Something very unusual is happening to some Democrats and pro-choice abortion activists. They're getting smarter about their strategy. For years, they've harped on and on about a woman's right to choose, while failing to capture in any meaningful way the moral qualms so many of us have about abortion itself. So they often seemed strident, ideological and morally obtuse. They talked about abortion as if it were as morally trivial as a tooth extraction--not a profound moral choice that no woman would ever want to make if she could avoid it.
But that obtuseness seems--finally and mercifully--to be changing. Senator Hillary Clinton led the way in a recent speech to abortion-rights activists. She said something so obvious and so right it's amazing it has taken this long for it to be uttered: whatever side you're on in the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate, we surely all want to lower the number of abortions. Whether you believe that an abortion is a difficult medical procedure for a woman or whether, like me, you believe that all abortions are an immoral taking of human life, we can all agree on a third principle: we would be better off with fewer of them. And the happy truth is, abortions have been declining in numbers. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, since 1990 the number of reported legal abortions dropped from 1.4 million a year to 853,000 in 2001. The number of abortions for every 1,000 live births dropped from 344 to 246.
How did this happen? No one is quite sure. It could be related to less access to abortion providers, but more likely it is a function of declining teenage pregnancies, more widespread use of contraception, abstinence programs and cultural shifts toward sexual restraint among young women. None of these strategies separately is a panacea, but each has a part to play. So what's the new pro-choice line? Let's keep up the progress. Let's defend the right to an abortion while doing all we can to ensure that fewer and fewer women exercise it. Leave the contentious issue of Roe v. Wade for one minute, quit the ideological bickering about when life begins for a while, take down the barricades, and craft a strategy that assumes abortion will be legal for the foreseeable future, but try to reduce it.
Both sides have something to contribute. Sure, we should fund abstinence programs, as many pro-lifers argue. They can work for some women. But so too does expanded access to contraception. The pro-life Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, has a bill called the Prevention First Act that would expand access to birth control. Or you can focus on expanding adoption as an alternative to abortion (which means adoption by gays as well as straights). NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League, actually took out an ad in the conservative Weekly Standard last month, appealing to pro-life groups to join in the antiabortion crusade--not by making it illegal but by increasing access to contraception.