(Getty / Brendan Hoffman)

(Getty / Brendan Hoffman)

The temperature of abortion politics is usually at a steady boil. Over the past two years, it has been downright scorching. Last week, heated debates escalated in the media over the coverage—or lack of coverage—of the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the doctor accused of murder, performing illegal abortions, and other offenses at his clinic. Last year, the “war on women” became a defining theme of the 2012 elections. The Democratic National Convention last August, where almost every speaker stressed the importance of abortion rights, felt a rhetorical world away from the 1996 convention, when Bill Clinton declared abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” Around the country, Republican state legislatures have been chipping away at abortion rights while House Republicans have continued a campaign to defund Planned Parenthood. In Virginia, a GOP-sponsored bill would have required women to have an invasive ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, and North Dakota recently passed the strictest abortion law in the nation. Twenty states have already passed legislation banning or restricting abortion coverage in health care exchanges now being set up as directed by health care reform.

It’s hard to remember that there was a brief moment, and not long ago, when a new conversation on abortion seemed at least possible. Shortly after the 2008 election, The Washington Post reported that a loose coalition of religious leaders who defined themselves as pro-life were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with abortion rights advocates. By “setting aside efforts to outlaw abortion” and instead turning the focus to reducing abortions—through limiting unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women—participants hoped to jumpstart a less rancorous discussion that could unite unlikely allies.

Just six months later, President Obama gave a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame that pleaded for more “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words” to characterize debates over abortion. “Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions,” the president said. While critics derided the visit because the president’s support for abortion rights clashed with Catholic teaching, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, commended the president for inviting “Americans of every faith and ideological conviction to ‘work in common effort’ to reduce the number of abortions.”

Also in 2009, Obama tasked his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with exploring how to “support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion.” The office worked with the White House Council on Women and Girls to hold meetings with leaders on both sides of the abortion debate.

During the same time, Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, brought together moderate evangelicals and secular progressives to discuss divisive social issues with its Come Let Us Reason Together project. “It was never going to be a panacea, but we wanted to turn down the heat so we could make progress where there were shared values,” said Rachel Laser, who led the initiative and had previously served as general counsel for Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington. Influenced by Third Way’s efforts, Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, a member of the Congressional pro-choice caucus, introduced a comprehensive abortion-reduction legislative package with Representative Tim Ryan, a member of the Congressional pro-life caucus. “Our goal was to move the debate beyond the legality of abortion to reduce the need for abortion and support pregnant women,” DeLauro said. At a press conference touting the bill in the summer of 2009, leaders from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America stood side by side with moderate Catholics and theologically conservative evangelicals. “It may not be an end to the culture war,” wrote Amy Sullivan, a prominent religion commentator and evangelical, “but it looks a lot like a cease-fire.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone making that argument today. Laser isn’t expecting productive dialogue on abortion reduction any time soon. “The conversation has ceased to exist for now in Washington,” she said. DeLauro said their efforts to work across the ideological spectrum were never easy, but they have only become harder in the current political climate. “There are moves in several states to curtail a women’s right to choose and efforts to criminalize women and doctors,” she said. “There are still elements on both sides of the divide who want to reduce the need for abortion, but the anti-abortion side has taken an extreme approach.”

Where did things go wrong? In many ways, the common ground movement for abortion reduction stalled long before last year’s election. From the beginning, there was resistance. The National Right to Life Committee described pursuing common ground abortion reduction as the “burial ground.” “It’s a sellout, as far as we are concerned,” Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, told The Washington Post in 2008. Some liberals, concerned that religious moderates were being co-opted by conservative opponents of abortion rights, panned the effort. A few Catholic leaders castigated moderate Catholics who endorsed Obama’s abortion reduction efforts. And in both parties, anti-abortion advocates, particularly Catholic voices, could not agree whether contraception should be included alongside abortion reduction efforts.

Then, in the fall of 2009, bruising battles over health care reform legislation—specifically divisions over whether the law provided federal funding for abortion—hardened old factions. Michigan’s Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Catholic and then a House Democrat, offered a controversial amendment that he argued simply codified the longstanding Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion. Catholic bishops and several moderate Democrats supported the provision, but many liberals viewed it as a setback that would restrict public money from being spent on any plans that cover abortion.

The Stupak amendment passed the House but was not included in final legislation. President Obama signed an executive order affirming a ban on federal funding of abortion. Catholic bishops still opposed the final health care legislation over abortion funding concerns even as other prominent Catholics, including Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, rallied to support the bill. Ten of the 17 anti-abortion Democrats who voted in favor of the health care law later lost their seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Any fragile coalition of abortion rights and anti-abortion moderates seemed to disperse amid the rancorous fight.

Meanwhile, DeLauro and Ryan’s bill—the “Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act”— had trouble garnering bipartisan support. The bill focused on expanding access to contraception for low-income women, offering grants for age-appropriate sex education that encouraged teens to delay sexual activity, and increasing funding for family planning programs. It proposed expanding postpartum care from 60 days to one year for qualifying low-income women and also supported educating women about adoption. Ultimately, the bill never came up for a vote.

A different abortion reduction bill, which did not include contraception initiatives, made some strides. Senator Bob Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat from Pennsylvania, helped draft the Pregnant Women Support Act. This bill grew out of the “95-10” campaign from the group Democrats for Life, which sought to reduce the number of abortions by 95 percent over 10 years by “promoting abstinence, personal responsibility, adoptions, and support for women and families.” Core elements of the Pregnant Women Support Act were later packaged to become a $25 million-a-year Pregnancy Assistance Fund, which passed as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in March 2010. Seventeen states are now using pregnancy assistance fund grants.

The Reverend Joel Hunter, an anti-abortion evangelical and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, counts the ACA’s support for pregnant women and expanded access to contraception as victories for the abortion reduction movement. (Full disclosure: Hunter serves on the board of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal.) “A lot of wind has gone out of the sails of this conversation because there has been some success,” he said. “All of us want more, but my sense is politically you reach a point of diminishing returns.” He thinks the administration has “sensed any conversation that tries to create an all-encompassing common ground doctrine only becomes fodder for more culture wars.” 

But Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex, said, “For me it was tragic that the president took this on and made a big play for it and then walked away.” Page participated in White House meetings on the issue, but those later fizzled, and an anticipated report from the administration never materialized. Page thinks her abortion rights allies share the blame for not giving the administration enough political cover. “We had this immense opportunity, but most of the pro-choice community was berating the president and he was never supported.”

In a statement, Planned Parenthood said the organization “works every day to help women plan their families, improve their health, and prevent unintended pregnancies, which reduces the need for abortion.” A White House official said in a statement that the administration “will continue our efforts to find common ground policies and initiatives to reduce unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and parents, and reduce the need for abortion.”

David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, is skeptical. “The scalding politics over the role of abortion in health care reform put a tremendous strain on the White House and those of us who supported this work,” he said. A moderate evangelical, Gushee has participated in many public debates with abortion rights leaders and has earned their respect, but he finds himself unable to persuade Democratic Party leaders. “When push comes to shove, the Democratic base will be satisfied and they will do what they can to mollify concerns of evangelicals and Catholics, but I don’t have confidence that there is any kind of passion for making reducing abortion a priority or much interest in investing presidential capital on this,” he said. “But I do think this is a conversation many people still want to have.”

Opinion polls back up that claim. Fifty-three percent of Americans agree that “political leaders can work to find common ground on abortion while staying true to their core beliefs,” according to a 2008 survey from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). PRRI also found that 83 percent of voters support the common ground approach to reducing abortions. The public consistently supports keeping abortion legal—53 percent to 29 percent according to a January Gallup poll. But many are also conflicted over the issue: the same poll also found a nearly even split between citizens who define themselves as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” In fact, 43 percent of Americans identify as both pro-choice and pro-life.

Abortion reduction efforts may be making an impact, empirically if not politically. The abortion rate and teen pregnancies nationally are in decline. In Massachusetts, there is some evidence that the state’s effort to provide universal health care is lowering the abortion rate there as more citizens are insured. The abortion rate in St. Louis declined by 20 percent from 2008 to 2010, after low-income women in that metropolitan area were given free contraception as part of a study, according to Washington University researchers.

Despite the shifting politics and setbacks, Gushee holds out some hope. “I’ve always thought that common ground was possible around the conviction that abortion is not a moral good,” he said. “A society with over a million abortions a year is not a good thing.”

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life.