In the President’s Hunt for ‘Common Ground’ on Abortion, a Fault Line Emerges

By MichaelJames

May 22, 2009 8:19pm

For two months, the Obama White House has been holding private meetings with abortion rights activists, religious leaders and conservative activists to discuss any possible common ground to reduce the demand for abortions.

In early April, the White House launched the effort, headed by White House Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes,  White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships executive director Joshua DuBois, and White House Council on Women and Girls executive director Tina Tchen.

The effort began with an April 3 conference call with leaders from various sides in this debate in which White House officials said they were  looking for ideas for both policies and legislation for the fiscal year 2011 budget, with specific suggestions about programs that had worked on a community level.

The goal, as President Obama said on Sunday in his address at Notre Dame, is, "Let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”

Today, however, one of the conservative activists attending these meetings said she didn’t buy it, and she wrote about the meetings about which many attendees had been asked not to share details. (Wright said no one told her to keep information from the meetings confidential.)

Her skeptical account is not necessarily surprising, given the president’s stated goal of bringing opponents into the White House in the difficult mission of finding ways to work together on perhaps the most contentious issue in American domestic politics.

But it does provide a window into these secret meetings, as well as illustrate the challenge of finding common ground.

About 20 people were at last Friday’s meeting, including  Kristen Day of Democrats for Life, Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association and Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America.  Others were from the Guttmacher Institute, the National Campaign on Teen Pregnancy, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Writing at the conservative Web site Human Events, Wright recounts the meeting in an essay titled, "Obama Aide: Not Our Goal to Reduce Abortions."

Barnes led the meeting and as "the dialogue wound down, she asked for my input," Wright writes. "I noted that there are three main ways the administration can reach its goals: by what it funds, its messages from the bully pulpit, and by what it restricts.  It is universally agreed that the role of parents is crucial, so government should not deny parents the ability to be involved in vital decisions.  The goals need to be clear; the amount of funding spent to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions is not a goal.  The U.S. spends nearly $2 billion each year on contraception programs — programs which began in the 1970s — and they’ve clearly failed.  We need to take an honest look at why they are not working."

Wright writes, "Melody testily interrupted to state that she had to correct me.  ‘It is not our goal to reduce the number of abortions.’ The room was silent. The goal, she insisted, is to ‘reduce the need for abortions.’"

The White House disputed the charge that Barnes was testy, and said that White House participants recalled Barnes saying that "the goal is to reduce the need for abortions," but not the headline-grabbing statement that it is not the White House’s goal to reduce the number of abortions.

White House officials said that they talk about reducing demand or the need for abortions, rather than reducing the number, because they’re taking a broader view of the issue — improving the women’s lives, providing then with support.

"What we’re trying to do is bring about systemic change that will really change lives and circumstances," a White House official said.

But Wright wonders about the semantics: "Does Obama want to reduce the ‘need’ but not the number of abortions?" she asks. "In that case, is he okay with ‘unneeded’ abortions?"

Wright hypothesizes that abortion rights advocates object to the phrase “reducing abortions" because it "connotes that there is something bad or immoral about abortion." She quotes Democrats in 2004 talking about the need for Democratic candidates to change their vocabulary when it comes to the controversial subject, though not their position.

She then suggests that President Obama’s effort is insincere.

"By all his actions so far, Obama is following this plan" to talk but not think or act differently on the topic, she writes. "Obama needs to be honest with Americans.  Is it true that it is not his goal to reduce the number of abortions? More importantly, will he do anything that will reduce abortions? Actions are far more important than words."

A White House official responded that "the goals of this effort are clear.  As discussed at this and other meetings, we’re working to address the issues at the root of a woman’s heart-wrenching decision to have an abortion.   We intend to give women the tools they need to prevent an unintended pregnancy before it happens and to support women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term.  Taken together, this could reduce the number of women seeking abortions.  We’re pleased that many from across the ideological spectrum have joined us in this effort to improve the lives of women and their families."

It should be noted that Wright has been skeptical of the president from the beginning of the effort. In an April story in LifeNews, Wright said President Obama and his team "have their work cut out for them in gaining trust from all the stakeholders since the primary people in charge come from the most hard-core abortion groups in the U.S. and the stated goals come straight from those abortion groups’ handbooks."

Wright told ABC News that "meetings or dialogue are not an ‘accomplishment.’ They are merely an item on the White House schedule and don’t replace or equal policies and appointees. It will be hard for them to find anything equal to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions as they increase funding to abortion groups, make abortion a foreign policy objective (as Hillary Clinton announced in a congressional hearing), and remove enforcement for conscience protections for medical workers."

The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody gives President Obama the benefit of the doubt, writing that it’s "hard to argue that the Obama administration is not making a good faith effort.They are giving Evangelicals a seat at the table. If this is not a good faith effort, then the answer will lie in the final product because the real question is what will the final abortion reduction initiative look like? … Politically, if evangelicals feel like they are just ‘window dressing,’ then the backlash will be swift and ferocious. On the other hand, if the president gives in to some of the pro-life programs being pushed (even if it cost him something with his pro-choice base) then there is tremendous political upside for this president."

- jpt

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