A Mythical Land Called "Common Ground"
Obama's quest for common ground is not a new phenomenon among Democratic politicians. Clinton's 2005 Roe day address to abortion-rights supporters in New York, wherein the then-Senator announced, to gasps, that all abortions were "tragic," was part of her several years' long campaign strategy to appeal to common ground on abortion. That awkward balance of rights-talk and revulsion--like pro-choice presidential candidate John Kerry's statement that he was "personally opposed" to the procedure--has marked many Democratic campaigns. Bill Clinton's "safe, legal and rare" mantra was picked up by a generation that didn't question how the rarity of one of the most common medical procedures in the country would be brought about without curtailing women's rights.
But the fact that the FRC is audacious enough to suggest that blatantly antiabortion measures--like crisis pregnancy centers, which are characterized by deceptive and coercive antiabortion counseling measures, or the abstinence programs that have birthed a nationwide "purity" movement--might now constitute the common ground on which the two camps can meet is a measure of how Democratic appeasement of right-to-life demands has shifted the frame of the debate. It's also a grim augury of what actual abortion-rights supporters can expect from political efforts to find this mythic common ground.
Further examination of the broader goals of the extreme antiabortion movement reveals a starkly anti-equality agenda that attacks women's access to contraception; promotes the idea that women's highest calling is as mothers and wives; drafts wide-ranging legislation to protect the rights of medical workers, from HMO companies to ambulance drivers, to refuse to have even the most tangential contact with procedures or patients they consider at odds with their religion; and supports the drafting of legislation that would return social protections and safety nets to 1930s-era standards of qualification based on marital and family status. The most purist pro-lifers, such as members of the Quiverfull movement--which holds that women should accept as many children as God gives them and sees even natural family planning as women usurping bodily control that rightly belongs to the Lord--ground their activism in the belief that every pregnancy is a unilateral blessing. And in recent years, debates among pro-life supporters have centered on whether pro-life women, faced with a certain stillbirth or life-threatening pregnancy, should continue the pregnancy nonetheless, as a "life-honoring" way to affirm their politics.
There is no common ground to be had with such purists, of course, but neither can it be found with the more mainstream antiabortion movement, which idealizes a very tightly constructed notion of family and which is not just fighting abortion, but also sex education (through abstinence promotion), the notion of women's right to uncoerced reproductive choice (through their efforts to seek continuing funding of crisis pregnancy centers and incremental attacks on abortion access) and unmarried sexuality of any kind. Not all members of the antiabortion camp advocate every item on this agenda, but there is an over-arching ideology guiding it--something that is sorely lacking among the common ground defenders of women's right to choose.
Kathryn Joyce is a freelance writer based in New York City. She is author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, published by Beacon Press in March 2009. Her freelance writing and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon, The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The American Prospect, Search, Religion Dispatches, The Massachusetts Review, RH Reality Check, Newsweek.com, Alternet and other publications.