Guest Columnist The need to compromise

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The topic of abortion has divided this country for more than half a century. And while the imminent March for Life in D.C. this coming Friday bears witness to a civic activism that is peaceful, both sides of the debate on abortion have tended to add to national divisiveness.

A consensus based on compromise seems unlikely in the near future. On both sides of the debate, the most vocal activists are entrenched in their positions. We are called upon either to prove our "pro-life" bona fides by opposing abortion under all circumstances (including rape and life of the mother) or else demonstrate that we support a woman's unfettered right to abortion on demand (paid for by the taxpayers) through the end of the third trimester.  Indeed, many a defender on either side of the spectrum will separate friend from foe according to the litmus test of abortion absolutism. It seems that both sides have managed to pitch woman against child, mother against baby.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to have the highest abortion rate among Western countries (although, thankfully, it is starting to drop). In 2007, 22.9 of 1,000 women had abortions in the US; in Western Europe, that number was only 12 of 1,000.


In Western European nations, supporters and opponents of abortion managed to reach national compromises soon after abortion was legalized. All European countries allow abortions through the first trimester, but most ensure a process that allows a woman to consider her options. In several countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, women are obligated to wait several days before having an abortion and must provide particular reasons for wanting to terminate the pregnancy. In Europe, abortions through the second trimester are only permitted when the mother's mental and physical health is at serious risk or grave fetal defects have been discovered.

Such restrictions are not regarded as a "war on women," as they would be in this country. They have not led to a decline in women's health, nor have they held women back professionally.

To be sure, America does not provide the same level of assistance for women, in terms of maternal healthcare, child care, and family-friendly workplaces. But looking at Europe's handling of the abortion issue illustrates the way that compromise may serve women and protect the lives of the unborn.

Indeed, the majority of Americans would prefer restrictions on abortion while generally keeping it legal.

But unfortunately, the political parties in this country remain rigidly divided on the abortion question. Consequently, the political debate on abortion is largely driven by the most extreme positions. In effect, politicians are both restricted by the stakes laid out by the opposing camps, and stoke the fire by playing to their constituencies. To them, it often makes sense to score politically through simplistic talking points rather than engage in debates that allow for the complexity of the life issue.

Abortion is closely tied up with other big issues of our times, such as the position of women in our society, the economy and the cost of living, welfare, health care, and education. It is far too important to be reduced to a vehicle of scoring political points based on whether a candidate is "for" life or "for" choice. Because of the way that the issue of abortion is simplified and misrepresented, regular women and mothers have become either pawns or helpless spectators in a cultural battle between activists and politicians. The high emotions of this cultural battle result in the failure to confront the diverse problems that make women opt out of motherhood in the first place. In 2008, 58 percent of women who had abortions were in their 20s, 86 percent were unmarried, and 57 percent were economically disadvantaged. Generally, one in five pregnancies end in abortion.

While women who choose abortions come from a large cross-section of society, they have one thing in common: a sense of inability to care for a child within their personal circumstances. Most are driven to abortion by fear and desperation. What triggers that fear and desperation should be first on the agenda of any abortion debate.

Those who favor legalized abortion need to help create a cultural environment in which motherhood is celebrated, not questioned on principle, and in which women who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies are encouraged not to throw their children away but to give them up for adoption.

At the same time, those who wish to protect the unborn must commit societal resources to maternal health and support for women who opt to keep their babies.

The problem extends to other areas that deserve attention when discussing abortion. The US infant mortality rate of 6.1 per 1,000 live births in 2009 is a national embarrassment. (Mississippi's infant mortality rate was 9.6 per live births.) By comparison, Germany's infant mortality rate was 3.4.

Similarly, the number of pregnancy related deaths in America tops the list of all Western countries. In 2013, with 18.5 mothers dying for every 100,000 births, the US ranked 60th among 180 countries, with China ranking 57th. With 800 yearly deaths, the US number was triple that of the UK. These numbers are an outrage and, when ignored, clearly make a farce of the heated rhetoric that claims to defend either women or the unborn.

So long as the women's rights activists continue to make abortion the sine qua non of women's health and autonomy, and so long as the pro-life movement refuses to compromise on the hard cases, we miss opportunities to save lives while also improving women's autonomy, maternal health, and child welfare. Both sides of the cultural and political debate would do well to ponder the message set forth by Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life, namely, that "abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women." The lives of women and children are inextricably entwined.

And American voters and politicians would do well to remember the importance of compromise in order to reach the type of modus vivendi required by any democratic society. In the end, more babies will be saved and more women will be helped, if an agreement on keeping abortion both safe and extremely rare, on protecting maternal and children's health, and on providing necessary resources to women to be mothers can be reached. The theme of this year's March for Life, Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand-in-Hand, is a step in the right direction.

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Originally posted on NewBostonPost. Used with permission from the author. 

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