Beyond the Abortion Pendulum

SARA ENGRAM

January 31, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

For all the noise about abortion, the issue by itself is probably not big enough to elect or defeat a president. The economy (stupid), war and peace -- those are the make-or-break issues that decide elections.

Yet a president's position on abortion can make worlds of difference. Witness the edicts signed by President Clinton two days after his inauguration.

In one signing ceremony, he swept away some of the biggest victories of the 20-year crusade to outlaw abortion -- canceling the infamous "gag rule" banning discussion of abortion in clinics that receive federal funds, easing restrictions on abortions in military hospitals, doing away with a ban on federally funded research using fetal tissue, and reversing policies that led to the withholding of U.S. contributions to major international family planning organizations.

The president also ordered a review of the ban on the importation of RU-486, the French pill that makes termination of early pregnancy a private, non-surgical procedure, merely a matter of taking a couple of pills. By reducing the need for abortion clinics, RU-486 could remove an emotional flash point -- an important and visible target for demonstrations by anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue.

Each of those policies represented furious battles fought during the past 12 years. Ronald Reagan and George Bush never succeeded in outlawing abortion altogether, but through the power of the executive branch, they succeeded brilliantly in keeping defenders of legalized abortion on the defensive.

With a new president, the pendulum swings again. But does that mean it has to keep swinging back and forth? Is there no end to the division and hostility of the abortion issue?

There was a hopeful sign in President Clinton's signing ceremony. The actions were widely expected on Jan. 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and the date on which thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators have converged on Washington D.C. for the past two decades. But the president chose to wait until late afternoon to take action, after the demonstrators had their say.

That small piece of symbolism can be taken as a sign of respect for opposing views -- which might lend weight to the hope expressed by the president when he said, "Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare."

It would seem that one goal both sides could agree on would be making abortion as rare as possible. But the fact that even that goal is controversial shows just how tangled up abortion is in thornier issues of values and beliefs.

One of the ironies of the Reagan-Bush years is that the first major victory for the anti-abortion movement -- the policy which led to the withdrawal of U.S. contributions to the two largest international family planning organizations -- actually contributed to an increase in abortions. The ostensible reason for the policy ,, was to protest reports of coercive abortions in China's population control efforts, but the practical effect was to hamper contraceptive distribution in dozens of other countries around the world. In almost all of these countries, abortion is illegal -- but, alas, it is not rare.

In many Third World hospitals, gynecological wards frequently have high percentages of women suffering -- and often dying -- from the effects of unsafe, illegal abortions.

In many of these countries, government policies encourage family planning programs not so much as a way of severely restricting population growth, as in China, but as a way to improve the health and welfare of families by helping them space their children far enough apart to give them a better chance to survive.

For years, the United States had worked to convince governments in developing countries that giving men and women access to contraceptives would eventually improve living standards. By the early 1980s, many of these governments were finally beginning to agree that high growth rates put severe strains on everything from schools to job creation and infrastructures. Then, in 1984, the U.S. government reversed itself, placing an anti-abortion litmus test on family planning programs.

In Third World countries, as in the United States, if women and men had access to safe, convenient and reliable contraceptives, there would be little demand for abortion, legal or not.

Now, with the litmus test removed from international aid programs and from medical practice and research in this country, it's time to stop watching the pendulum swing. It's time to move beyond abortion to the real challenge -- making the need for abortion so rare that it ceases to be a political issue.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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