form of cancer they value as a deterrent to increased sexual activity.
Come Oct. 19, activists on both sides of the debate will have an opportunity to prove just how much reducing the number of abortions matters to them. On that day, Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, with at least six Democratic cosponsors, will introduce the “95-10 Empower Act.” The legislation takes its title from its goal of reducing the number of abortions performed in America by 95 percent over the next 10 years.
Ryan's legislation avoids paralyzing ideological controversies. It steers clear of slippery slopes. It targets reduction in abortions without touching the right to abortion.
Its principle tools are increased information, education and greater practical support for pregnant women—in short, “empowerment.” For example, it would require insurance coverage for contraception and provide money to high schools for pregnancy prevention programs. Grants would go to universities and colleges so pregnant students could continue their education if they keep their child or choose an adoption plan. The bill would also bar the health insurance industry's discriminatory practice of treating pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition,” and eliminate an excuse for denying coverage.
Ryan's bill would improve the flow of information about resources for pregnant women, including making it easier to use ultrasound equipment. The most reactionary pro-choice advocates might be suspicious of this provision, because the experience of recognizing another human life within themselves could dissuade more women from choosing abortion. But increasing information and knowledge empowers women, regardless of how they exercise their personal right to choose.
Ryan would put real resources, not just rhetoric, behind his bill. He would fully fund Special Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), provide grants to implement safe haven laws for women who leave unwanted babies at churches and hospitals, and mandate State Health Insurance Program coverage for pregnant women and newborns through the first year of life. He would also institute permanent tax credits for adoption.
The leading cause of death among pregnant women is murder by husbands and boyfriends wanting to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood. Abortion is sometimes a desperate means of self-defense. Ryan seeks increased funding for domestic violence programs to help women in crisis pregnancies. By attaching an amendment to this year's Department of Justice reauthorization act, he has already won passage of this aspect of his 95-10 plan.
His biggest obstacle may be pure politics. Ryan's legislation was crafted by Democrats for Life, a national organization advised by members of Congress and progressives such as writer Nat Hentoff. The last thing the pro-choice lobby wants is to lose its grip (stranglehold?) on the Democratic Party. Republican strategists also like the status quo. A popular and consistent ethic of life is not what Republicans wish to see emerging from Democratic ranks. Nor do they want “pro-life” redefined to include spending money to help women and children. God forbid right-to-life activists might become bleeding hearts.
Empowering the least powerful women is Ryan's vision for reducing the overall numbers of abortions, and thereby turning down some of the heat on this divisive issue. It's hard to argue with that.