The Fog is Lifting over Common Ground on Abortion
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jul 03, 2009 at 02:52:26 PM EST
President Obama has made much about finding common ground on abortion, and Democratic oriented think tanks like Third Way and Faith in Public Life have ballyhooed the idea, while finding very limited agreements with a small group of white evangelicals. As some of us have pointed out, the abortion reduction agenda that is part of the conversation is not only slanted to the religious right, it is, in fact the agenda of the antiabortion movement and the religious right.

President Obama, in a meeting with Catholic reporters in advance of his meeting with the Pope, acknowledged very little attainable common ground on abortion.

Catholic News Service reports:  
He said he has never "been under the illusion that ... we were going to simply talk all our differences away on these issues."


But he expects agreement on significant areas, such as "on the idea of helping young people make smart choices so that they are not engaging in casual sexual activity that can lead to unwanted pregnancies, on the importance of adoption as an option, an alternative to abortion, on caring for pregnant women so that it is easier for them to support children."

It will be more difficult to find common ground on other areas, he added.

"I personally think that combining good sexual ... and/or moral education needs to be combined with contraception in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies," he said.

"I recognize that contradicts Catholic Church doctrine, so I would not expect someone who feels very strongly about this issue as a matter of religious faith to be able to agree with me on that, but that's my personal view," he said. "We may not be able to arrive at perfectly compatible language on that front."


On the other hand, Obama said, "I would be surprised if those who believe abortion should be legal would object to language that says we should try to reduce the circumstances in which women feel compelled to obtain an abortion.

"If they took that position, I would disagree with them," he continued. "I don't know any circumstance in which abortion is a happy circumstance or decision, and to the extent that we can help women avoid being confronted with a circumstance in which that's even a consideration, I think that's a good thing. But again, that's my view."

Obama hits exactly on the divide, since sexuality education and access to birth control are the only proven reliable methods of reducing unplanned pregnancies in any significant number, and thus the need for abortion.  There has never been any disagreement about adoption reform as a good thing, and providing better circumstances for pregnant women and better infant and child care is something that  very few, if any prochoice advocates, are likely to have any issue in principle.  (How to get there might be another question for everyone, as we may soon see, depending on what the president proposes, and the posturing stops.) But if that is the only thing on which everyone can agree, it is unlikely to much affect the abortion rate, the common ground conversation is pretty much a bust.

Part of the concern I have had with the common ground discussion as framed by Third Way and Faith in Public Life, among others has been the marginalization and exclusion of legitimate prochoice voices, from the religious community, such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and from the wider prochoice community, in favor of people whose perspective is a narrowly framed electoral goal of faith outreach for the Democratic Party, and the manufacture of a whole class of faux leaders and spokespeople, while leaders of historic substance and representing actual constituencies, are sidelined. Also marginalized and sandbagged are advances in and the defense of reproductive rights, LGTB civil rights, and separation of church and state in the face of ongoing onslaught from the Religious Right.  

This marginalization has led to the quiet spectacle of ostensibly progressive and prochoice people not only serving as obstacles to progress, but in effect, facilitating the rollback back of the civil and human rights of others.  We see this clearly in the passage of Prop 8 in California at a time when Faith in Public Life was proposterously declaring the culture wars just about over.  For all of this, the electoral results of the faith outreach/common ground efforts have been been dubious at best, as Chip Berlet has shown).  Meanwhile, increasing conscience clause exemptions for antiabortion and anti birth control medical providers and pharmacists; and the increasing legal barriers to abortion at the state level, and the ongoing violence and harassment, all of which has contributed to the overall decline in the number of abortion providers.

Reproductive justice advocates are calling out this situation at On The Issues magazine. Publisher and editor in chief Merle Hoffman argues that

"...the present public discussion of the need for "common ground" in the abortion debate is a reflection of the Obama Administration's attempted conciliation or reconciliation between adversarial parties. So far, the discussion has talked about reducing the need for abortion."

And she sees those elements of the prochoice community involved in these discussions as on "more on the verge of capitulation than conciliation."

The fog of common groundism is lifting. And just in case anyone has forgotten what thoughtful, well informed, yet passionate and articulate discussion of reproductive justice looks like Loretta Ross offers a reminder of and a vision of reproductive justice free form the bonds of common groundism.

I think it's important for reproductive justice activists to have a serious discussion -- immediately -- about public policies, reproductive justice and President Obama's Administration.

Reproductive justice is built on the foundation of human rights. The framework of "reproductive justice" requires that the most vulnerable populations be kept in the center of our lens, not at the margins. This means that we may have to work hard and quickly to create a public policy platform worthy of and capable of doing justice to the reproductive justice framework.

She then lists a number of "exciting" and "historic" opportunities for reproductive justice, as well as listing some formidable challenges.

Having said all of that, I believe we need to have a discussion about how we can take advantage of this historic moment to advance a reproductive justice agenda that will benefit women, men and families of color to advance and protect their full human rights.

She concludes by stating the first we need to "say what we believe"; "say what we want", and "discuss how to get what we want."

Her essay epitomizes what a thoughtful, compelling, well informed, visionary and strategic sensibility looks like and offers a profound contrast the the diversionary mush that has too often passed for informed discourse on these matters of late.

Chip Berlet and I wrote after the election:

It would be nice if conservative White evangelicals called off the Culture Wars that they started and continue to aggressively pursue. It would be even nicer if liberal (and even some progressive) pundits stopped prematurely announcing the end of the Culture Wars and the demise of the Christian Right. Neither is likely to happen any time soon.

What progressives need to do is convince centrist Democratic Party honchos to end their quixotic quest for "values voters" among the rank and pew of conservative evangelical and Roman Catholic voters by sounding a rhetorical retreat on social issues such as reproductive justice and LGBTQ equity. That's not exactly what the Obama campaign did, but it is what centrist Democratic Party consultants and their anti-abortion evangelical allies advocated. Whether the rhetorical retreat turns into a policy retreat remains to be seen.

Some Democratic political wonks who study polls and electoral outcomes have been selling, wittingly or unwittingly, a dubious narrative about the role of White evangelicals for several years now. It is time to take a close look at their product.

We have, and found it to be wanting.


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