The election and abortion

January 27, 1993|By EDITORIAL

President Clinton's orders reversing many of the Reagan-Bush decrees on abortion are what elections are all about. The voters chose a president committed to abortion rights, and one of his first acts in office was to sweep away anti-abortion regulations affecting everything from federally financed medical research to free speech for family planning clinics to the restoration of U.S. leadership in international family planning efforts. In a nice piece of symbolism, the orders were signed on the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing abortion.

The timing was notable in another way as well. The orders were widely anticipated, but instead of signing them early in the day, President Clinton discreetly waited till late afternoon -- until after 75,000 anti-abortion protesters had their say in their annual Washington march protesting the Supreme Court decision. The delay should be taken as a sign that the administration intends to respect other views, while firmly supporting its own. In a debate too often characterized by insensitivity and hostility on all sides, this small gesture was a hopeful sign.

If supporters of abortion rights have learned anything from the battles of the past two decades, they should have learned not to place all their confidence in decrees from courts, presidents or even legislators. The abortion controversy is as much a battle for hearts and minds as anything else.

Public opinion polls consistently find that a majority of Americans do not want to make abortion a criminal act, although reservations also clearly come through in the support pollsters find for moderate restrictions such as limits on late-term abortions. Despite the protests of anti-abortion activists, the Clinton administration is more in tune with majority sentiment in this country.

We suspect the president was also solidly in tune with public opinion when he stated last Friday: "Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare." The surest way to do that is to help women avoid unwanted pregnancy. Better contraceptive choices, for women and men -- choices that are safe, reliable, convenient and accessible -- are an obvious way to reduce a shamefully high abortion rate.

That goal is as important for Americans as for the poor, Third World families who have been denied access to contraceptives because the United States has withheld its contributions to the world's major international family planning organizations. That shortsighted policy illustrates in a nutshell how a single-minded focus on abortion distorts any real concern for the welfare of families.

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