By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009
President Obama is trying to blunt the edge of perhaps the sharpest, most divisive wedge issue in the country: abortion.
In a series of moves, he is attempting to nudge the debate away from the morality and legality of abortion and toward a goal he hopes both sides can endorse: decreasing the number of women who terminate their pregnancies by addressing the reasons they might choose the procedure.
The strategy is being met by deep skepticism from many prominent antiabortion activists, but it has been embraced by some others as well as by leading abortion rights activists, who hope it could fundamentally reshape one of the nation's most intransigent political stalemates.
"For good reason, there are sincere and deep feelings on both sides," Joshua DuBois said yesterday after being named to head the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which will help spearhead the effort. "But there is common ground we can find."
The campaign carries potential risks, however, including angering Obama's most ardent supporters if they think he is compromising too much, or alienating the nascent group of antiabortion allies who have aligned themselves with him if they end up feeling betrayed.
"He faces risks from both the right and left for pursuing this strategy," said Cynthia R. Daniels, a Rutgers University political scientist. "Of course, there are always risks involved in trying to shift to a new paradigm."
Obama's approach has already been tested: Three days after his inauguration, he lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health programs that provide abortions and abortion counseling, and last week he persuaded House Democrats to drop from the stimulus package a plan to allow Medicaid to expand contraceptive services.
Both moves produced mixed results: The international funding decision thrilled family-planning proponents but infuriated abortion opponents, even though some praised Obama for doing it quietly and for postponing the announcement one day to avoid the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The decision to back off the Medicaid family-planning expansion was welcomed by some conservatives but surprised and disappointed women's health advocates.
"What he's finding is that most of the interest groups are organized on sharp ideological divisions," said Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois. "What's more interesting to me is how the average voter will respond."
Obama's approach will be tested again by upcoming decisions on sensitive issues, including how he deals with the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which is controversial because the cells are obtained by destroying human embryos. Obama is also under pressure to reverse a Bush administration regulation that protects the rights of health-care workers who object to providing abortion, the morning-after emergency contraceptive pill and other types of medical care, and to cut funding for abstinence-only sex education.
"When it comes to an issue like abortion, any related issue becomes a de facto litmus test," Black said.
Despite the difficulties, various advocates and members of Congress across the ideological spectrum said they remain optimistic.
"The stars are starting to align," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University. "For a variety of reasons, this appears to be a unique political moment where this idea seems to have caught fire."
"Obama has begun to usher in the new politics of abortion," agreed Rachel Laser of the Third Way, a group that has been advocating such approaches across many issues.
Obama's strategy emerged during the presidential campaign. In his third debate with Republican John McCain, he repeated his support for abortion rights but called it "a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on," adding: "There surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies.' "
Obama also pushed for the Democratic platform to include a call for reducing "the need for abortions."
Said Joel C. Hunter, pastor of the evangelical Northland Church near Orlando: "I'm pro-life. I hate abortion. But this administration is trying to be very sensitive. They are trying to approach things in the least inflammatory, least contentious way so we can work together and have a more nuanced approach."
Several pending proposals could offer the starting point for legislation aimed at reducing abortion by steps such as making contraception more available, making it easier for pregnant women to receive health care and day care and stay in school, and making it easier for prospective parents to adopt.
"The president could capture the imagination of the American people and do a lot to ease the culture wars on this issue," said David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia. "He could package together some of these initiatives to tackle the demand side of abortion."
But many abortion opponents doubt the president is committed to true compromise.
"The common ground Obama seeks for the pro-life movement is the burial ground," said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.
And abortion opponents who support Obama's efforts expressed concern about what will happen if he is unable to deliver. "Many of us feel like we've stuck our necks out with our constituencies," said Jonathan Merritt, an independent evangelical. "He will have done us a great disservice if he does not come through."
Reproductive rights advocates will be promoting measures that could inflame the issue, such as expanding access to contraceptives, including the morning-after pill, and lifting restrictions on providing abortions to women in the military at government facilities.
"I do think there's a difference between looking for common ground and compromising one's principles," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
Both sides will be closely watching Obama's decision on former President George W. Bush's funding restrictions on stem cell research. Many research proponents hope Obama will issue an executive order that lifts the constraints without any caveats. But he could accompany his order with a statement acknowledging opponents' moral concerns or go further -- not allowing federal money to be used for stem cells from embryos destroyed in the future, for example.
"There are a number of things the president could do if he really wanted to do a compromise," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.