The cooling abortion debate

Often a speech is significant for what it leaves out. In his State of the Union address, President Bush never mentioned the word “abortion,” even though the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision was only days away.

What a relief. For many years, the abortion issue has taken up far more time and energy than it deserves. And the blame rests with the purists on both sides, who have insisted on establishing litmus tests for political candidates and judicial nominees on that one, highly polarizing issue.

We understand their sincerity. For those who believe that abortion is murder, there’s no room for compromise. Those who consider abortion to be a fundamental right are equally unyielding. But the media have allowed these hard-line views to dominate the debate over abortion policy, when in fact most Americans are “abortion grays,” somewhere in the middle.

A poll commissioned by Third Way, a moderate democratic group, found that 69 percent support the goal of reducing abortions “while still preserving the basic right to have one.” In the latest CBS News survey, 31 percent favored legalization without restrictions, while 5 percent opposed abortion in all circumstances. Another 12 percent would approve the procedure only to save a mother’s life, leaving more than half in the gray category.

Both parties, whipsawed by activist pressure groups, have been slow to understand these numbers, but Republicans have been particularly determined to play to their pro-life base. President Bush continues to support a constitutional amendment banning abortions that has little public support. He’s bowed to anti-abortion lobbyists – and defied mainstream scientific thought – in placing strict limits on federal funding for stem cell research.

And under his watch, the Food and Drug Administration for years blocked over-the-counter sales of Plan B, the so-called “morning after” contraceptive. (To its credit, the FDA finally reversed that ban for women over 18 last summer.)

For years the Democrats imposed a pro-choice orthodoxy of their own. In 1992, for example, they refused to let then Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who opposed abortion, address their national convention. But their years in the political wilderness made them more sensitive to the “abortion grays.” Last year they recruited pro-life candidates – like Bob Casey’s son – who defeated a sitting senator and helped return the Democrats to the majority.

That majority then picked Harry Reid of Nevada as their leader, despite his pro-life views. And the party’s most visible presidential contender, Sen. Hillary Clinton, is campaigning on a platform of “preventing unwanted pregnancies” and working “for the day when abortions are truly rare.”

We asked Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is heading the Democrats’ campaign organization for 2008, whether pro-abortion groups would try to push the party leftward. No, he said, because they understand the current climate, and so far he seems to be right.

Democrats are working on legislation that would reduce abortions by expanding family planning services, adding adoption tax credits and financing childcare. The key sticking point will be money for contraception – which the strongest pro-lifers still oppose – but sponsors hope for a broad-based coalition that includes conservative Republicans.

“There are few more divisive issues in America today than abortion,” says Sen. Reid, “but there is an opportunity to find common ground if we are willing to join together and seize it.” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, also struck a conciliatory tone to the Washington Post: “You’re going to see a change in the tone of the debate, and a move toward more solutions, rather than divisiveness.”

We hope so. But the purists have only receded, not disappeared, and several developments could bring them back to center stage. One is the candidacy of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s running for the GOP presidential nomination as openly pro-choice. This provides a chance for his ardent pro-life foes to reclaim their chairs on the cable shout fests.

But the big issue is the make-up of the Supreme Court. The current 5-4 majority in favor of the Roe decision depends on the fragile health of Justice John Paul Stevens, now approaching 87. If Stevens leaves the court, and Bush nominates an anti-Roe candidate for his seat, the Senate could once again erupt in a toxic cloud of highly charged emotions.

But for now, the abortion rhetoric has cooled – on both sides. Lawmakers seem more interested in problem solving than bomb throwing, and the president, by his silence, has contributed to the improved climate. That’s a very welcome change.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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