The Truth About Abortion Reduction

A coalition of evangelicals and Catholics who believe they pushed the Democratic Party to adopt the language of "abortion reduction" is gearing up for 2009, preparing to hold Democrats' feet to the fire to pass abortion-reduction legislation. Because evangelicals and Catholics voted for Barack Obama in slightly higher numbers than they did for John Kerry, some of these religious leaders are threatening that Democratic politicians will lose support if they don't deliver on abortion-reduction legislation.

Although this evangelical-Catholic coalition claims to represent "common ground," its position is not the uniform one among religious leaders and holds less sway in the Obama camp than the coalition claimed during the presidential campaign. Obama has consistently advocated for reproductive choice alongside reducing unintended pregnancies. In 2007, as a senator, he co-sponsored Prevention First, a bill that would fund family planning and comprehensive sex education, and he has continued to advocate for that legislation through his transition Web site. In contrast, the religious abortion-reduction advocates support incentives that they argue will encourage women not to choose abortion, such as economic supports for pregnant women and adoption promotion.

But a significant number of religious figures share Obama's position that preventing unintended pregnancies -- not stigmatizing abortion -- is the best path forward. Three thousand religious leaders have endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, which advocates comprehensive sex education and "a faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment." The Religious Institute on Sexuality, Justice, and Healing, which authored the declaration, has also called on Obama to adopt an approach focused on preventing unintended pregnancies.

But over the course of the campaign season, as Democrats built on their 2006 ambitions of cracking the Republican hold on evangelical and Catholic voters, the Obama camp succumbed to the temptation to woo more conservative religious leaders with abortion-reduction talk. After a closed-door meeting between Obama and religious leaders in Chicago in June 2008, many of the clergy praised the candidate's willingness to recognize the moral complexity of abortion, and his openness to discussing abortion reduction.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who was one of the attendees, and whose National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference represents over 18,000 Latino evangelical churches, told the Prospect after the election, "I am so excited that the Democratic Party is looking at abortion reduction as a strategy and objective. That's unbelievable. That's the highlight for moral and family values for the past year."

But since the election, Obama -- who acknowledges his respect for those who oppose abortion -- has reiterated his belief in both choice and unintended pregnancy prevention, reaffirming his support for Roe v. Wade and Prevention First. "If [Obama] makes a sharp left here [on abortion and gay marriage], it will be difficult for him to get as many votes from the Hispanic community," Rodriguez says. "We will be strong and forceful to let the Latino community know that a person who promised to govern from the center is dividing us on wedge issues."

Rodriguez's followers voted for Obama in far larger numbers than did white evangelicals. They are part of what evangelical anti-poverty activist Jim Wallis claims is a new, pivotal voting bloc of nonwhite evangelicals and Catholics who will supplant the religious right. On abortion, the leadership of this new coalition coalesced around a 2007 report issued by the think tank Third Way, Come Let Us Reason Together (CLURT). They are pushing for the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, also known as the Ryan-DeLauro bill, named after its chief sponsors, Reps. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio, and Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Ryan-DeLauro does contain some provisions for contraception and sex education but also includes a panoply of economic and other provisions meant to reduce abortion, including funding for ultrasound equipment, support for pregnant and parenting college and graduate students, and funding for adoption-assistance programs. Most controversially, the bill includes a provision that would require clinics receiving federal funds to obtain "informed consent" from a woman seeking abortion after providing her with "medically and factually accurate" information on the abortion procedure and "possible risks and complications." A spokeswoman for DeLauro says she plans to reintroduce the bill in the 111th Congress.

Ryan, who is anti-choice, campaigned for Obama, convincing Catholic voters that it was kosher to vote for a pro-choice candidate because of Obama's position on abortion reduction. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, writing 10 days after the election, warned Obama not to "issue the pro-choice executive orders that the abortion-rights movement expects." That, Dionne threatened, "would be both politically foolish and a breach of faith with the pro-life progressives who came to Obama's defense during the campaign. They argued that Obama truly was committed to reducing the number of abortions. He shouldn't turn them into liars."

In response to the absence of abortion-reduction language on Obama's transition Web site, Rachel Laser, director of the Culture Program at Third Way and CLURT's principal author, said, "What Obama is going to do as president has to be judged based on the totality of what he did in his campaign. He was extremely clear throughout his campaign, in the platform, and in debates, that the approach of the Ryan-DeLauro bill … is his approach."

Abortion reduction, framed as a package of incentives to encourage women facing unintended pregnancies to carry them to term, "is the new common ground," says Wallis, who claims that "people on the edges, on the left, and the right, won't support it." Wallis frequently accuses those of not agreeing with his anti-abortion "common ground" of restoking the "culture wars," but there are other ideas of where the common ground lies. According to Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, "Americans want to move beyond the divisive political attacks that defined the debate over abortion during the Bush era. The public wants lawmakers to find common ground -- to focus on policies that improve women's access to birth control and ensure that teens receive accurate sex education -- all of which helps prevent unintended pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion without undermining a woman's right to choose."

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said that her organization "does more than any other organization to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion. One in four women in this country has been to a Planned Parenthood clinic, primarily for prevention and contraception care."

Tying economic and social support for pregnant women to abortion reduction places the choice of carrying a pregnancy to term in a position of moral superiority to choosing abortion, said Jessica Arons, director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and a member of its Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. "We should be providing supports to women who want to continue their pregnancies to term. We should be doing it because it is the right thing to do for women and their families. We should not be doing it to express a moral preference for the decision that she would make."

In emphasizing adoption, Wallis frequently encourages "the Juno option," referring to the popular movie in which a teenage girl decides not to have an abortion and to give her baby up for adoption.

The Rev. Debra Haffner, the president of the Religious Institute, who is a sexologist in addition to an ordained minister, expressed frustration with Wallis' use of the term "Juno option." Despite studies frequently cited by anti-choice activists that women experience guilt after abortion, "the overwhelming data is most women feel relief," Haffner said, even as they "never forget." (A recent John Hopkins University study confirms abortion is not linked with a higher incidence of depression.)

Haffner points to what she calls evangelicals' "erotophobia" -- fear of sex. "If you just talk about saving the baby, you don't have to talk about what makes you get pregnant in the first place. That fear of sexuality both personally and institutionally and the desire to control people's sexuality is playing into this."

The prospects for passing any reproductive-health bills in the 111th Congress remain uncertain. In the Senate, two Democrats, Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska plan to reintroduce the Pregnant Women's Support Act, based on a Democrats for Life proposal that includes no contraception provisions and that even CLURT's authors rejected. And different coalitions of support have formed around the Ryan-DeLauro bill and Prevention First.

Passing a comprehensive bill like Ryan-DeLauro could be complicated not only by the reluctance of reproductive-rights advocates to get behind it but also by the refusal of some Catholic groups, under pressure from church hierarchy, to endorse a bill that includes contraception. Many evangelicals are similarly loathe to endorse contraception, as evidenced by the forced resignation of Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, after he told National Public Radio's Fresh Air host Terri Gross that he favored government supplying contraception. Despite his departure from the NAE, Cizik remains a powerful de facto spokesperson for the new evangelicals' coalition. "We're not Catholics who oppose contraception per se," he told Gross. "What do you want; do you want an unintended pregnancy that results in abortion? Or do you want to meet a woman's needs in crisis, who, by better contraception avoids that choice, avoids [the abortion] that we all recognize is morally repugnant; at least it is to me.”

Calling abortion "morally repugnant" shows that even those claiming to stand on "common ground" can still deploy the incendiary language that the evangelical-Catholic coalition claims to eschew. Common ground is a worthy goal, but the abortion-reduction coalition's claim to define it is itself an impediment to cooperation with the dominant pro-choice elements of Obama's coalition.

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