Arms Unfolded: The search for common ground on abortion

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Author: Todd David Whitmore

Speaking in January to New York state family-planning providers, Senator Hillary Clinton made the following invitation concerning the abortion issue: “There is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate.” Should Catholics who agree with official teaching on the sanctity of the fetus—which I do—take up Senator Clinton’s offer?

Thus far, pro-life representatives have, for the most part, declined. The Christian Defense Coalition has sought to meet with Senator Clinton. However, Carol Tobias, the political action committee director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), commented, “She’s not changing her position on abortion; she’s trying to make it sound more appealing.” David Andrusko, a commentator for the NRLC, was more scalding, describing Clinton’s comments as “meaningless” and “phony.” Gary Bauer, president of the American Values organization, referred to her statements as the “ultimate makeover.”

But wait. In his message to the March for Life the same month, President George W. Bush called for “seeking common ground” wherever possible. In response, pro-choice advocates have been as dismissive as their pro-life counterparts. Ellen Goodman, columnist for the Boston Globe, asked rhetorically, “Where exactly is it ‘possible’ to find common cause with those who call themselves pro-life?”

Part of the difficulty in finding common ground is that, for the most part, neither side in the debate is searching very widely. When Goodman looks for common ground, she focuses on “Plan B,” the after-the-act contraceptive, which she argues is not an abortifacient. Pro-life advocates have pressured the FDA, helping to forestall approval of Plan B. They criticize pro-choice representatives for focusing only on the availability of contraception. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has said, “Their idea of reducing unintended pregnancies is more sex education and distribution of contraceptives. . . . That’s not the solution; that’s part of the problem.”

If we take the Democrats’ “Prevention First” bill as illustrative, the pro-life commentators’ concerns appear on target. The bill, put forward by Nevada Senator Harry Reid and co-sponsored by 16 Democrats, including Senator Clinton, would more than double the federal funding for family-planning clinics, require private health plans to cover prescription contraception, promote emergency contraception and require federally funded abstinence-only education programs to provide information on contraception upon request. The bill has been a nonstarter. Republican leaders have by and large ignored it.

Democrats counter that conservatives focus almost exclusively on sexual abstinence as the means to reduce unintended pregnancy, and thus abortion. The fact that the Bush administration is investing $170 million in abstinence-only education programs next year during a time of otherwise severe education budget cutbacks gives credence to the Democrats’ criticisms. When the Family Research Council’s Perkins chided the Democrats for focusing narrowly on contraception to reduce abortion, he added, “If they want to start promoting abstinence, fine—but they won’t.”

So in their search for common ground, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates point only to the prevention of unintended pregnancies. However, because they frequently disagree so sharply on how to reduce such pregnancies—facing each other down in a contraception versus abstinence stand-off—there is little common ground to be had. While this battle rages on, far less attention is directed to the women who get pregnant despite their efforts not to do so.

Finding common ground on abortion in a way that reduces its incidence will require a shift in primary focus from the prevention of unintended pregnancy (which is an important issue in its own right) to support of the women who are already pregnant.

Why Do Women Have Abortions?

The most extensive study of the reasons why women have abortions—a survey of 1,900 women from 30 abortion facilities—was conducted by Aida Torres and Jacqueline Darroch Forrest under the auspices of the Alan Guttmacher Institute. It was published in the Institute’s periodical Family Planning Perspectives in 1988 and remains the most cited study on the topic.

The list of pro-life advocates and groups who have referred to it is long: the National Right to Life Committee; the editors of All About Life, a publication of the American Life League; Americans United for Life, which has included Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois and neo-conservative commentator Richard John Neuhaus on its board of directors; Helen Alvare, a former staff attorney for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; and the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. Both the thoroughness of the research—as confirmed by the leading pro-life sociologist James R. Kelly of Fordham University—and the spectrum of organizations drawing on its data make the study a benchmark on the question.

The first thing that jumps out from the study is its finding that nearly all of the women—93 percent—give more than one reason for their decision. Sixty-three percent provide three to five reasons, and 13 percent give as many as six to nine. The mean number of reasons is 3.7. The data indicate that abortion is not a single problem but a complex one with variable patterns. The complexity of the matter also discloses that there is no panacea—whether abstinence, the “adoption option” or the wide accessibility of contraception—for reducing the incidence of abortion.

Without simplifying too much, it is possible to recast the most oft-cited reasons under four basic categories. About three-quarters of the women cite concern for their ability to continue in their personal vocation (work or education). Two-thirds indicate a concern about their ability to care for others (in the words of the study, “woman cannot afford baby now,” “woman is unready for responsibility” and “woman is not mature enough or is too young to have a child”). Half of the women show awareness of the importance of a stable relationship with the father for raising children (“woman has problems with relationship or wants to avoid single parenthood”). Just under a third cite fear of retribution (“woman does not want others to know she has had sex or is pregnant”).

Fear of retribution is the one area where Catholic women show a statistically significant edge. Catholic women were 7 percent more likely to report the concern that others would find out they had had sex. This raises the serious question of whether a punitive atmosphere in matters of sexual morality actually increases the incidence of abortion, leading women to commit a worse act because of fear of retribution for a lesser one. Such a situation is, by formal definition, a scandal: It leads persons into sin. Whatever the Church’s response to abortion includes, then, it needs to exclude punishment-oriented responses to premarital sex.

The study also confirms what pro-life advocates have long argued, namely, that the so-called “hard” reasons (rape, incest, threat to life of mother) are a factor in a comparatively small percentage of cases. Only 7 percent of the women cite their health; only 1 percent cite rape or incest (although 1 percent of the 1.2 to 1.5 million abortions performed per year in the United States is still 12,000 to 15,000 abortions).

While the study by Torres and Forrest is data-oriented, investigations by others turn up narratives matching each of these four reasons. Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s in-depth interviews with women disclose that concern for continuing with their education or jobs is a key factor for many. One, for instance, reports, “I was going to lose a really good job that I have . . . and I would have to be put in a position of asking help from a lot of people a lot of the time.”

With regard to the care of others, particularly children, Mary Mahowald, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, describes a case that came to her attention:

A 32-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis became pregnant despite use of a diaphragm. She and her husband had two children, 4 and 6 years old, for whom she was the principal caregiver. Although the couple were generally opposed to abortion, both were extremely concerned that continuation of the pregnancy would further compromise the woman’s health. Previous pregnancies had resulted in permanent aggravation of her condition, to a point where she required a wheelchair. One week after learning she was pregnant the woman requested an abortion. She hoped, she said, to preserve her ability to care for the children she already had.

In researching for her book Real Choices: Offering Practical, Life Affirming Alternatives to Abortion, pro-life author Frederica Mathewes-Green held “listening sessions” in major U.S. cities and found that the absence of communal support, particularly support from the father, is a key factor contributing to the incidence of abortion. She reports, “[One woman commented,] ‘My boyfriend and I had been dating for four years, but when I told him the news, he was terrified. He didn’t want to admit that it was his child.’ A chorus of sympathetic ’oh’s’ sounded through the room, attesting to a shared understanding of this especially painful rejection.”

Finally, the sociologist James Davison Hunter’s interviews with women illuminated in a poignant way the fourth-most-common reason women give for having abortions: the fear that someone would find out she had sex or was pregnant. The woman in question did not in fact get pregnant but nonetheless reported in her reflections on her youth during the pre-Roe v. Wade years that if she had, “I would have had an abortion immediately. I’m just sure I would have found a way to have an illegal abortion without any regard to the risk involved, because it would have been far better to face that than the anger I would have had from my father.”

A Model for Action

What, then, should the Church and its members do?

Again, given the complexity of the situations women face, there is no one option, but the Nurturing Network provides a good model with which to start. Founded by Mary Cunningham Agee in 1986, the Network is a nationwide, nonprofit organization with more than 42,000 volunteers in all 50 states and 25 nations providing the resources for women to bring their pregnancies to term and to address the matter of the care of the child that results.

Prior to starting the organization, Agee contacted 10 abortion clinics across the United States and asked the clinic staffs to give her phone number to any women willing to discuss their experiences with her. The informal survey was necessary because this was prior to the Torres and Forrest study, and at the time there was, as Agee told the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources in 1990, “very little hard data about the motivations and concerns of women facing crisis pregnancies.”

In Agee’s conversations with 100 women, 91 indicated that they would have brought their pregnancies to term if they knew that certain types of aid existed. Among that aid, the women cited housing accommodations and work and educational opportunities—particularly in communities other than the ones they resided in at the time—and financial assistance to meet medical and other costs.

On the basis of this informal survey, Agee drew up the key pastoral responses that still constitute the Nurturing Network. Of crucial importance are the vocational and educational “networks” for those women who might otherwise have an abortion. A referral service for working women allows them to move to another location, bring the pregnancy to term and then take on new job responsibilities with a member company. Thus the traditional stigma attached to pregnancy and childbirth—a stigma that still exists today— need not jeopardize the woman’s workplace vocation.

A similarly structured program was designed for women in college. A network of more than 140 participating colleges and universities allows for the temporary transfer of pregnant students. The Nurturing Network literature explains that this service is offered so “a woman can continue her pregnancy while protecting the quality and continuity of her education.” Whether moving to a new job or a new school, the women stay with Network-member families. In addition, financial assistance, medical assistance and parent training classes are made available.

The Network also offers balanced adoption counseling, so this decision can be made free of felt coercion. “Each counselor in the Network believes in a mother’s need to be informed and her sole right to decide in an environment free of vested interests.” For the 30 percent of the women who decide to give the child up for adoption, the Network informs them of the various options available. Furthermore, the Network realizes that even if the decision to give up the child for adoption is the right one for the woman, she may still experience tremendous grief. Therefore, the Network also provides post-adoption counseling.

Considerable overlap exists between Agee’s survey and the pastoral experience of the Nurturing Network on the one hand and the Torres and Forrest academic study on the other. Each serves as a verification of the other. Both have found the ability or inability of the women to continue in their educational or workplace vocation to be a vital factor. Moreover, the offer of housing and financial and medical assistance in addition to educational and workplace placement by the Network confirms the Torres and Forrest finding that women are concerned about their ability to care for the child. Also, the Network’s service of facilitating the relocation of the women verifies in practice the finding of Torres and Forrest that a significant factor leading to abortions is the fear that someone will find out about the pregnancy. Finally, both the Network and the study point out that punitive measures serve only to worsen the situation. For this reason, the Network remains steadfastly nonjudgmental. Agee was adamant on this last point in testimony she gave to the U.S. Senate:

This woman is your neighbor, your staff member, and maybe even your daughter. These are women you see every day. I have found too often that when a societal issue becomes as controversial as this one, we lose touch with the faces behind the numbers. . . . [W]e need a lot less rhetoric and less judging. We need a lot more practical compassion. This is why The Nurturing Network was created, to give these women a real alternative, one which recognizes their unique values, needs and circumstances. Our purpose is not to remove an option but to create one. It is not even to spend time debating the merits of one alternative over another, but to make sure that no woman feels she has no other choice. . . . Unless we are willing to offer the emotional, social and financial support needed by women facing this kind of pregnancy, we cannot legitimately express either condemnation or surprise when we discover that they have chosen a less hopeful solution.

Common Ground

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So, pro-life Catholics should provide aid to women with unintended pregnancies. But should they cooperate with pro-choice groups and people in this effort? The logic of the pro-choice argument—that is, if it is indeed pro-choice and not pro-abortion— would suggest that there is common ground. There is an obligation on the part of pro-choice adherents as well to provide alternatives.

It is not by accident, then, that persons of both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” orientations serve on the Nurturing Network board, and that advocates of both positions support its activities. Planned Parenthood lists the Network as one of the options when it counsels women. Wendy Jordan, a Planned Parenthood community services director in Idaho, has commented, “From our perspective, it’s critical for women with unwanted pregnancies to be aware of the resources in our community. This is an important resource.” Normally a political adversary, Debbie Roper, the corporate secretary of Right to Life of Idaho, concurs. “We would be supportive of any crisis pregnancy center that offers support to unwed mothers and their babies. Personally, I feel it is right and necessary for a crisis pregnancy center to stay nonpolitical.”

Again, Agee articulates the point with force. “I ask everyone to put aside the polarizing rhetoric of pro-life and pro-choice and to discover the common ground of mutual understanding and practical solutions. There is so much talk these days about empowering women. What greater power can we give them than the tools to survive a crisis? That’s what the Nurturing Network is all about.”

Other efforts at such cooperation are few but significant. Perhaps the most notable is the movement guided by the Common Ground Association. The movement began with the actions of two persons who would be least expected to search for commonality. Andrew Puzder is a pro-life lawyer who wrote Missouri’s restrictive 1986 abortion law that led to the Supreme Court case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.

In December 1989 Puzder wrote an opinion piece for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called “Common Ground on Abortion.” The piece states, “According to a report by the Children’s Budget Coalition dated February 1989, 20 percent of Missouri’s children currently live in poverty. Yet an astounding 55 percent of Missouri’s children living in single female-headed households live in poverty. While those who are pro-abortion would use these figures as a social justification for legalized abortion and those who are pro-life find economic justifications for taking human life simply heinous, surely those numbers alone suggest the existence of some common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice factions.”

Soon thereafter, B.J. Isaacson-Jones, the director of the health services that challenged the Missouri law all the way to the Supreme Court in the Webster case, invited Puzder to the abortion clinic for a conversation. Puzder agreed on the condition that the meeting be at a time when the clinic was closed. They later were joined by Jean Cavender of Reproductive Health Services and Loretto Wagner, the past president of Missouri Citizens for Life and founder and present president of Our Lady’s Inn, a set of two homes for women with unintended pregnancies. The model of their conversation and, to a lesser extent, of their action, has spread to about 20 groups nationwide, including those in Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Denver.

In1993, an international conflict-resolution organization, Search for Common Ground, began to provide a centralized institutional base for these efforts and formed the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. In 1999, this leadership role was passed to the National Association for Community Mediation.

Isaacson-Jones commented that once the conversation began, “It was shockingly easy to identify issues we agree on, like the need for aid to pregnant women who are addicted to drugs, the need for better prenatal care and the need to reduce unwanted pregnancy. Neither side wants women to need abortions because they don’t have the money to raise a child.”

These insights have led to concrete actions. For instance, in 1990, Reproductive Health Services added an adoption agency to the clinic. In 1992, the agency placed more than 30 minority babies, more than any other agency in Missouri. In addition, the Saint Louis group members have compiled a manual from the advice of experts to aid foster parents and mothers of infants exposed to crack or alcohol in the womb. They have worked together for legislation for a school breakfast program and for rehabilitation, housing and job training for pregnant, drug-addicted women. Each side agreed not to attach riders so that the bills could become law.

Perhaps the most dramatic joint action was the support for a pregnant 10-year-old. When the child came to Reproductive Health Services, the doctor ordered bed rest for the last two months of the high-risk pregnancy. Wagner raised money from pro-life activists for a full-time attendant while the 10-year-old’s mother worked. Persons supporting reproductive rights, in turn, paid for the prenatal care and the delivering of the baby, which was given up for adoption.

Indifferentism by Neglect

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Despite all of the evidence that pro-life/pro-choice cooperation can significantly reduce the incidence of abortion, such activity appears to most members of both sides of the debate to be, at best, unseemly, and more likely a betrayal. Isn’t it immoral to cooperate in this way?

History provides us with an informative precedent. In the early 1940s, American Catholics debated about whether to cooperate with other Christians in the rebuilding of society in Europe after the war. The primary concern for those who argued against cooperation, Monsignor Joseph Fenton and Father Francis Connell, was the maintenance of the purity of Catholic doctrine. They charged that Catholics who cooperated with Protestants were risking “indifferentism” regarding doctrine. Connell wrote, “I am fully convinced that ordinarily the association of Catholics with non-Catholics in such organizations and meetings is a grave menace to our people . . . and that whatever good they may be producing is far outweighed by their disastrous spiritual consequences.”

Father John Courtney Murray countered both that Roman Catholics could cooperate with others and were morally bound to do so. The question of whether to cooperate with other Christian denominations in a particular instance depended on persons’ prudential judgment in light of two guiding principles: Catholic unity and the common good. In his particular case, he argued that Catholics could cooperate with others for the sake of the common good without sacrificing their own core beliefs.

The evidence from the Common Ground Association appears to give contemporary affirmation to Murray’s argument. Wagner is adamant on this point. “No one is ever going to convince me that it’s all right to kill unborn babies, and I’m going to go on working to make abortion evil.”

The members of the movement distinguish carefully and forcefully between a middle ground on questions of the status of the fetus and the morality and legality of taking its life on the one hand, and common ground on matters of the social context of abortion on the other. Isaacson-Jones writes, “Our goal has never been to resolve the abortion debate. We are not trying to mediate a compromise or even find middle ground.” Puzder likens the common ground to the place where two circles overlap.

Wagner, Isaacson-Jones and Puzder joined with Cavender to write a St. Louis Post-Dispatch commentary in 1991 that accented this point: “Of course, this point of view we call ‘common ground’ continues to leave the fundamental conflict intact. Abortion is not a simple issue, and it does not lend itself to compromise. The freedom of individual choice and the right to life seem to be at an ethical impasse in this conflict. Even the authors of this article hold decidedly different views on abortion and will continue to defend and further their respective positions: B.J. Isaacson-Jones and Jean Cavender will continue their work to preserve a woman’s right to choose; and Loretto Wagner and Andrew Puzder remain committed to protecting the unborn’s right to life.”

I would take Murray’s argument one step further: Cooperation does not compromise Catholic integrity; it is through cooperation that we can manifest that integrity. One of the key points in Murray’s about rebuilding postwar society was that the problem to be addressed was too large for any one group to address by itself. That holds true for the abortion issue today.

With all of the Nurturing Network’s efforts, it has, by its own estimates, helped slightly more than 17,000 mothers and their children. In other words, in just under 20 years they have seen that thousands of pregnancies have been brought to term that otherwise might not have been. That’s hundreds per year, during which there are more than a million abortions in the United States. Moreover, the Common Ground movement may be fading. My web search found the latest article on their activity to be written in 1999. Much more must be done in aiding women with unintended pregnancies in order to reduce abortion.

It is obvious that the pro-life community cannot do it alone. Agee, who received the 2001 Ex Corde Ecclesiae Award from the Cardinal Newman Society and is vice chair of the Culture of Life Institute, formed the Nurturing Network as a cooperative group not in spite of her pro-life convictions but because of them. She saw that to meet our own moral aims, even in a modest way, we must cooperate with others or else we will fail even by our own lights: We will be guilty of indifferentism by neglect.

Todd Whitmore teaches theology at Notre Dame, where he is also a fellow in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and director of the Program in Catholic Social Tradition.

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