Thirty-six years after the Roe v. Wade decision, after three and a half decades of angry, divisive abortion politics, Barack Obama has begun to open the door to a thoughtful discussion of abortion. His plea for "fair-minded words" in the abortion debate should be used by people on both sides to begin to heal this national divide.
As President Obama said in his commencement address at Notre Dame, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions."
This opportunity gives us a chance to reframe the discussion to see where we can find common ground. It does not mean that we should gloss over differences, but we must avoid vilifying people with differing opinions.
There is common ground. Most people believe that a human fetus is much more than "just a piece of tissue," and would strongly support a major effort to reduce the number of abortions. Several years ago, I proposed comprehensive abortion prevention legislation in the Minnesota Senate. My proposal would single-handedly reduce the number of abortions by far more than all the restrictions adopted at the behest of the "pro-life" movement over the past thirty years. How? By preventing unintended pregnancies through family planning services and sexuality education. We also need to provide care and support to women who carry their pregnancies to term.
Most people, if they examine their beliefs on the issue, view it as more complex than a simple decision of "choice" vs. "life." When South Dakota voters had a referendum on banning abortion in all cases except for rape, incest or risk to the life of the mother, many were influenced by a TV ad featuring a young couple whose doctor told them that they had 24 hours to make the painful choice between aborting one of the twins she was carrying, or losing both of them. When people saw a picture of the family with their child, now a young toddler, few believed that they should have been prohibited from choosing the abortion and thereby losing both of the twins.
I believe abortion should be a safe, legal option for women, but I am neither pro-abortion nor anti-life, and I am not alone. If a woman is pregnant and cannot handle the pregnancy for medical, psychological, emotional, or other reasons, most people believe it must be her decision, not that of politicians. They recognize that women who choose to have an abortion do so after thoughtful consideration of their difficult options, consultation with family, and yes, prayer.
Even most "pro-life" voters, when pressed on specifics, oppose prosecuting either the woman who had an abortion, or her doctor. They have a strong aversion to abortion, and they want to express their opposition in a manner they hope will reduce the number of abortions. These are people who would appreciate strong abortion-prevention legislation. This is our best hope for closing this bitter divide and bringing the sides together.
As President Obama pointed out, some people on each side of the abortion issue will not be persuaded. Those who consider a fetus to be nothing more than a "piece of tissue" are not likely to expend much energy in preventing abortion.
Likewise, those who truly believe the bumper sticker slogan "abortion is murder" presumably believe that either the doctors or the women, or both, should be thrown in prison on murder charges. They would accept nothing short of a total ban on abortion.
But most people want to find common ground on this issue which has been tearing apart our country for too long. For most, abortion is not murder, but neither is it an acceptable method of birth control.
Despite thirty-six years of evidence to the contrary, perhaps we can finally bridge this divide. As President Obama challenged us, we need to move away from divisive rhetoric and focus instead on solutions. Abortion-prevention legislation can do just that. It has the potential to bring us together, and that would be a great victory.