Abortion: Grist for the political mill

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 14, 2011

At the Germantown dentist’s office, the receptionist with the sparkly pink eye shadow did not want to talk about it.

Inside the insurance agency, the woman with the business-bob hair pursed her lips, looked around and shook her head. “No,” she told me. She’d rather not talk about it either.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And so it went. Outside the podiatrist’s office, the travel agency and the law firm, no one would get into a discussion with me about their positions right in the middle of America’s abortion debate.

Geographically, not just philosophically.

I was standing in the middle of the office park in Germantown that has recently become home to the debate’s polar extremes.

On one side, in the beige brick building with teal trim is Reproductive Health Services, where women can get abortions for between $300 and $1,500. The group became national news when LeRoy Carhart, one of the few doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions, left Nebraska after a change in state law there and joined the Germantown clinic.

Across the parking lot, in a nearly identical brick office, Germantown Pregnancy Resources moved in April 2. It is run by Operation Rescue and the Maryland Coalition for Life. Officials for the group said it will be a resource and referral center for women going to the clinic across the street to get abortions, though the office was locked and dark in the middle of the day this week, with a sign on the door that said “CLOSED.”

On a street running through the office complex, called Executive Park Terrace, folks who are going to get their cavities filled or their arches supported put their heads down and plow forward to their cars. Then they drive away, past the protesters, the plastic fetus in a manger, the occasional police presence and the security cameras.

They. Don’t. Want. To. Talk. About. It.

But 30 miles south of Germantown, in Washington, the topic won’t go away.

“This is abortion politics on steroids,” said Carole Joffe, professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco, who has studied the abortion debates for decades and wrote a book on them, “Dispatches From the Abortion Wars.” She says that politicians are making abortion “front and center, now more than ever before.”

The number of legal abortions in the United States has held steady at about 1.3 million a year for several decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been no unusual increase or drop. And when polled, Americans will say, over and over, that the economy, jobs, war and education are the issues most on their minds. Abortion rarely, if ever, rates a mention.

And yet, it’s everywhere in Washington.

When our nation’s leaders debated far-reaching health-care legislation that addressed cancer and tonsils and Alzheimer’s and toe sprains, abortion was one of the issues standing in the way of consensus.

More recently, the threat of a federal shutdown over budget issues had everyone wringing their hands until 11 p.m. Friday. And one of the sticking points was the funding of Planned Parenthood, which performs women’s health screenings, provides contraception and, yes, performs abortions, which the organization says make up 3 percent of its total health-care services.

On Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council members were arrested for an act of civil disobedience that had something to do with the way the District is being treated by Congress and legislative riders in the budget agreement. But what most people will remember is that it was because of abortion and because the budget agreement stripped the District of the ability to spend local funds to pay for the procedure.

The effect was immediate.

Tiffany Reed, president of a group called DC Abortion Fund, said 28 women had appointments with Planned Parenthood for abortions Thursday. Because D.C. Medicaid funding was disallowed as of midnight Wednesday, Reed’s group frantically raised money to cover those procedures.

Last month, an Ohio congressional hearing featured two fetuses “testifying” on a bill to make abortions illegal once there is an audible heartbeat.

Even LensCrafters is being dragged into the debate, kicking and screaming, very unhappy that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called Planned Parenthood the “LensCrafters of Big Abortion.”

Most Americans recognize that abortion is a complex, emotional and highly personal issue. Whether you are for the choice to have one or see abortion as a moral abomination — a recent Gallup Poll shows that Americans are almost evenly split, 47 percent against to 45 percent for abortion rights — you generally stick to your belief and don’t hinge the family budget, your job or your day on it.

But bringing up abortion delivers political gold when politicians can’t deliver on such problems as the economy and the two or three wars we’re fighting, Joffe told me. And that’s why it becomes such a big factor on Capitol Hill.

My guess is that this kind of political wrangling wouldn’t play so well just about anywhere else in America. Not in a Michigan factory. Or on a military base in California. Or even in an office park in Germantown.

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