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In a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a congressional ban on the procedure called “partial birth abortion,” the first time a specific abortion procedure has been banned. “Pro-life” forces are claiming a great victory, and “pro-choice” advocates are lamenting a terrible defeat. Both sides hope or fear a slippery slope toward, or away from, their ultimate goals.
The procedure in question is a particularly objectionable form of abortion that Sojourners has long opposed, and even some pro-choice supporters have had problems with. And the law in question had strong bipartisan support when it passed Congress in 2003 – a 281-142 vote in the House (including 63 Democrats) and a 64-34 vote in the Senate (with 17 Democrats.) In a 2003 Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans thought that “late term” or “partial birth” abortions should be made illegal.
The procedure involves very few abortions – about 2,200 out of 1.31 million in 2000, the last year for which numbers are available. And simply banning one procedure means that there are alternative procedures that will now be used. But the furious arguments on both sides again show how mostly symbolic the abortion debate remains when focused on primarily legal questions. After ten years of heated debate, the Court’s decision does nothing to reduce the number of abortions.
Most Americans are alarmed at the nation’s high abortion rate, but don’t support criminalizing it. They want to keep abortion legal, but make it genuinely rare. In 2005, 68 percent of Americans agreed that abortion should be legal, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. We have supported a “consistent life ethic” – which seeks a dramatic reduction in the actual abortion rate in America, without criminalizing what is always a tragic choice and often a desperate one. Others also question if total abortion bans are really pro-life because of the likely consequences of back-alley abortions, especially for poor women.
It’s time for concrete action that would actually and seriously reduce the number of abortions in America. A better approach than the symbolic legal battle would be to gather new energy for a commitment to advancing real solutions. A constructive dialogue should include how best to prevent unwanted pregnancies, support pregnant women who find themselves in an unexpected situation, and effectively reduce the abortion rate.
Legislation that could make a real difference in changing the circumstances that make abortions more likely has been introduced again in the new Congress. The Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act, introduced by Reps. Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro “aims to reduce the abortion rate by preventing unintended pregnancies, supporting pregnant women, and assisting new parents. One in five abortions are obtained by a teenager and 60 percent are obtained by women with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line.” We supported this legislation in the last Congress and will again. Other legislation may be introduced again by Rep. Lincoln Davis, and Democrats for Life continues to promote its 95/10 Initiative, which is still a good one.
It’s time that both pro-life and pro-choice supporters come together and support these measures, and actually do something serious and substantial in reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and dramatically reducing the abortion rate. Who could be against that? Let’s indeed save unborn lives. It’s time to move from symbols to substance.