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Abortion Contortions

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Anyone pro-choice following the Republican debates – anyone? – must admit to a bit of schadenfreude at watching front-running presidential aspirant Rudolph Giuliani twist himself into Clintonesque contortions over the issue of abortion.

While a bit of guilty pleasure is well-earned after decades of suffering the wrath of what has at least outwardly been a unified Republican Party on this issue, we should not enjoy ourselves overlong, for Mr. Giuliani’s contortions well represent the nation’s as a whole. Recognizing and acknowledging this will serve the cause of choice, and of women’s rights, well in future years and elections.

While long a steady ballast providing stability for the Republican Party, the abortion issue has for Democrats been instead a heavy anchor dragging down them down. Though those pro-choice are sometimes loathe to admit it, the Democratic Party’s righteously rigid pro-choice stance has cost it millions of votes over the years, and likely many an election.

Worse yet, the party’s historic intolerance of dissent on the abortion issue has diminished public credibility for its 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 for those pro-choice, and for the Democratic Party, to consider taking a new look at this issue.

It is important firstly that those pro-choice come to understand and acknowledge the pro-life position. When one starts from the belief system, whether grounded in religious beliefs or simply felt deeply in the moral core, that life begins at conception, of course abortion is considered equal to taking a life.

But when those pro-choice reduce the pro-life sentiments in favor of banning abortions exclusively to the patriarchal aspirations of Old Testamentarian and overwhelmingly male politicians, they fail, and fail miserably, to understand the deeply held beliefs of tens of millions of compassionate and well-meaning Americans.

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. Those pro-life, including most Democratic politicians, 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. But so long as Roe v. Wade stands, it will continuously galvanize the rigidly religious right, and fuel a rabid pro-life constituency that can be neither politically satisfied nor politically defeated. Turning it back to the states turns the issue might actually turn the issue back in the Democrats' favor, and lift that heavy electoral anchor.

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.

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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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