The “Common Ground” Fallacy

This is a warning I’ve issued before, and now I’m issuing it again: In our ongoing national argument over abortion, be careful of the phrases “common ground” and “abortion reduction.” People using these phases don’t necessarily mean the same things by them.

Right now there’s an ongoing debate on the religious Left (yes, there is a religious Left) on the issue of terms and frames and publicly planting the flag of progressivism on moral high ground. Chip Berlet explains:

Instead of embracing the Democratic Party platform and its call for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, there is an ongoing effort by some pragmatists to reach out to people of faith by adopting the Christian Right frame of reducing the number of abortions.

This shifts the debate from a framework of human rights for women to a narrower Christian Right framework of labeling abortion as a problem to be solved. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies will also reduce the number of abortions, but this tactic also functions as an umbrella, sheltering issues such as access to contraception, sex education, and prenatal care for pregnant women who choose that path.

We are talking about shifting the frame to gain a political advantage. That’s what the Christian Right has foisted on Democratic centrists—a rigged frame. The Christian Right goal has been abortion reduction for decades. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform developed by Team Obama is framed as reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Big difference.

President Obama clearly has emphasized reducing unwanted pregnancies over some vaguely defined “abortion reduction.” He did this in the campaign and in the Notre Dame speech last week.

However, the terms “abortion reduction” and “common ground” are interpreted as “criminalizing abortion” on the religious Right.

Today this news item at Human Events, by Wendy Wright of that wretched abomination known as “Concerned Women for America,” has the wingnuts in a lather:

Two days before President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame, I was at the White House for one of the meetings that he spoke about. About twenty of us with differing views on abortion were brought in to find “common ground.” But the most important point that came from the meeting was perhaps a slip from an Obama aide. …

… Ask nearly anyone, “What is Obama’s goal on abortion?” They’ll answer, “Reduce the number of abortions.” A Notre Dame professor and priest insisted this in a television debate after Obama’s speech. The Vatican newspaper reported it. Rush Limbaugh led a spirited debate on his radio program the next day based on this premise.

But that’s not what his top official in charge of finding “common ground” says.

Melody Barnes, the Director of Domestic Policy Council and a former board member of Emily’s List, led the meeting. As the dialogue wound down, she asked for my input.

I noted that there are three main ways the administration can reach its goals: by what it funds, its messages from the bully pulpit, and by what it restricts. It is universally agreed that the role of parents is crucial, so government should not deny parents the ability to be involved in vital decisions. The goals need to be clear; the amount of funding spent to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions is not a goal. The U.S. spends nearly $2 billion each year on contraception programs — programs which began in the 1970s — and they’ve clearly failed. We need to take an honest look at why they are not working.

Melody testily interrupted to state that she had to correct me. “It is not our goal to reduce the number of abortions.”

The room was silent.

The goal, she insisted, is to “reduce the need for abortions.”

BTW, this is directly from President Obama’s Notre Dame speech (emphasis added):

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do.

Sometimes during the campaign Obama wasn’t as clear as some wanted him to be, but on the whole he has consistently said that the foundation of his abortion policy would be to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. But wingnuts hear the words “common ground” and “abortion reduction” and somehow think this is going to translate into a program of criminalizing abortion. And when someone explains to them that is not what he meant, they get all huffy about it.

But the Right has a pattern of feigning shock and outrage whenever President Obama goes ahead and does something he clearly said he would do. Either that or they’re just damn bad listeners.

Wendy Wright’s out-of-hand dismissal of contraceptive programs is based on nothing but woeful, and willful, ignorance. The money spent on contraceptive programs (I don’t know if it’s $2 billion now; it was $1.4 billion in 2004) has provided a handsome return, according to an unbiased scholarly study:

Using a methodology similar to prior cost-benefit analyses, we estimated the numbers of unintended pregnancies prevented by all U.S. publicly funded family planning clinics in 2004, nationally (1.4 million pregnancies) and for each state. We also compared the actual costs of providing these services ($1.4 billion) with the anticipated public-sector costs for maternity and infant care among the Medicaid-eligible women whose births were averted ($5.7 billion) to calculate net public sector savings ($4.3 billion). Thus, public expenditures for family planning care not only help women to achieve their childbearing goals, but they also save public dollars: Our calculations indicate that for every $1 spent, $4.02 is saved.

See also Steve Waldman, “The Truth About Contraceptives Stimulating the Economy.”

Wendy Wright at Human Events continues:

Note what Obama said in his speech at Notre Dame:

“So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. …”

Notice how the wingnut left out the rest of the sentence, “… let’s reduce unintended pregnancies.”

Abortion advocates object to the phrase “reducing abortions.”

That’s because, as Chip Berlet says and as I have said before, when the Right talks about “reducing abortion” they mean criminalizing abortion. We on the Left are fine with reducing the number of abortions, but we want to be crystal clear that the means to do that is primarily through reducing unintended pregnancies.

Howard Dean, then head of the Democratic National Committee, validated my concern. He told NBC’s Tim Russert: “We can change our vocabulary, but I don’t think we ought to change our principles.”

By all his actions so far, Obama is following this plan.

Obama needs to be honest with Americans. Is it true that it is not his goal to reduce the number of abortions?

More importantly, will he do anything that will reduce abortions? Actions are far more important than words.

The irony is, as I’ve said many times before, that criminalizing abortion does not reduce abortion. It only drives it under ground. On the other hand, there is copious empirical evidence that increased use of contraceptives really does drive down the rate of abortion, whereas criminalizing it does not.

What was that about actions being more important than words, Ms. Wright?

In fact, the “common ground” of which the Obama Administration speaks is reducing the number of abortions through reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. But wingnuts like Wright do not want to reduce the number of abortions; they just want to make abortion a criminal act. So there will be no common ground with them, unless they move out of Crazyland and decide to accept reality.

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