Obama and Abortion: Escaping the Left/Right Divide

06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The abortion issue that President Obama addressed during his commencement speech on May 17 at the University of Notre Dame cuts across party lines. The President made an honest attempt to re-frame the debate around the practical means to help women with difficult pregnancies. What this means is a further de-linking of abortion from the Religious Right and Republican politics. Abortion as a moral non-partisan issue has become mainstream.

The result is that the gross hypocrisy of the "pro-life" Religious Right in trying to prevent sex education or the distribution of contraceptives is clear for all to see. And the Republicans that speak against abortion and then cut programs for women, sex education and children are also left twisting in the wind. On the other hand, when President Obama initiates better health care programs for women, better education programs, backs sex education and the availability of contraceptives he's going to have the support of the majority of the American people. One reason he will is because most Americans regard abortion as a sad, if not bad, choice.

From the early 1970s to the early 1980s I was an anti-abortion crusader. I left the Religious Right in the mid-80s. My evangelical leader father, the late Francis Schaeffer, Dr. C Everett Koop (who became Ronald Reagan's surgeon general) and I teamed up in the late 1970s to make a film and book project (Whatever Happened to the Human Race?) that was credited with vastly expanding the anti-abortion movement and bringing evangelicals into it.

The way I came to change my mind about a number of issues related to abortion is I think similar to what President Obama refers to as "fair-minded discussion" between anti-abortion Americans and pro-choice Americans: I came to see that the right wing is not fair-minded. It is anti-American. It hates America as it is, and only loves the America it approves of. It divides the country into "Real Americans" (a la Palin) and the rest.

These days I believe that abortion should be legal. I also agree with the President that we must find better ways to help women who choose to carry their babies to term. I also think that we can prevent many more unwanted pregnancies through more and better sex education and the distribution of contraceptives. If polls are to be believed it happens that my view is that of the majority of Americans.

For the first time since 1973 and the legalization of abortion the debate belongs to reasonable Americans who don't see everything in legalistic terms. The absolutist pro-lifers and the absolutist pro-choicers are being deservedly marginalized. President Obama will not be able to heal the divide between the extremes but he is providing an option: keeping abortion legal while working on the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and also helping women and families to keep, raise and love their babies, or put them for adoption.

Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups have not won the public opinion battle on abortion. In fact, even in the context of a hugely popular pro-choice president the poll numbers are gradually but steadily moving away from the simplistic embrace of abortion along the lines of the Roe v. Wade model. If you look at the often contradictory polling information the picture that emerges is that most Americans believe abortions early in pregnancy should be legal but that abortion is usually not the best choice, that late-term abortions is tantamount to murder, that abortion for the life or health of the mother or for severe fetal deformity should always be available, but that abortion is never merely a matter of personal choice in some amoral way. Most Americans believe that abortion has moral implications which gives society a stake in trying to compassionately reduce the number of abortions.

This is a long way from the type of propaganda put out by the pro-choice groups in the 1970s in which aborted fetuses simply became "tissue" and abortion at any age of fetal development for any reason was just a matter of "personal choice." A combination of factors including sophisticated ultrasound methods, fetal surgery, genetic science, premature birth survivability rates at younger ages have combined to change the landscape from a time when pro-choice advocates pitched abortion as no more morally significant than the removal of an appendix.

Since the abortion issue has escaped the left/right divide it is no longer a creature of the Democratic or Republican Parties. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood can no longer "win" abortion battles by simply getting Democrats elected. (An anti-abortion governor is now chairman of the Democratic Party.) That being the case, President Obama's non-partisan approach is the only one that makes sense.

This is not going to be a winner-take-all situation. The battle over abortion is going to have to find slow resolution in the way President Obama recommends or not at all. First, abortion will remain legal. No thoughtful commentator that I know of thinks that Roe will be reversed. Second, the American public -- even at a time of Democratic Party ascendancy and a popular Democratic President -- is not only ambivalent about abortion but numbers are trending away from an affirmation of the legal right to choose being perceived as the same thing as abortion being right in a moral sense.

The hate-filled morons of the Religious Right have deservedly lost the battle for the hearts and minds of America. But the extreme supporters of abortion have also lost. They can no longer credibly cast all Americans who are morally ambivalent about abortion as misogynists. President Obama has provided a tangible alternative both in spirit and practically. It won't bridge the gap between extremes but it will provide an uneasy place for the rest of us to live and work together for the good of both women and children.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. He is author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and also author of the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).