Democrats Consider a Changing Abortion Agenda
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today is the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe verses Wade decision, legalizing abortion nationwide. It will be marked, as usual, with rallies and marches. On Capitol Hill, though, the buzzword is common ground: an effort to find a compromise on an issue that has divided the country for three and half decades. All this week NPR's series Crossing the Divide, is looking at the challenge of finding common ground, and few challenges are greater than bringing together the two sides on the abortion debate.
Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.
JULIE ROVNER: Aarti Shastry teaches a teen life class at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., about 10 blocks north of the Capitol. The class is aimed at helping middle schoolers make better-informed decisions about their bodies and their lives.
Ms. AARTI SHASTRY (Teacher, Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C.): So say, at age 13, she decides to have sex. Could that make - could that affect some of the other things in her lifeline?
ROVNER: The idea, says Shastry, is to talk less about contraception and birth control, and more about overall life choices. That, in turn, should help reduce the rate of teen pregnancy.
Ms. SHASTRY: We hope that in their life, they end up choosing if and when they want to get pregnant, if and when they want to have a child - at a time that's right for them - rather than a consequence of a decision they didn't think through.
ROVNER: Reducing abortion by preventing pregnancy. That's the new mantra among many Democrats in Washington these days. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan opposes abortion, but last fall he joined with several pro-choice Democrats to introduce a compromise bill called the Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act.
Representative TIM RYAN (Democrat, Ohio): The old debate of we're just going to scream at each other and not make any progress on the number of abortions gets quite tiresome. And no one else was doing it, so we stuck our neck out and said that we're going to jump in the middle of the most fiery debate in America -emotionally anyway - to try and find some common ground. And I think we have a bill that reflects a real approach that everyone should be able to agree on, that would actually work and reduce the number of abortion.
ROVNER: The bill includes more money for pregnancy prevention programs and also more money to support women who decide to have their babies. Ryan worked closely with the group Third Way to craft the bill. He admits the process wasn't easy.
Rep. RYAN: I think there's a general sense from the left that we're going to get into the criminalization side - we're going to put doctors and women in prison. That's not what we want to do. There was a general sentiment from the right, that you know, we're going to give away the store. And if you get into prevention, then all of a sudden it's a dog. It's a loser.
ROVNER: But Ryan's bill hasn't been universally embraced, particularly by those who oppose abortion. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith is the longtime chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus. He says Ryan's bill is anything but common ground.
Rep. CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): It is a thinly disguised effort to get money to groups like Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood performs 250,000 abortions every year. They have opposed virtually every, what you might call, common ground initiative like women's right to know laws, informed consent, parental notification provisions, waiting periods.
ROVNER: Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice advocates say those initiatives are designed to deter abortions rather than to provide unbiased information. Meanwhile, pro-choice forces have little enthusiasm for another bill that claims to be staking out common ground in reducing abortion. This one was introduced by Tennessee Democrat Lincoln Davis. It has no provisions for pregnancy prevention. It simply helps support pregnant women who choose to carry their babies to term.
Political scientist John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says sparring like this is one of many reasons why attempts to fund compromise on abortion typically fail. Another is that when it comes to abortion, there's not a big constituency for compromise.
Mr. JOHN GREEN (Political Scientist, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life): The people who care passionately about this issue, whether they're in the pro-life community or in the pro-choice community, really are not very excited about these compromises because they want to advance their agenda. But people in the middle who would really like to see the compromise are not very passionate about the issue.
ROVNER: And it's not just interest groups. It's also the Democratic and Republican parties. Green says party leaders would like to be able to appeal to voters at the margins - pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans, but...
Mr. GREEN: The parties really do have also strong incentives to not have a compromise and to emphasize the things that will bring their base constituencies to the polls.
ROVNER: In fact, says Green, today's status quo is probably as close to a consensus as the country is likely to get. Abortion is legal in most cases, and that makes many Americans uncomfortable.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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