Not 'Choice,' But 'Better Choices'

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 18, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

AUGUSTA, MAINE — Augusta, Maine. -- Not far from the domed statehouse of this capital city is a modest white-frame building that houses the Christian Civic League. Nothing about the architecture gives off a hint of its history. From this former outpost, Benjamin Bubar, anti-evolutionist, fundamentalist and author of ''The Devil Loose in Maine'' ran as the presidential candidate of the Prohibition Party. In 1976.

Today, the Christian Civic League is run by a man from another generation of conservatives, Jasper Wyman. If Mr. Wyman learned anything from the story of his predecessor, he says, it's that prohibition doesn't work as well as persuasion. That's true, he adds, whether the issue is alcohol or -- as it is now -- abortion.

''For years,'' explains the earnest 39-year-old father of three, ''the country thought they would deal with drinking by force of law. But until people were persuaded that drinking wasn't good for them, that it would cause harm, would kill their loved ones on the highway, passing a law didn't make a lot of sense.''

The analogy to abortion became clear to him, he says, only after years as a leader in the pro-life fight for a ban on abortion. He remembers a line from a conservative think-tank piece by Frederica Mathewes-Green that influenced his own thinking: ''No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.''

''I don't see us resolving this by force of law. The only thing we can do,'' he says of the pro-life movement, ''is persuade women and men by offering better choices.''

So Jasper Wyman, anti-pornography, anti-ERA, anti-gay rights and ardently anti-abortion, has come to be ''pro-choices.'' He has become part of the nascent movement searching for common ground in the abortion wars.

The former state legislator, the once-upon-a-time liberal Democrat who became a culturally conservative Republican, the man who ran as a sacrificial Republican candidate against Sen. George Mitchell, has written a new manifesto for pro-lifers. In effect, he tells them to put aside the crusade for a legal ban in favor of a quest for what he calls ''Better Choices.''

''If you say to a woman, you can have an abortion or drop out and go on welfare, take your choice, she'll say I don't like those choices,'' says Mr. Wyman earnestly. ''We can end abortion on demand, but not by taking an absolutist position. We can end it by slowly presenting better choices.''

His agenda for the pro-life community begins with the simple premise: ''To end abortion in America we must eliminate the root causes of abortion.'' First of all, he says, ''Pro-lifers must drop their unreasonable and indefensible opposition to birth control.''

He goes on to spell out a legislative program. Job protection for pregnant women, speedier adoption laws, prenatal care, increased welfare, sex education, teen parenting programs. Not surprisingly, many outraged pro-lifer activists in Maine accused Mr. Wyman of treason, not seeking common ground but giving up ground. If he believes -- as he does -- that abortion is murder, how can he compromise? ''I don't know that you compromise in your heart and soul,'' he says, ''but you can try to find the best way to get there.''

Many pro-choice activists view Mr. Wyman with suspicion, as a political opportunist, a right-to-life pragmatist in a pro-choice Republican state. Nancy Kelleher, the associate director of Planned Parenthood, describes his legislative program as a watered-down or conservative version of Planned Parenthood positions, and unlikely to receive funding from this strapped state. But she says respectfully that ''he really stuck his neck out on this'' and that ''he truly cares about this issue.''

Indeed, these days when every public person has staked out a position on abortion, the political arguments are frozen and any movement off the mark is instantly seen as evidence -- GOTCHA! -- of hypocrisy or waffling. In such an atmosphere, the willingness to move is both risky and welcome.

''I'm on the winning side,'' says Mr. Wyman. ''In our lifetime we'll see abortion greatly reduced but only when we have a humane society that provides choices.'' Pro-life, pro-choices. You can be both.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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