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Pro-Life Pretense

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's still-to-be released common ground agenda in the abortion conflict is already having a profound and largely overlooked effect: it has exposed deep fault lines in the pro-life movement. Obama's focus on reducing the need for abortion has been embraced by some practical-minded pro-lifers who are tired of decades of intransigence, and who also appear jaded by the counterproductive "culture of life" sloganeering of President Bush. Pro-choice Bill Clinton presided over the most dramatic decline in abortion rates in the history of our country after all. Pro-lifers Reagan, Bush I and Bush II did not. For an emerging movement of reasoned, results-oriented, non-ideological pro-lifers results count. If a pro-choice president produces pro-life outcomes, they ask, are they any less worthy?

For the traditional pro-life establishment, however, they are. In fact, to them, Obama's common ground call is perceived as a threat. Since Obama takes them, their beliefs and their proposals seriously they have been forced to justify some fundamental hypocrisies, the kind that have in the past led to rhetorical victories and little progress (unless you count fundraising). Consider, for example, the clash between pro-life rhetoric and reality when it comes to crisis pregnancy centers, a much-cherished initiative of the old guard pro-lifer. A recent report, "A Passion to Serve, a Vision for Life," released by the Family Research Council is a valentine to the nation's 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). It commends them for communicating "to women and their families that their lives are valuable and that their needs - emotional, psychological, medical, spiritual and practical - can and will be met ."

The report details the intense efforts CPCs undertake to persuade women to not choose abortion. The main message broadcast to those coming to a center is: "support is available, you do not need to discontinue this pregnancy for financial reasons." But beside the ultrasound image women are provided and medically inaccurate pitch against abortion, the most persuasive arguments available to CPCs, as any staff or volunteer will readily admit, is that women facing crisis pregnancies can make it work by depending on a network of publicly-funded social services. For the vast majority of women convinced to become mothers, CPCs are a gateway to the welfare system.

Theoretically, a pro-life, common ground approach then would be to take seriously the benefits of CPCs as, essentially, referral agencies to services which can support women who really do want to keep a pregnancy. And also to say, "Let's make sure the right social services are in place - those that women really need - and that they are well-funded."

And here's where that old-guard rhetoric runs into the brick wall of common ground (and fact-based) reality. The Family Research Council valentine to crisis pregnancy centers may sound pretty, and even compelling, but on closer examination is it sincere? In effect, groups like the Family Research Council as well as most pro-life politicians have been two-timing their devoted crisis pregnancy center partners. While professing their love for their work, they batter the social programs on which the crisis pregnancy center movement places its trust.

The Family Research Council carefully details in its report the many federal and state-sponsored programs to which CPCs direct women including: Head Start, Medicaid, Local Health Departments, Legal Aid, State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-Chip), State Health Departments, Women Infants & Children (WIC), and the Department of Job and Family Services.

Yet when it's suggested that support for these very agencies should merit pro-life support, the Family Research Council lines up in opposition. Michael New, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, recently launched an attack on the progressive, pro-common ground, pro-life group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) for suggesting just that. CACG conducted a study linking states that provide more generous services to the poor with lower abortion rates. CACG suggested that to reduce abortion rates pro-lifers should consider the policies traditionally championed by Democrats--extending publicly-funded social services to poor pregnant women--rather than exclusively focus on restricting abortion. But suddenly, the programs that are so effective when used as resources by crisis pregnancy centers, are suspect. New writes,

"[The study's] questionable methodology and inconsistent results should give pro-lifers serious pause before they enthusiastically embrace higher welfare benefits as a strategy to reduce abortion. Furthermore, there is little peer-reviewed research which indicates that more generous welfare benefits have a significant impact. [Other studies] find that welfare benefits only have a marginal impact on abortion rates. However, as I will discuss later in the response, there exists plenty of evidence from studies in reputable peer reviewed journals that various types of pro-life laws reduce abortion rates."

New himself didn't miss the chance to praise the work of crisis pregnancy centers; he weighed in when the Family Research Council report came out, writing, "PRCs have offered real alternatives to literally millions of women facing crisis pregnancies. Countless women regret their abortions. However, the testimonials in FRC's latest report are evidence of the positive impact of the life-affirming options offered by many pregnancy-resource centers." Of course, the "life-affirming" options are now no more than a euphemism for the "welfare" which, according to New, has a "marginal impact on abortion rates.

New's attack on the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good's policy proposal is a reflection of an all-consuming hypocrisy plaguing an ideologically entrenched pro-life establishment. Crisis Pregnancy Centers rely on a welfare system to support the women they persuade to become mothers while pro-life groups and politicians actively undermine the very programs and agencies that are the only resources available to support many women who want to have a child, as CPCs know.

In 2007, The Children's Defense Fund published its Congressional Scorecard on the best and worst legislators for children. The organization scored congressmembers votes on many of the policies that help pregnant women decide whether to parent or abort. The votes were on Head Start, increasing the minimum wage, reauthorizing and increasing funding for S-CHIP, increasing funding for children with disabilities, job training, Medicaid funding, helping youth pay for college, and tax-relief for low-income families with children. Based on their votes on these issues, the Children's Defense Fund ranked 143 congressmembers as 'the worst" for children. Of the 143 worst legislators, 100% are pro-life.

The long-established, and long-dominant pro-life complex speaks out of both sides of its mouth, praising crisis pregnancy centers and yet disparaging the social services upon which they rely. In the upcoming months, the Obama administration will be revealing its common ground agenda and one part of it promises to be supports for pregnant women. It is just the sort of agenda designed to appeal to a nascent pragmatic and moderate pro-life movement. Let's hope this rising voice of reason can lead the crisis pregnancy center movement to support an administration plan to help struggling families and indigent pregnant women. Praise for CPCs can't come packaged with attacks on the very supports they rely upon. It not only defeats common ground; it defeats reason.

Joseph Schiedler, president of the Pro-life Action League, wrote an op-ed in USA Today claiming pro-lifers who embark on the search for common ground betray the pro-life cause and, in making his case, reveals the classic characteristics of pro-life schizophrenia. He writes,

"There is no evidence that increasing social programs -- such as low-cost health care and day care, college grants and maternity homes -- will impact a woman's abortion decision. It is rare in our experience to find a woman who says the reason she is choosing abortion is that she doesn't have day care, or that she'd rather go to college...More than 3,000 pregnancy centers in the U.S. are ready to help a woman with material needs, emotional support, counseling and medical care. Anyone who wants to stop abortion should promote these centers."

Once we begin to till the soil of common ground, these contradictions and inconsistencies will become clearer. It is then that pragmatic pro-lifers may realize there will be unlikely partners along the path to genuine pro-life victories.

This post originally appeared on RHRealityCheck.org's OnCommonGround forum which publishes perspectives and breaking news on common ground in the abortion conflict. Join the conversation at OnCommonGround or follow us on www.twitter.com/commongrnd