Promote birth control to make abortion rare

September 20, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- The nation's leading abortion-rights activists have an eye on the U.S. Supreme Court. They believe that if President Bush is re-elected, he will swamp the court with enough right-wing justices to overturn Roe vs. Wade and do more damage to the country than Ivan, Frances and Charley combined.

They're probably right. A second Bush term could easily lead to the most reactionary court since the one that ruled that Dred Scott had no rights.

Still, the tenor of the abortion-rights crusade seems passM-i, outdated, even crude. The activists spend so much time arguing for abortion that they seem to ignore its complexities and its pain.

The latest gimmick of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America is to encourage women who have terminated pregnancies to wear T-shirts advertising the fact. Is that really the best way to promote a right rooted in privacy?

The pro-choice crusade needs a new focus.

Instead of using bumper-sticker tactics that seem to mock the painful decisions that accompany termination of a pregnancy, abortion-rights activists should start a campaign to make abortion -- as Bill Clinton once said -- safe, legal and rare.

I've never met anyone who is pro-abortion. I've never met a woman who had made the decision to terminate a pregnancy who was blithe or careless or unfeeling about it.

As far as I can tell, it's always a gut-wrenching decision, and it always carries long-term emotional pain. It is, of course, a decision any woman should be free to make for herself.

I once explained to an abortion opponent that I am also uncomfortable with abortion. But I'm even more uncomfortable with the idea of telling another woman what decision she should make about something so personal, so challenging, so complex. A court has no business interfering in that.

Nevertheless, the long-term interests of reproductive rights would be better served by a crusade that focuses equally on encouraging the use of contraceptives.

How can we insist that women and their lovers are mature enough to decide whether to end a pregnancy if those couples show no maturity about protecting against unwanted pregnancies?

There is simply no excuse for the failure of so many sexually active women -- and men -- to use contraceptives properly when they are so readily available and easy to use.

It's been a long, hard struggle to get here, but contraceptives are now finally advertised on TV.

In Western Europe, sexually active adults (and adolescents) are much more likely to use contraceptives than Americans are. As a result, the rate of unwanted pregnancies is much lower. That means the rate of abortion is much lower, as well.

While the United States has 53 births per 1,000 teenagers, a rate worse than India's and Rwanda's, Britain has 20 babies per 1,000 teens. Germany and Norway have only 11, Finland has eight, Sweden and Denmark have seven, and the Netherlands has five. The much lower rate of teen pregnancy results from a "pragmatic European approach to teenage sexual activity" that does not pretend adolescents are not sexual beings, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Of course, Western Europe has little of the hyper-moralistic, fundamentalist Christianity that subverts rational discourse about sex. While the "abstinence-only" movement has hit Britain, it has not settled in deeply in other countries. They don't have to deal with a small but loud constituency of moralists who seem to believe that children are the appropriate punishment for having sex.

Still, any country that airs provocative ads for Viagra and Cialis, which have only one purpose -- aiding sexual activity -- surely is ready for a broad public campaign encouraging the use of contraceptives. Americans are not nearly as prudish as we claim. We can do much more than we have done to make sure that abortions are rarely necessary. Maybe abortion-rights activists will take up that cause.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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