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BOOK MARK : Americans Ask Much of Politics, Then Hate the Results

June 30, 1991|E.J. Dionne Jr. | E.J. Dionne Jr. is a reporter for the Washington Post. Voters see little in the choices offered by either the '60s left or the '80s right that truly reflect their concerns, the author writes. He offers prescriptions for a less divisive politics in the '90s. An excerpt

If any one issue is obstructing the formation of a center ground in American politics, it is abortion. On its face,abortion is as uncompromisable an issue as the American political system has ever confronted. For advocates of choice, abortion is a fundamental right. For the pro-life movement, abortion is murder. Between those two positions there is little room for agreement--and, in fact, the dialogue between the pro-choice and pro-life movements is almost nonexistent.

Yet the mass electorate sees the issue quite differently from the partisans on either side. There is no single majority on abortion in the country; there are two overlapping majorities.

On the one hand, Americans are deeply uneasy with government interference in intimate decisions. Thus, when pollsters pose the abortion issue as a question of whether the choices of individual women or government policy will be binding, the results are a clear pro-choice majority.

Yet when pollsters put the question differently, they get another majority: Most of the country thinks too many abortions are performed, rejects most reasons women give for having them and favors certain restrictions on abortion--such as requiring teen-agers to get parental permission.

Some polls have produced the rather staggering finding that a majority can support legal abortion, even as a majority of the same group considers abortion the equivalent of murder.

This mass ambivalence makes itself felt at the polls in a peculiar way. Many voters simply refuse to base their vote on the abortion issue. Thus in Iowa, in 1990, Sen. Tom Harkin, running on a pro-choice platform, was reelected, and so was Gov. Terry E. Branstad, an ardent right-to-lifer. In 1990, voters handed pro-choice candidates the governorships of Florida and Texas--and pro-life candidates the governorships of Michigan and Ohio.

The 1990 elections, once touted as the nation's abortion referendum, turned out to be something far less. An ambivalent country cast an ambivalent vote.

If ever there were an issue where ambivalence is understandable, it is abortion. The challenge to U.S. politics is to find ways of promoting public policy that speaks to that ambivalence. The problem for the right-to-life movements is that the country as a whole does not accept its absolutist opposition to abortion and is wary of too much government meddling. The problem for the pro-choice movement is that the country shares the right-to-lifers' moral uneasiness with abortion and would like to encourage a moral standard that would reduce the number of abortions.

For the rather long short-run, the right-to-live movement needs to accept that its primary task is not political but moral: It needs to convince the country that its view of abortion is morally compelling.

Even if the right-to-lifers succeeded in their goal of banning all abortions, large numbers of women would continue to seek and get them illegally. Indeed, the polls suggest that younger women are far more pro-choice than the rest of the female population, suggesting that the moral trends may be moving away from the right-to-life movement.

Accepting that abortion will remain largely legal indefinitely is not a happy prospect for the right-to-life movement. But the pro-choice movement could ease the way toward compromise by accepting that "choice" is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.

As Daniel Callahan, a philosopher who supports abortion rights, has argued, "The pro-choice movement has tried to make do with a thin, near-to-vanishing idea of personal morality." This, he argues, "serves neither its own long-term interests nor those of the pluralistic proposition."

Thus, on a broad range of issues, from promoting adoption to making it easier for women who want to give birth to do so, there is a broad arena for compromise and cooperation. Also helpful, as Callahan argues, would be "a significant improvement in maternal and child benefits, improved counseling and more effective family planning and contraceptive education and services."

Further, accepting restrictions on late abortions except where a mother's life is endangered--there are, in any event, few of these--would speak powerfully to the country's uneasiness with abortion. So, too, would parental-notification laws with real escape clauses for teen-age girls who have reason to fear the reactions of their parents.

The truth, as Callahan argues, is that abortion is about more than choice. It is, he says, "also about the welfare of families and children, about the obligation of males toward women and toward the children they procreate and about the family and the place of childbearing within it." Americans are ambivalent about abortion because they take exactly this sort of complex view.

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