Bridging the Divide on Abortion

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

NEW YORK -- For many staunch supporters and opponents of abortion rights, the search for a third way on the issue seems like so much phony political positioning.

But the truth is that politicians are already engaging in strained positioning on abortion. They know there is a large ambivalent middle ground of public opinion that is uneasy with abortion itself and also uneasy with a government ban on the procedure. So they fudge.

No one has been more masterful at holding his pro-life base and appealing to the middle than President Bush. He speaks regularly of his support for a "culture of life" but never says he would overturn Roe v. Wade. In Congress, supporters of abortion rights in both parties will signal their moderation by opposing partial-birth abortion or favoring parental notification laws for minors seeking abortions. Whatever their merits, such laws do little to cut the abortion rate.

But there is a new argument on abortion that may establish a more authentic middle ground. It would use government not to outlaw abortion altogether but to reduce its likelihood. And at least one politician, Thomas R. Suozzi, the county executive of New York's Nassau County, has shown that the position involves more than soothing rhetoric.

Last May Suozzi, a Democrat, gave an important speech calling on both sides to create "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."

Last week Suozzi put money behind his words. He announced nearly $1 million in county government grants to groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to Catholic Charities for an array of programs -- adoption and housing, sex education, and abstinence promotion -- to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to help pregnant women who want to bring their children into the world. Suozzi calls his initiative "Common Sense for the Common Good" and, as Newsday reported, he was joined at his news conference by people at both ends of the abortion debate.

This is a matter on which no good deed goes unpunished, and Suozzi was immediately denounced by Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, for the grants that went to abstinence-only programs, which, she insisted, do not work.

As the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has argued for years, the best approach to the problem involves neither abstinence-only nor contraception-only programs but a combination of the two. But the merits of the issue aside, it's unfortunate that Suozzi's initiative is caught in the cross fire of this year's campaign for governor of New York. Suozzi is expected to challenge state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. NARAL strongly supports Spitzer, who opposes the ban on partial-birth abortion that Suozzi -- otherwise an abortion rights supporter -- favors.

Still, it's a good sign for the long run that in an interview on Monday, Conlin was careful to praise most of Suozzi's grants program -- "the vast majority of it we are totally in agreement with" -- adding that "prevention is the key."

Nancy Keenan, the president of the national NARAL group, is also stressing prevention. Her organization ran an advertisement last year explicitly inviting the "right-to-life movement" to join in an effort to "help us prevent abortions." Usually NARAL's allies refer to abortion opponents as "anti-choice," so the conciliatory language itself was a welcome departure. At the federal level, NARAL is pushing for a bill promoting contraception introduced by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, an opponent of abortion.

Right about this point, I can see my friends in the right-to-life movement rolling their eyes and insisting that all this prevention talk is a dodge. Maybe so, but my question to them is whether they honestly think that their current political strategy, focused on knocking down Roe and making abortion illegal, will actually protect fetal life by substantially reducing the number of abortions.

Even if Roe falls, legislatures in the most populous states are likely to keep abortion legal. And if a ban on abortion were ever to take hold, does anyone doubt that a large, illegal abortion industry would quickly come into being?

I have more sympathy than most liberals with the right-to-life movement because I believe most right-to-lifers are animated not by sexism or some punitive attitude toward sexuality but by a genuine desire to defend the defenseless. Surely that view should encompass efforts to reduce the number of abortions in our nation. That's why I hope Tom Suozzi finds imitators, and allies on both sides of the question.

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