WHEN I WAS ABOUT 10, Sunday school classes at our Baptist church were replaced for a month by a series of talks about abortion. It was the first time I had ever heard that word; I barely knew how babies were made, much less aborted. Along with my classmates, I was treated to photos of fetuses and to testimonies by church members who had marched in front of abortion clinics. But far from being inspired to sign up for the next protest, my reaction to all of this was skepticism. I just couldn't believe that women and doctors were running around killing babies for no reason. There had to be another side to this story. It couldn't be that simple.
My reaction wasn't much different 12 years later when, as a young Senate aide working on abortion policy, I listened to the arguments of abortion rights lobbyists. Women only sought late-term abortions, they insisted, when something went terribly wrong with their pregnancies, when their fetuses developed severe abnormalities that put their lives at risk. But it couldn't be that all abortions were absolutely necessary, that no woman ever had an abortion for anything other than the most noble and heart-wrenching reasons. It couldn't be that simple.
It's not that simple. And yet for 30 years, abortion polities has required Americans to choose sides. You are either pro-choice or pro-life. If a politician supports a parental notification law, he or she is labeled pro-life by abortion rights supporters. But ff the political leader also opposes a "partial-birth abortion" ban, the anti-abortion side will tag him or her as unacceptably pro-choice. There is no word for a middle-ground position in American politics.
That's unfortunate, because polling consistently shows that more than two-thirds of Americans fall into that middle area, believing that abortion should be available in some, but not all, circumstances.
Despite this fact, voters have aligned themselves with either the pro-choice or pro-life position, not as a way of signaling that they think one side is more likely to solve the issue of abortion, but because--in face of a seemingly intractable problem--choosing a label is simply a way of making a statement. In the binary world of politics, "pro-choice" means you support women; "pro-life" means you think a potential person is more than just a choice.
From time to time, one of the sides succeeds in shifting the balance between choice and life. In the late 1980s, the abortion rights movement did this with a "Who Decides?" campaign that stressed the libertarian point that government should not be allowed to weigh in on such a personal decision as abortion. A decade ago, anti-abortion groups regained the advantage by using the issue of "partial-birth" abortion and the disturbing description of an abortion procedure to shock Americans with details of how abortions are actually performed. More recently, debates have flared up around two much-trumpeted, but still-unproven, "epidemics": girls getting abortions without their parents" permission and pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions on religious grounds.
None of these issues actually involves an effort to reduce abortion rates, but then again, they weren't intended to. Instead, they are causes that can spur fundraising and mobilize voters while keeping the abortion issue active. While those voters are, for the most part, genuinely motivated by respect for life or respect for women, these flashpoints rarely give them anything but the shallowest of venues in which to express those moral concerns.
Now, however, some influential voices are starting to speak up and state the obvious: We don't have to pick sides. There are ways to dramatically reduce abortion rates--as the stunning recent success with teen pregnancies has shown--without outlawing abortion or putting women at risk. We can take the issue out of the political shouting arena, tackle it at a policy level, and move on to other pressing concerns. …