A little less confrontation, a little more action
After more than 30 years of stalemate, some on both sides of the abortion debate are ready to put down their signs and start trying to work together.
BENEDICTINE SISTER ADRIENNE KAUFMANN SPENT MANY YEARS as a bridge between her prolife and pro-choice friends.
“I always found myself caught in the middle, trying to explain pro-choice people to prolife people, and prolife people to pro-choice people,” she recalls. “I would tell them, ‘That’s not what they’re about; that’s not what they believe.’ I didn’t want to accept either label, even though I am 100 percent committed to a consistent life ethic.”
Being a go-between for the two groups wore Kaufmann out. “All a bridge does is get walked on,” she says.
So when she enrolled in a doctoral program, she chose abortion as her case study for her dissertation, focusing on how to bring together both sides of the polarized issue. Then she received an invitation to co-direct the Network for Life and Choice, a project founded in 1993 by the Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution organization. The network brought together prolife and pro-choice people in 20 cities across the country to work on issues such as reducing teen pregnancy or promoting adoption.
Although the network folded in 1999 due to lack of funding, Mary Jacksteit, a former co-director who still works with the Search for Common Ground, says she still gets calls once a month from people who have read about the network and want to continue similar work in their own cities.
“It definitely put forward the idea that it is possible,” she says of the group’s efforts to bridge such a polarized divide. “That has power.”
Crossing the party line
After more than three decades of legal abortion in the United States, neither public opinion nor the rate of abortions has changed significantly, causing people in both movements to think about focusing on more universally accepted ways to build a culture of life in this country.
Hillary Clinton—a staunch supporter of abortion rights—spoke last year about working with the prolife movement to realize a common goal of fewer abortions. On the same day, President George W. Bush called for the same thing, “seeking common ground where possible.”
Kaufmann believes that dialogue is not just a feel-good activity or political sound bite; it is the most productive outlet for the prolife movement.
“To reduce or end abortion, prolife people need to get into dialogue with pro-choice people about things in this society they both care about, and work together to change them,” she says. “They have a lot more in common than they believe or imagine, but it’s submerged below this pool of enemy rhetoric. Instead they need to drop the rhetoric, look at ways to pool their energies, and make progress that way.”
The Search for Common Ground identified the following areas where prolife and pro-choice people have dipped below that rhetoric and joined forces: preventing teen pregnancy, making adoption more accessible, preventing violence at abortion clinics, and increasing options for women.
That the prolife and pro-choice movements could have anything in common, let alone work on anything together, might be unheard of, but Francis Pauc of St. Stephen’s Parish in Milwaukee says he discovered some common views with the co-chair of the state’s Green Party, with whom he has exchanged letters.
Despite the party’s hardline pro-choice stance, “we had a lot more in common than we thought,” says Pauc. “She wouldn’t budge an inch on abortion. But the Green Party wants to provide enough alternatives to women so that abortion no longer becomes an attractive option for women—safe, legal, and rare, with an emphasis on rare.”
Reducing the number of abortions is a common goal of many on both sides. While running for his first term as president, Bill Clinton said he wanted to make abortions “safe, legal, and rare.”
If the Democrats could deliver on “rare,” they would be in a good position to neutralize the debate, says Clyde Wilcox, professor at Georgetown University and co-author of Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion (Westview). That would be a significant feat considering the debate has shown no signs of neutralizing for decades.
A handful of Democrats are trying to do just that, advancing legislation that they say could reduce the abortion rate by 95 percent in 10 years.
The bill, developed and promoted by Democrats for Life (DFL) as the “95-10 Initiative,” has the support of prolife Democrats in Congress, and DFL leaders soon hope to have the support of more members from both sides of the aisle and of the abortion debate.
The initiative was born in the wake of the 2004 election, when everyone was talking about moral values.
“The election sent a really big message,” says Kristen Day, DFL executive director. “A majority of people think the abortion rate should be declining. But no one is doing anything to make abortion rare. They’ve only been working to keep it legal. So we looked at the reasons women have abortions.”
Their initiative, introduced last November, includes prohibiting the transport of a minor across a state line to obtain an abortion; fully funding the federal government’s Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children program; requiring insurance to cover contraception; providing grants to nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations for ultrasound equipment to provide free examinations to pregnant women; making adoption tax credits permanent; and initiating a five-year study by the National Institutes of Health on why women choose abortions.
Day acknowledges that reducing the number of abortions by 95 percent is ambitious, but she notes that in Michigan, where one point of the 95-10 initiative was put in place—a public awareness campaign informing women of abortion alternatives—abortion rates have already dropped. Though many factors affect abortion rates, including the economy, Day and other prolifers credit the public awareness campaign and use the Michigan statistic to justify a nationwide public awareness campaign.
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, a group dedicated to spreading the prolife message among Catholic priests and parishes, gave some parts of the Democrats’ plan cautious approval.
“There are many proposals in this package, like women’s right-to-know provisions, funding for promotion of alternatives to abortion, strengthening of adoption practices, and more,” he wrote in a column last May. “These are key goals for all of us to pursue. The precise way in which these and other proposals in 95-10 should be written into law will, of course, need to be carefully debated and refined.
“And in the end, we cannot be content to reduce the numbers of abortions,” he wrote. “We have to acknowledge that laws permitting even a single abortion undermine the very fabric of our freedom and our republic.”
Pavone’s comments illustrate the divide that America may not be able to overcome: He supports those aspects of the 95-10 plan he and other prolifers have always supported, but he remains staunchly against any support for contraception and considers overturning the law as important as reducing the number of abortions.
Differences like these—many of which go beyond the debate over whether abortion should be legal or illegal—make working together nearly impossible, says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
Her organization, which supports access to legal abortion and contraception, lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. It has been publicly criticized by the U.S. Catholic bishops for using “Catholic” in its name while promoting positions contrary to the church’s prolife teaching.
Kissling admits about the only thing she and Pavone have in common is that they are both baptized Catholics and thinks that even if both sides agreed to work together to reduce teen pregnancy, they would immediately disagree on how to accomplish that.
“You may think there are commonalities, but when you peel away layers of the onion, those commonalities disappear,” she says. “Each of these movements has radically different core values and principles that do not lend themselves to working on issues together, even where there seems to be some sort of agreement.”
Kissling added that while she never works with groups like Pavone’s, she is open to the policies of Democrats for Life, especially since the group no longer seems to oppose contraception. While working in coalition is not always wise or practical, she says she could work separately but alongside a group with whom she disagrees.
Given the statements made by Kissling and Pavone, it appears that the diametrically opposed Catholics could each give some level of support to different aspects of Democrats for Life’s 95-10 plan—but neither will be actively pushing for it.
In the end, though, it will be public opinion and the votes of legislators that will determine the fate of the Democrats’ plan—and possibly create a new, more mainstream and practical prolife movement.
Wilcox, the Georgetown professor, says that while reducing the abortion rate by 95 percent with this one set of policies is a “dream,” reducing it by even 30 percent is within reach, making these policies more significant than any other abortion-related policies enacted in the last 30 years.
“When you think about all the money that has been spent, all the mobilization efforts, and there has been no change in public opinion,” Wilcox says. “The all-or-nothing route has not been all that successful for the prolife movement.”
But it may have received a significant boost when President Bush filled two vacancies—including the seat of the Roe v. Wade supporter Sandra Day O’Connor—on the U.S. Supreme Court. The addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito to the high court could pave the way for a victory for those pushing the all-or-nothing route.
But even if the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed the right to abortion were overturned, the right to restrict abortion would likely be left up to states, many of which would continue to guarantee women the right to have an abortion. And in a best-case scenario for the prolife movement—the total or near-total outlaw of abortion in the United States—abortions will likely continue in some form.
Among the approximately 46 million women who have abortions every year worldwide, 20 million have their abortions in countries where abortion is restricted or prohibited by law, according to a report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education.
Thus, changing the culture into one that respects life is a critical aspect of any viable prolife movement, which is why many prolife groups aim to educate people rather than change laws.
Among them is Feminists for Life, which roots itself in the idea that early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke out against abortion and that modern abortion advocates have hijacked the feminist movement.
President Serrin Foster has worked with pro-choice people in supporting the Violence Against Women Act and laws pushing for greater child support enforcement.
Feminists for Life takes an educational approach and aims to change minds, not so much on the national political level, but in the halls of higher education. Foster and other members speak regularly on college campuses and bring students, faculty, and administrators together to look at how the campus can better serve students who become pregnant.
At Georgetown University, where the campus Right to Life has brought administrators together for a pregnancy resource forum every year for nearly a decade, these discussions have resulted in more housing for student mothers, a free babysitting service, and a 24-hour pager service with information on pregnancy resources.
“Generally the forum is pretty well received,” says undergraduate Bridget Bowes, president of Georgetown Right to Life. “We’ve never had any protests. Right to Life is a very controversial group on campus, but because of the nature of the pregnancy resource forum, students are receptive to it.”
Foster says, though, that many of her campus speeches are initially met with protest. But looking for common ground, Foster invites these protesters to dialogue, and many end up participating in the conversations.
“I think it’s really important not to meet hostility with defensiveness or more hostility,” Foster says. “We allow students to ask questions. We start off sharing the rich prolife, pro-woman history that FFL embraces, and then move on to progressive solutions, like babysitting, housing for families, and telecommuting. It really does resonate with students. The movement as a whole gets caught up on legal versus illegal.”
What about the women?
It was Foster who coined the slogan “Women deserve better,” which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted for a recent campaign. Abortion is a sign that society has failed to meet the needs of women, says Foster, who agrees that the financial inability to support a child is one of the root causes that drive women to abortion.
Approximately 100 women a month come through the doors of College Area Pregnancy Services in San Diego, according to director Walter Ko. A free pregnancy test reveals that roughly half of them are not in fact pregnant. Of those who are, 1 in 50, he estimates, eventually seek an abortion. The remaining 49 have their babies, often with the help of the center, which not only provides diapers and cribs but also connects women with local churches and social service agencies.
“Most of the women come in here because they believe that financially they cannot support a baby,” Ko says. “Many are in the middle of getting an education, and they don’t want a baby to get in the way of that.”
College Area Pregnancy Services is one of hundreds of pregnancy care centers around the country, most of which provide similar services—pregnancy tests, counseling, clothing, diapers, and parenting classes—to help women struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, rather than focus on changing laws. Like Serrin Foster and Hillary Clinton, they operate under the assumption that abortion is a tragic choice for many women.
Prolife and practical
Despite local examples of working together, cooperation between prolife and pro-choice people on the national level seems nonexistent. While Kissling blames 30 years of polarization, mistrust, and demonization, Sister Adrienne Kaufmann blames politics. A culture of non-cooperation dominates national and state political levels, and winning perks and elections, not solving real problems, are most important in the political world.
“Both sides use abortion to grab single-issue voters but don’t act on a commitment to prolife or pro-choice very well,” she says.
Politicians and fringe groups can try to change laws and make noise, but if Americans are going to seriously work to end abortion, it will be through the efforts of people like Kaufmann, who are both prolife and practical. More and more Catholics share her views.
Among them is Heidi Russell, who directs adult faith formation at St. Monica Parish in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Though she is disappointed with the Democrats’ refusal to budge on issues like parental notification and waiting periods, she votes Democratic because she sees the party as being overall more prolife. Reducing poverty and increasing education, not overturning Supreme Court decisions, are the keys to ending abortion, she believes.
“As a society, we have to come to a point where people value life and don’t consider abortion as a choice,” she says. “I’m very much against abortion, but overturning Roe v. Wade puts it back in the hands of the states. It’s not going to solve the problem.”
Francis Pauc, the Green Party member, agrees. “I know people who have had abortions,” he says. “They did it because they were pushed into it. They ran out of what they perceived to be the options. What happens when abortion is illegal? Are they going to jail? If I’m going to be prolife, it has to be out of love. It has to be Christ-like.”
Catholics with one foot in prolife circles and one foot in progressive political circles have a difficult time bringing even their own friends together, a discouraging thought for those truly seeking common ground.
Some of Kaufmann’s prolife friends look down on the fact that she engages in dialogue with pro-choice people. But in the end, she says, believing in a consistent life ethic involves some difficult choices.
“Do I believe in the value of life?” she asks. “Absolutely. Do I believe in a consistent life ethic? Absolutely. Would I prefer there are no abortions? Absolutely. Would I prefer there be no more war? Absolutely. Within that value of a consistent life ethic, each of us has to do what is best.”
Vincent Gragnani is a New Jersey-based newspaper editor who also reports on contemporary Catholic issues for a number of national magazines. This article appeared in the September 2006 (Volume 71, Number 9; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.