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Pro-Choice Democrats Have A Choice To Make

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The abortion issue is dragging Democrats down. The rigid pro-choice stance the Democratic Party has long taken on abortion is costing them votes. Even worse, the Party's intolerance of dissent on the abortion issue erodes its public credibility when it claims to be the party of inclusion and diversity. And the waffling position of their last two presidential candidates - " I'm personally opposed to abortion, but won't impose my beliefs on others" - only confirmed to voters that Democratic presidential candidates have no backbone. It's time the Democratic Party took a new position.

It is important that Democrats come to understand and acknowledge the pro-life position. When you start from the belief system, whether it be grounded in your religious beliefs or simply felt deeply in your moral core, that life begins at conception, then of course you'll consider abortion equal to taking a life. Democrats cannot reduce the pro-life sentiments in favor of banning abortions exclusively to the patriarchal aspirations of Old Testamentarian and overwhelmingly male politicians.

Abortion is such a complicated issue precisely because there is genuine morality on each side. No matter how perplexingly inconsistent it seems to abortion rights advocates that the caring shown by abortion foes for a fetus does not generalize with similar intensity to a caring for others in our society who are in need of help, it is important to acknowledge that abortion foes are nevertheless displaying heartfelt caring. Most right-to-lifers are motivated by a genuine desire to defend the defenseless. The Democratic Party must begin to show some respect for, even while disagreeing with, the position of those who believe that there are no circumstances, save the health of the mother, under which an abortion should ever be available.

Nobody wants an abortion. Women choose an abortion for a variety of reasons, none of them easy. Most often it is not for convenience, but for poverty. Two-thirds of women who have abortions claim their primary reason is that they cannot afford a child. Abortion represents a sad, even tragic choice for too many women, many of whom society has failed to protect from poverty, rape, incest, or inadequate access to health care and contraception.

Abortion is, as has been said, "a right that ends in sadness". It is a right only of last resort, to be exercised with solemn understanding of its tragic consequences.

Abortion is also a moral choice, one so solemn and serious that to appear celebratory about having the right to make that choice rightfully offends and enrages. Those who are fighting to preserve the legal right conferred by Roe v. Wade should at least acknowledge that the legal right represents a moral choice, and that those who take the moral choice seriously are not the enemies of those who prize the legal right.

The debate Democrats need to have - and what a contentious one it would be! - is whether fighting tooth and nail to preserve Roe v. Wade is serving them well. Overturning Roe v. Wade would in essence turn the matter back to the states, and the likelihood is - though this is admittedly debatable - that the majority of states would preserve abortion rights in some form. After all, a majority of Americans still support, to a greater or lesser degree, a woman's right to make her own choices about her own reproduction. So long as Roe v. Wade stands, it will continuously galvanize the rigidly religious right, and fuel an increasingly rabid pro-life constituency that can be neither politically satisifed nor politically defeated. Turning it back to the states turns the issue might actually turn the issue back in the Democrats' favor, and douse the fire that is consuming the Democratic Party.

The Republican Party seems to have only two strategies when it comes to abortion, both of very questionable effectiveness: make abortions illegal, and fund only programs that exclusively promote abstinence-only until marriage. However, they fail to acknowledge and appreciate that the teen pregnancy and abortion rate in the United States is the lowest it's ever been in recorded medical history, thanks to decades of advocating for sex education that strongly encourages abstinence and preparation for mature and monogamous adult relationships, while at the same time emphasizing the need for responsibility and knowledge of contraception on the part of young people who decide not to follow the recommendation of abstinence until marriage.

Pro-life Republicans are also failing on the abortion issue in believing that by overturning Roe v. Wade there will no longer be abortions. To outlaw abortion would only reduce the number of legal abortions, not the total number of abortions. In fact, the countries with the higest abortion rates are predominantly Roman Catholic, where all abortions are illegal, and few social services are available. The two countries with the lowest abortion rates are the relatively secular and liberal countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, where abortions are legal but where society takes very seriously its support for single mothers and the poor.

Let's face it, there will never be zero abortions. Half the women who have an abortion were using birth control already - there are no perfect methods or perfect people. If Roe v. Wade were overturned and states were all to ban the procedure, as many Republicans desire, not only would there still be abortions, but more women would die of complications from poorly performed "back-alley" procedures. Low-income women would be the ones most likely to die, as they are less likely to have access to health care, or the funds necessary to obtain a safe abortion. Making abortions illegal would mean returning to a discriminatory system in which well-off women would have access to safer abortions, and poorer women would not.

So, what should Democrats do to counter the Republicans? Bill Clinton was right in saying that abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare". Democrats should go public with a new platform that sympathizes with the pro-life p osition, and states a desire to work together across party lines towards abortion prevention while preserving a woman's right to choose. Democrats, indeed, should "make every effort that women live in a world where abortions are rare because they have the support they need to prevent most unintended pregnancies, and to carry to term those that do".

Democrats should publicly contrast themselves with those who consider themselves pro-life, and profess their belief in a "culture of life", all the while advocating for the reduction of social services for women to adequately, safely, and healthily carry a pregnancy and raise their usually fatherless child. Yes, ideally, every baby conceived should be a wanted child, but then, ideally, our society must assure that every wanted child has a chance at a decent life.

Democrats should publicly agitate for greater federal and state supports for single mothers. Society must protect women from poverty, inadequate health care, jobs without flexible schedules, lack of affordable daycare, limited access to contraception and sex education, and fathers who don't take financial and emotional responsibility for their children. Once a single mother decides not to have an abortion, she should be comforted in her decision by knowing that she'll have access to paid maternity leave, health care for her and for her baby, decent housing, quality child care, and a living wage with tax credits to help her and her newborn child have a decent life.

Democrats should publicly push for making adoptions easier, and for making sex education and birth control more available, all the while stressing that sex is best reserved for an adult monogamous relationship. Comprehensive sex education programs that recommend abstinence, st ress responsibilty, and teach teens how to use contraception have proven effectiveness at delaying the onset of sexual activity in teens, and increasing contraception use when they become sexually active.

The best way to reduce abortions is to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Most Americans have the good common sense to know that preaching abstinence-only has not worked, and will not work. Abortion rates are estimated at half today what they were during the Leave It To Beaver era Republicans idealize, when sex education and talk of contraception was taboo. Democrats need to be the party of common sense, while welcoming, and honoring the beliefs of those who believe with all their heart that life begins at conception.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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