MAY 7, 2009
By LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON -- The White House has begun bringing together a diverse group of abortion-rights supporters and opponents to help craft policies both sides can embrace: preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing demand for abortion.
President Barack Obama appears to be trying to make good on his pledge to defuse tensions around polarizing issues.
The effort could also be in his political interests. While he may not win over abortion opponents on the issue, if he is seen as having a genuine interest in finding common ground, that could persuade some to judge him on other policies where they may agree with him, such as economics.
Interviews with several participants suggest there is some common ground, but plenty of disagreements remain. It will be challenging for the White House to settle on policies that reach across the spectrum.
Participants said that abortion opponents tended to focus on efforts to help pregnant women keep their babies, while the abortion-rights camp focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy.
Some in the antiabortion community, for instance, suggested more support for pregnancy "crisis centers," which discourage women from having abortions. But abortion-rights supporters say these centers give out inaccurate information. Abortion-rights supporters want more support for contraception, which some abortion opponents are unenthusiastic about.
"Not everyone may agree on every issue we discuss, but we think there is enough common ground and potential for common ground here that people can help us to move forward," said domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, who is leading the initiative.
The meetings -- anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people at a time -- began about a month ago and are expected to continue for another six to eight weeks. The White House hopes to have a proposal formed by late summer, Ms. Barnes said.
At the end of the process, the White House doesn't plan to seek any official endorsement for its proposals from any of the participants, Ms. Barnes said. Staff will review the comments and materials provided and develop recommendations for the president.
Mr. Obama has made it clear that he supports legal abortion, and he has taken several steps already that are consistent with that view. He lifted rules that prevent U.S. funding for international family-planning organizations that promote or offer abortion. And he also is allowing much greater federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which many abortion opponents decry. But in each case, the president emphasized that he hoped to find ways to bridge the divide over the issue.
"I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion or at least considering getting an abortion," he said at a news conference last week.
At the start of the initiative, the White House took off the table any discussion of whether abortion should be legal.
Ms. Barnes told participants that the White House is interested in hearing ideas in several areas, among them: sex education; responsible use of contraception; maternal and child health; pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere; and adoption.
Participants say that suggestions included: improving education about use of contraception; better access to emergency contraception (which can be used after sex); improving education about sex, relationships and the "sacredness of sex"; stamping out employment discrimination against pregnant women; improving family-leave policies; and encouraging adoption.
One suggestion was to set a concrete goal for abortion reduction, such as a 25% reduction in four years. The number of abortions peaked in 1990 at 1.6 million and has declined every year since then, reaching 1.2 million in 2005, the latest year for which data are available.
David Gushee, an abortion opponent and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta who has participated in the talks, said the act of convening people is valuable. "When people get into a room working on a common problem it's harder to demonize them when they leave the room."
"If you hear all points of view it makes for better policy," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, another participant in the discussions.
Another participant, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, was skeptical that the effort could reduce tension around the abortion fight.
"There will still be women who need abortion and still groups trying very hard to prevent access to that right," she said. She is fine with the president reaching out to the other side, she said, as long as his policies continue to support the abortion-rights agenda.
At least one of the loudest voices in the abortion debate wasn't in the room. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life, said he wasn't invited to participate.
He said that Mr. Obama's policies on funding and other matters will inevitably lead to more abortions. "We think this is a political hoax mapped out by career pro-abortion activists and adopted by a politician with an abortion record far to the left of the mainstream."
Write to Laura Meckler at email@example.com
Stop the presses
I love this! I get so much flak from my pro-life and pro-choice friends for my position -- I would love there to be no abortions because I view fetuses as another living and developing people, but it really is a woman's choice to determine what to do with her body, other people simply do not see life as I do, and sometimes abortion really is the only option. The idea of trying to decrease abortions and increase education without castigating either position is great and I really hope that the various groups can stop screaming at each other long enough to realize that neither really wants a world littered with desperate mothers, unwanted kids, or dead fetuses. Hopefully I've explained my position well enough in this short space and I welcome some debate -- keep it civil! :)