THIRTY-TWO years after the US Supreme Court legalized abortion, some Democrats are worried that the party's traditional support for abortion rights may have contributed to their losses in the 2004 elections. Senator Hillary Clinton created a stir last month when she used the occasion of the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to recommend finding ''common ground" with antiabortion voters. There was nothing alarming in what Clinton had to say, and despite the political wags who immediately saw her positioning to run for national office, there was nothing much new. Speaking to the same group in 1999, Clinton said, ''I think it's essential that as Americans we look for that common ground that we can all stand upon."
Still, Clinton's remarks offer a good opportunity to consider where common ground might be found on the polarizing issue of abortion without retreating on the essential right of a woman to choose.
While firmly restating her support for Roe v. Wade, Clinton subtly changed the tone of the discussion by describing abortion as ''a sad, even tragic choice for many, many women." Her comments echo an influential article in the liberal magazine The America Prospect in which thirtysomething deputy editor Sarah Blustain admitted to being ''turned off' by what she called the ''cheerful" rhetoric of abortion rights. For her generation, Blustain wrote, ''the choice of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis and is never one made happily."
Blustain's comments are also not news. Even in the first flush of the Roe v. Wade decision, the primary emotion among women was relief, not cheer. Moreover, despite the claims of opponents that American women can obtain ''abortion on demand," restrictions on the procedure are severe and getting tighter all the time.
More than 85 percent of counties in the United States have no practicing abortion provider. Many poor women and all federal employees, including women in the military, cannot have abortions covered by Medicaid or federal insurance. Forty-three states allow hospitals and clinics to refuse to provide abortion services; 28 states include public hospitals. States have passed more than 400 bills restricting access to abortion since 1995. And it doesn't stop at abortion; some birth control methods and most sex education -- other than abstinence -- have been targeted for elimination by antiabortion forces.
Seeking a new way to talk about abortion with those who sincerely oppose it need not mean supporting these restrictions, or the bill that would criminalize helping a minor cross state lines to obtain an abortion, or requiring that minors get the consent of both parents -- which in a shocking number of cases can include the girl's rapist -- or conferring personhood on a fetus, or banning public funds for victims of rape or incest, or requiring women to obtain a death warrant for an aborted fetus -- all of which have been proposed in Congress or state legislatures. It can start with three areas of truly common concern that can significantly reduce the number of abortions: adoption, contraception, and compassion.
There are an estimated 3 million unplanned pregnancies each year in America, roughly half of which end up in abortion. The number has dropped steadily through 2000, but it is still far too large. One way to discourage abortion would be to ensure that every unplanned birth can be matched to a loving adopted home. Unfortunately, some states still forbid adoption by unmarried or single parents and gay couples. Reversing these outdated laws should be a priority for both sides of the abortion debate.
Access to reliable birth control is an obvious way to reduce the need for abortion. Birth control has been legal since the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision by the Supreme Court, but religious conservatives have blocked making even condoms available in high schools. Many hospitals, not just those with a religious affiliation, can deny emergency contraception for rape victims or women whose birth control fails. The federal Food and Drug Administration overruled its own staff report to block making the so-called ''morning-after pill" available over the counter. Pharmacists in some states can refuse to dispense birth control pills, even to adult women who have a prescription.
Finally, women who are driven to have abortions -- the majority of whom are young and poor -- would have better options if society provided them with support in raising their children. Instead, states are passing ever more stringent welfare laws that eliminate benefits for pregnant women and for those with ever younger children. Some centers for unwed mothers provided by opponents of abortion do provide prenatal care and parenting classes, but most simply aim to steer women away from abortions. After that, they're on their own. Women who are desperate should not be forced into motherhood, but financial and social support would help make their decisions more of a true choice.
There are some hopeful signs that both sides may yet reach across the abortion divide. Last month the Republican National Committee's chairman, Ken Mehlman, who was campaign manager for President Bush, chose Joann Davidson, a member of Republicans for Choice and former speaker of the Ohio House, as his party cochair. The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who opposes abortion, has filed the ''Prevention First Act," which would require insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives, give emergency contraception to rape victims, and fund comprehensive sex education, including discussion of birth control, in public schools.
Majorities of Americans still support keeping abortion legal in at least some circumstances. But everyone should be able to agree on ways to make abortions less frequent or necessary. Reid's legislation would be a good test of the sincerity of all those calling for common ground.