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Centrist Courage On Abortion

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nothing is more hopeless or courageous in politics than seeking an authentic middle ground on the abortion issue. That makes Thomas R. Suozzi a hopeless case or, as I would insist, one brave politician -- and especially so as the United States Senate tears itself apart over judicial nomination battles in which discord about abortion has played such a central role.

The 42-year-old Nassau County executive is a churchgoing Catholic who believes that abortion should remain legal. He is also a Democrat who thinks that government should take concrete steps to make it easier for women to choose against abortion. He's proposing that his suburban jurisdiction on Long Island spend some serious money to make that happen.

A politician who takes both these positions risks putting himself in the political crossfire, which is exactly what Suozzi did last week in a remarkable speech at Adelphi University. By gambling on offending everyone, this New Yorker just might move the national abortion debate to more constructive ground.

"As a Democrat, I do not often find it easy to talk with other Democrats about our need to affirm our commitment to the respect for life and how we need to emphasize our party's firm belief in the worth of every human being," he said. "As a Catholic, I do not often find it easy to talk with other Catholics about my feeling that abortion should and will remain safe and legal, and that we should instead focus our efforts on creating a better world where there are fewer unplanned pregnancies and where women who face unplanned pregnancies receive greater support and where men take more responsibility for their actions."

Suozzi spoke directly to the cultural contradictions that push many women toward abortion. Women, he said, are "unfairly judged regardless of the choices they make."

To wit: "Women who choose abortion have their morality questioned. Women who choose to put a baby up for adoption have their maternal instincts questioned, and women who carry an unplanned pregnancy to full term when unmarried or financially insecure are often labeled irresponsible."

Suozzi asked questions that politicians on both sides of the issue often slide by: "Why do women choose abortion in the first place? Fear of the stigma or the economic burden of single motherhood? Concerns regarding the effect of the child on career or life plans? Worry about affording good prenatal medical care or housing? These are all valid questions -- and if we can answer them with more specificity, perhaps we will do more to reduce the necessity for abortions."

Suozzi runs a county government, so more is asked of him than just a string of nice words. He has put $3 million in county funds on the table to support homes for single mothers, to promote adoptions and to provide information on all forms of family planning, including -- to hold the culture warriors at bay -- contraception, "natural family planning" and abstinence.

When pro-choice Democrats say anything about reducing the abortion rate, cynics say that they are looking at the election returns and trying to cut the party's losses among pro-lifers. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent statements on abortion ran into this line of attack.

But Clinton and Suozzi are challenging the right-to-life movement no less than their own side. "A decade ago, I was attending Mass and a priest said that abortion would probably stay legal for the rest of his life," Suozzi said on the phone the other day. "It struck me at the time that maybe we should stop arguing about the legality of abortion and try to figure out how to reduce the number of abortions."

As for supporters of abortion rights, Suozzi said: "The left needs to prove that it's pro-choice and not just pro-abortion by supporting the other choice."

Will Suozzi's argument get anywhere? It was a good sign that Long Island's Roman Catholic bishop, William Murphy, called Suozzi's speech "important and, on the whole, very helpful." Abortion rights groups were more ambivalent, worrying, wrongly I think, that anyone suggesting abortion is a problem somehow undercuts the pro-choice position.

My hope is that Murphy will not be the only abortion foe to express sympathy for Suozzi's view, and that many abortion rights backers will come around to it, too. It's very hard to dispute Suozzi's reading of the public's moral sense on this question. "Most people," he says, "say that abortion should remain legal, but wish there weren't so many of them."

As he put it in his speech, "Anyone who really wishes to reduce the number of abortions has an obligation to help those women who choose not to have an abortion yet find themselves alone."

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