There's much to cheer in some leading Democrats calling their party to change course on abortion rhetoric. There's John Kerry proclaiming in January, "I don't want abortion. Abortion should be the rarest thing in the world." There's Howard Dean leading off a speech to women Democratic leaders, "We are not pro-abortion! There is not anyone I know who is pro-abortion." Most notably, there's Hillary Clinton describing abortion as "a sad, even tragic choice."
In short, we have congressional agreement on both sides of the aisle that abortion is tragic. The abortion landscape has changed in this country, and the culture of life has gained significant ground. There is hope for legislative movement as we haven't seen in years.
But beware. An ad from NARAL Pro-Choice America addressed to "the right-to-life movement" would be almost humorous if it weren't for those 1.3 million killings annually in this country. "Please Help Us Prevent Abortions," says the ad, which appeared in The Weekly Standard and other publications. Actually, the headline is misleading: The text of the ad explains better its call for support of a bill "which would reduce unwanted pregnancies." The legislation, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's Prevention First Act (co-sponsored by Democrats with 100 percent ratings from abortion-rights groups and 0 percent ratings from pro-life groups), is a pro-life nightmare. It would double federal funds to "family planning" groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL while barring funds for programs that emphasize sexual abstinence. Hospitals that get any federal funds would have to provide the morning-after pill (which prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus) on demand, and companies that oppose contraception or abortifacients would be forced to provide insurance coverage for them.
Essentially, NARAL's pitch amounts to: Help us reduce unwanted pregnancies by helping us end pregnancies. No thanks. If abortion-rights supporters want to join pro-life groups in areas that match both groups' rhetoric, there's already plenty on the table.
First, abortion-rights supporters who claim the "pro-choice" moniker should embrace initiatives to make abortion choices informed choices and true choices. One bill on this point simply awaits a vote: The Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act would require doctors to inform women that, after 20 weeks of pregnancy, "an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain," and offer (but not require) anesthetic for the unborn child. NARAL recently announced that it was dropping its opposition to the bill, but it still needs a push to get passed.
South Dakota is taking the idea of informed choice a laudable step forward under a bill passed by a 58-10 margin in the state House. The bill requires that women seeking abortions be provided information about abortion alternatives and risks, including emotional trauma following the abortion. (Georgia is considering a similar law, and other states already have implemented such legislation.)
"There's a new and mounting body of knowledge and evidence out there that most abortions are uninformed and involuntary," South Dakota state Rep. Roger Hunt explained to the Associated Press.
Indeed, one of the abortion industry's lies is that the women who have abortions "choose" abortion. In fact, untold scores of these women are pressured or forced into the procedure by boyfriends, husbands, or others. Texas is countering a long trend of silence on this subject by considering a bill that would forbid anyone from coercing a woman into an abortion.
Meanwhile, those who are best able to counsel young women on the subjecttheir own parentsare frequently kept out of the loop. The Child Custody Protection Act would make it a federal offense to take a minor across state lines for an abortion, if it's done to circumvent parental involvement. Americans (around 80 percent) support that kind of law.
Unfortunately, Democrats aren't going to rush to sign on to pro-life legislation offered by Republicans. So how about resurrecting some old Democrat proposals? Back in 1997, Kerry supported a bill making it "unlawful for a physician to abort a viable fetus unless the physician certifies that the continuation of the pregnancy would threaten the mother's life or risk grievous injury to her physical health." The bill, proposed by Tom Daschle, was mainly a way to torpedo the partial-birth abortion ban and had major problems (among them: enshrining Roe v. Wade as federal law), but fetal viability bears renewed attention. The Supreme Court has repeatedly supported a ban on aborting viable human life, and recent medical advances force again the question of when viability occurs. Indiana and Alabama are considering bills that would legally establish viability at 20 weeks and 19 weeks respectively. The conversation occurring on the state level should be taken nationally.
There are other state initiatives that bear national and bipartisan attention. Michigan, for example, just launched a program that helps pregnant college and university students to find alternatives to abortion. That bill passed unanimously in the Michigan House.
These measures are no substitute for our ultimate goal of making abortion as unthinkable as other forms of killing, but they're important steps along the way. Even small bills can remind the country that abortion kills. Even the leading Democrats' comments on the tragedy of abortion are helpfulbut only to a point.
Some Republicans say Democrats' recent comments on abortion are just lip service. We'll be judging the legislative fruit of both parties to see whether making abortion "the rarest thing in the world" and "promoting a culture of life" is really a priority.
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Beliefnet's Steven Waldman first noted Kerry's support of a ban on abortion viable fetuses.
Texas's bill banning coerced abortion remains in committee.
More Christianity Today articles on abortion can be found in our Life Ethics area.
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