THE BLOG
01/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Unearthing Common Ground: Why Reducing Abortions is Not the Goal

There comes a moment in justice movements when society edges forward just enough that once-heated controversies - suffrage, racial integration, interracial marriage - become part of the cultural fabric. Sexism and racism may continue to simmer, but the overall movement can declare victory and move on.

On Election Day, the reproductive justice movement may have achieved its moment. The election of a pro-choice President-elect puts Roe v. Wade back on firm ground. Ballot measures that would have restricted reproductive health rights in three states were all soundly defeated. The Mexico City Policy, which blocks U.S. aid to international family planning organization that counsel women on abortion, is expected to be quickly reversed. A post-election survey by Faith in Public Life showed that a clear majority of Americans want to keep abortion legal.

The fiercest opponents of women's reproductive rights are not giving up. But over the past few weeks, we have heard a commitment from several Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders to finding a new common ground on abortion. David Gushee, writing for the Associated Baptist Press, notes that, "Over 80 percent of white evangelicals and Catholics believe elected officials should work together to find ways to reduce abortions by helping prevent unwanted pregnancies, expanding adoption and increasing economic support for women who want to carry their pregnancies to term."

I welcome the support and collaboration of Professor Gushee, as well as Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Catholic legal scholar Douglas Kmiec, Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals and others, who are calling to "reduce the number of abortions." But I am puzzled that their goal is to reduce abortions rather than the unintended pregnancies that force women and families to consider abortion in the first place.

The call to reduce unintended pregnancies is the right one. What we must focus on now are the means to do so - specifically, comprehensive sexuality education (not abstinence-only) and universal access to contraceptive services, including emergency contraception.

The advocates for a new common ground correctly note the correlation between poverty and abortion rates. But they fail to mention how poverty first contributes to unintended pregnancies. Adoption alternatives and economic support for poor pregnant women are important - but these strategies do not address the fact that poor women are at least five times more likely than other women to become pregnant unintentionally.

Here's what the Guttmacher Institute's Susan Cohen wrote the last time an abortion reduction strategy was floated by Democrats for Life in 2006: "While it is theoretically possible that increased social supports for pregnant women and even more 'adoption-positive' problem-pregnancy counseling could have some impact, neither can hope to approach the real reductions in the abortion rate that could be achieved by preventing unintended pregnancy in the first place." (Emphasis added.)

This is the real moral challenge we face. I've worked with thousands of women facing unintended pregnancies. They aren't looking for "abortion on demand"; with only a handful of exceptions, these women sat with me (often with their partners or parents beside them), and they wept as they tried to decide what was best to do. Often they did have financial concerns - not so much about how they would pay for prenatal care or infant care, but about how they could afford to raise a child (or in many cases, another child) to adulthood. Too often, they did not have partners who they wanted to spend their lives with or who could support them. As one of my colleagues has said, such women have "too much responsibility already and too few resources, both personal and economic."

So here is my suggestion for common ground. Let's stop talking about reducing the number of abortions as a goal in itself. Such talk obscures what should be the principal objective - reducing unintended pregnancies - and leads to counterproductive strategies that would place restrictions on abortion access. It also misrepresents the platform that President-elect Obama ran on, which affirmed a woman's right to choose and opposed "any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." The Democratic platform called for "access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives," as well as economic support for pregnant women.

Let's start talking about reducing unintended pregnancies. This is not only the better public health position, it is a faithful and moral one as well. Five years ago, the Religious Institute published an Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision, which includes this eloquent and irrefutable statement: "The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly."

Surely this is the common ground where all of us - the new Administration, the new Congress, even my Catholic and evangelical colleagues - can proudly stand.