Joanna Weiss

Awaiting a detente in debate on abortion

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2009

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WHEN IT became clear that that the congressional health care bill would restrict some funding for abortions, the expected players voiced the expected outrage, howling at the encroachment on women’s rights.

And I felt squeamish, as I often do when abortion comes up these days. Yes, I’m concerned about women’s rights, but I’m also concerned about abortion itself. I’m concerned that there are roughly 4 million babies born in America each year and 1.2 million abortions. And I’m concerned that some prochoice women will accuse me of betrayal.

This is a critical moment for abortion-rights advocates, and not just because we’ve seen abortion used as a bargaining chip. New generations of Americans, removed from the battles that preceded Roe v. Wade, view the debate less as a matter of absolutes than as an issue of gut-wrenching complexity. Abortion defenders know this; the National Abortion Rights Action League has been conducting focus groups across the country, to learn how to sell an abortion-rights message to ambivalent Millennials.

“They’re not connecting the personal with the political,’’ says NARAL’s president, Nancy Keenan. “They’re not connecting that personal experience with the political reality that we’re dealing with.’’

But then, when it comes to abortion, personal politics are quite different from political reality. Here’s how the personal is political for a GenXer like me: Two pregnancies have made me both more antiabortion and more prochoice. I have thrilled at the nine-week ultrasound that showed a miraculously beating heart. And I have lain on a table for a 17-week ultrasound, terrified that the clinician would find a problem, not knowing what I’d do if she did, but knowing that I would want the decision to be mine.

When choice is your primary value, though, you have to accept some uncomfortable results. In reality, abortions because of the health of the fetus or mother are rare; far more women choose abortions because of the circumstances of their lives. Most women who go to abortion clinics are young and poor. And, especially amid the current health care debate, we should be able to talk about policies that would give them better access to contraception and stronger incentive to use it, so that fewer women have to make these difficult decisions.

But in the political arena, the battle over abortion rights is still waged by the extremes, two irreconcilable sides that insist that ceding any ground is tantamount to ceding all of it. Abortion foes often ignore the fact that pregnancy is difficult and risky and emotional. Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute scoffs at the notion that adoption is an easy cure-all to the abortion dilemma, that a pregnant teen could hand over her baby to a deserving older couple and blithely move on. “Let’s go back to ‘Juno’ two years hence and you know where she is?’’ he says. “She’s in her bedroom crying her eyes out.’’

Yet abortion-rights advocacy can sometimes be equally blind, lambasting anyone who raises shades of gray. Wellesley College economics professor Phillip Levine wrote an op-ed in The New York Times this month, suggesting that fear of abortion limits in the current health care bill were overstated, and that expanded coverage in the bill could help give many women access to birth control. He drew angry responses from abortion-rights advocates, one of whom asked, “Why do all Republican men hate women?’’ It was an odd accusation against someone who worked in the Clinton administration and teaches at a women’s college.

I understand that the all-or-nothing prochoice argument was needed at a time when contraceptives were less readily available, when women had far fewer choices about their fertility and their lives. But we are now in a moment when acknowledging the moral complexity of abortion doesn’t have to diminish one’s commitment to choice - and could actually even strengthen it. Perhaps the health care bill isn’t a terrible moment for women’s rights, but a great one, a point when both sides of the abortion debate can move past the polarized rhetoric and start working toward a goal that most people would share: making abortion safe, legal, and very, very rare.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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