DESPITE ALL THE ATTENTION that the proabortion vote got at the White House Conference on Families, the 671 delegates who met in Baltimore last week spent a lot more time agreeing on the importance of old-fashioned family togetherness than they did on anything else. And they found out that there are still ways to compromise -- even on abortion.
"I think there was more of a consensus than a controvesy," said Joe Giordano of the American Jewish Committee. "If you take the top 10 issues of this conference, we may have the beginnings of a new social policy discussion." Giordano is also chairman of the Coalition for the White House Conference on Families, a group of 54 organizations that got together when the conference was first announced by President Carter.
The coalition -- which includes such diverse groups as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Parents Without Partners, the American Home Economics Association, the Red Cross, the National Council of Churches and the National Gay Task Force -- wanted to make sure that the conference looked at how government poliicies and private agencies affect families. The coalition also wanted to look at the strengths of American families, the informal support systems we take for granted such as the grandmother who cares for her grandchildren, the children who care for the elderly. And the coalition wanted the conference opened to all kinds of families.
People in the coalition wanted a conference of ideas, not of ideology, and in the end, that is what they got. And the ideas reflected the American public's tremendous concern over the economic pressures families face. A top recommendation out of 57 passed by the delegates called for business, labor and government to encourage employment opportunities that enable people to work while still enjoying solid family lives.
"The fears of the New Right that the feminists and gays would take over just simply did not materialize and the hopes of the far left that they would take over simply did not come true," said the Rev. Thomas D. Weise, vicar for charities of the Catholic diocese of Mobile, Ala. Weise has spent the past six months organizing Catholic participation in the conference in 15 states with large Catholic populations. He came away from the conference agreeing with Giordano that it had endorsed a moderate agenda for strengthening families.
And he also came away agreeing with Betty Friedan on a recommendation that included the phrase "choice to have children." That recommendation -- which began as Friedan's abortion rights amendment -- ranked among the lowest of the priorities set in the end by the delegates. But the way that amendment came into being shows a lot about what made the conference successful. More importantly, it shows that with the exception of a strident minority, Americans who have made up their minds about something like abortion can still engage in a dialogue and find areas of agreement.
Friedan attended a meeting of more than 200 delegates affiliated with Giordano's coalition Thursday evening, and made an impassioned plea for the conference to endorse abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment -- "things," as she put it later, "they [the coalition leaders] were going to skirt away from in order not to get controversial. But they overwhelmingly supported the idea that we address these matters."
Friedan and Giordano met late into that night to develop amendments that would be acceptable to moderate delegates. "We tried to develop language that would not polarize the conference," said Giordano.
"I tried to get away not only from their buzz-words but ours," said Friedan.
The amendment they drafted never mentioned the word abortion. It endorsed a national policy of parental leave and "adequate child care supports" to enable parents to choose to have children. It endorsed "legal medical help in family planning for women of all economic circumstances to safeguard their health and their choice to have children."
"Thursday evening she [Friedan] seemed determined to raise the issues of ERA and abortion," said Weise. "Friday she came in with a very moderately worded proposal that said, in effect, every woman should have the right to have a child, to which I agree completely. She spoke of adequate income and resources for women who must work because of our economic situation. i
"I complimented her on the wording and said I had no problem with that, because whenever she mentioned choice she followed it with choice to have a child. I told her, 'congratulations -- that could have been written by the conference of American bishops.' She said, 'My goodness is it that moderate?'"
"There's the word 'choice' in that, but it didn't say abortion," said Giordano. "We checked it out with some of the major Catholic groups and they could accept the wording."
Nothing was moderate enough for some 50 conservative, antiabortion delegates who came to the conference under the banner of the Pro-Family Coalition.By midafternoon Friday they had walked out of the conference, charging that the selection of state delegates had been rigged in favor of moderates and liberals.
Conference chairman Jim Guy Tucker denied the charge and said at a press conference that "the very first story I ever saw in The New York Times on this conference quoted a woman as saying they were going to take over the conference and if they couldn't, they were going to say the conference was rigged." And, he noted, there are always going to be people around who aren't satisfied unless they can impose their own narrow views on others.
When it was over, the Pro-Family Coalition ended up being isolated and neutralized at what turned out to be a very profamily conference.
"This whole country is in danger of appeasing or exaggerating the power of the right," said Friedan. "We heard they were going to control this conference and we shouldn't say boo. There's no reason we can't get consensus in this country. We got it there. . . . People listened. Whole new bridges are being made."
"It was really a remarkable thing," said Weise. "She and some of her cohorts and I really hit it off rather well. I think as a Catholichurch person it's unfortunate that some of the Pro-Family Coalition delegates who are also Catholic felt they had no other place to go to support life. I think all Catholic leaders should take a longl hard look at that."
"They couldn't win, because they didn't speak to where American families are in trouble," said Giordano. And they couldn't win because they couldn't compromise, because they were not able to find new ways of talking about old problems.