Commentary: November election could help the abortion debate

WASHINGTON -- If both parties combine wisdom with shrewdness, the election of a new congressional majority should open the way for a better approach to the abortion question.

WASHINGTON -- If both parties combine wisdom with shrewdness, the election of a new congressional majority should open the way for a better approach to the abortion question.

The bitter political brawling of the last three decades has created an unproductive stalemate that leaves abortion opponents frustrated, abortion rights supporters in a constant state of worry, and the many Americans who hold middle-ground positions on abortion feeling there is no one who speaks for them.

But the politics of abortion began to change even before this month's elections. In September, a group of 23 pro-choice and pro-life Democratic House members introduced what they called the "Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act."

OK, it's not the catchiest title, but you get the point. The bill -- its sponsor is Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, an abortion opponent, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., an abortion rights supporter, as a leading co-sponsor -- took a lot of negotiation. Supporters of abortion rights tend to favor programs that encourage effective contraception, which some in the right-to-life movement oppose. Opponents of abortion emphasize helping women who want to carry their children to term.

The Ryan bill, one of several congressional initiatives to reduce the abortion rate, does both. It includes a remarkably broad set of programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy, promoting contraception and encouraging parental responsibility. But it also includes strong measures to offer new mothers full access to health coverage, childcare and nutrition assistance.


The public debate usually ignores the fact that abortion rates are closely tied to income. As the Guttmacher Institute has reported, "the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ... is more than four times that of women above 300 percent of the poverty level." The numbers are stark: 44 abortions per 1,000 women in the lower income group, 10 abortions per 1,000 women in the higher income group.

In other words: If you truly care about reducing the number of abortions, you have to care about the well-being of poor women.

There are moral and practical reasons for members of both parties, and combatants on both sides of the abortion question, to embrace this approach.

Liberal supporters of abortion rights should be eager to promote a measure that does not make abortion illegal, but does embrace goals, including help for the poor, that liberals have long advocated.

In the meantime, the victories opponents of abortion rights have won in fact do little to reduce the number of abortions. As Rachel Laser, director of the Third Way Culture Project, points out, even those who would ban late-term or partial-birth abortions need to acknowledge that very few are performed, meaning that these laws do little to reduce the overall abortion rate. According to one study cited by Laser, only 0.08 percent of abortions are performed in the third trimester.

Parental consent laws affect fewer than a fifth of all abortions, those obtained by teens 17 or under, and it is not clear how many abortions these measures stop, since studies suggest that many parents favor rather than oppose abortion in such circumstances.

Why shouldn't both sides embrace broader steps that, without coercion, could cut the abortion rate by much larger numbers? We know this is possible because it has already happened: Between 1994 and 2000, the abortion rate fell by 11 percent. An ambitious national effort could do more.

There is also the politics of the issue. In her study, Laser points to a group she calls the "abortion grays," i.e., the six voters in 10 who do not see the abortion issue in black-and-white terms. This group tilts pro-choice, but does not believe abortion should always be either legal or illegal.


For Democrats, this means taking into account that while most of the new members they elected this month favor abortion rights, the party's freshmen include strong abortion opponents -- among them Sen.-elect Bob Casey, D-Pa., and about a half-dozen new House members. Democrats are a party with a pro-choice majority, a significant pro-life minority, and a lot of grays.

Republicans are the more anti-abortion party but include many pro-choice voters and grays in their ranks. They face a broadly pro-choice country and now have to battle a right-wing image that drove so many independents and moderates to the Democrats.

Taking substantial steps to reduce the abortion rate will not settle the larger ethical argument over the practice. But it could show that politicians are capable of living up to their highest calling, which is to seek practical forms of moral seriousness.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is .

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