Common Ground on Abortion? Views from Under the Bus

Can common ground be found with people like Sharron Angle?  Reproductive rights experts answer these questions and explain why the ground is erroding beneath us in the abortion debate.

There’s not a lot of talk of women’s rights this year at the 5th Annual Netroots Nation, a gathering of progressive politicians, pundits, reporters, bloggers and policy wonks.   Panels seem much more focused on immigration, net neutrality, environmental issues and financial regulation than about talking about the eroding rights of women in this country.  But that wasn’t true at The View from Under the Bus: The Search for Common Ground on Abortion, a panel moderated by Will Neville, Communications Director for Advocates for Youth. 


A large group of women of all ages, and a handful or two of men, watched and participated with applause, boos and even some tears as Sarah Audelo of Advocates for Youth, Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and women’s right blogging star Digby discussed the history “finding common ground” on abortion, the betrayal of our current leadership on reproductive rights, and what the future is looking like for women who need access to full reproductive healthcare.

Michelman, who was with NARAL for two decades, responded with fury to recent developments to eliminate abortion coverage altogether from the high-risk insurance pool. “How are we going to protect our fundamental rights if we allow our friends, our so-called friends to undo those rights?  This week the administration took aim at the most vulnerable of Americans. Excuse me!  This is from OUR friends?”

She had just as strong of words for the continuing attempt to find some sort of common ground when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.

“This craven mission for common ground, for bipartisanship, you compromise your own values,” stated Michelman. “In the 80’s we issued a challenge to the anti-choice movement – if you oppose abortion, you should be advocates for birth control, sex ed and better resources for women who choose to continue their pregnancies.  The problem was, the two sides start with very different value systems.  We were about what was ensuring the best for women.  We started in that place.  The other side starts in another place.  They are troubled by sex and religious morals.  Common ground couldn’t be established because we couldn’t even agree on values.  The only value they had is that abortion is wrong.  Women get thrown under the bus so we can find common ground with catholic bishops who destroyed healthcare.   Common ground has been used to set us back, not move us forward.”

Digby, of the blog Hullabaloo, which focuses on women’s rights and reproductive choice, was just as bothered by the administration’s preemptive caving on women’s healthcare. 

“We ended up with the Nelson amendment instead of the slightly less-bad Stupak amendment,” Digby said, explaining the rational behind originally forcing women to purchase their own additional abortion coverage or pay for abortions separately.   “It’s like we are telling the right, ‘We won’t let your good Christian money touch our slutty, tainted money.’”

So who is to blame for the receding of abortion access and reproductive rights?  Sadly, according to Michelman, the blame lies at the feet of our own “progressive” allies.  “ We took it off the table.  We’ve had decades now knowing that the other side’s intent is to stop women from having control over their reproductive lives, to control women, period.  They figure we have nowhere else to go.”

“What are we going to do,” Michelman joked.  “Go to the Republicans?”

One reason that abortion rights have eroded even faster under the current administration is its knee-jerk reaction to controversy, especially faux controversy engineered by the right-wing.  Michelman drew a parallel between the White House’s immediate firing of Shirley Sherrod over the manufactured racism charges brought about by the Andrew Breitbart edited videos to its capitulation on federal funding for abortion in the high-risk insurance pools. 

“The Right lie was ‘The administration is paying for abortions with federal money!’ and the White House has a panic attack.  ‘No we aren’t!’” she said.  After that, there was no coverage for women, regardless of the dangerous effects pregnancy could have on the heath and lives.

“[The administration] has taken abortion and demonized it even more,” pointed out Sarah Audelo, Policy Director for Advocates for Youth.  “Abortion is common ground.  One in three women have had an abortion.”

For each step forward we have taken for reproductive health since 2008, we’ve had to take a loss as well.  “We got sex ed, but then we got abstinence only education,” she said.  “We got pregnancy funds to help women have their babies, and [the right] gets upset because Planned Parenthood might somehow get money out of it.” 

“If you don’t want abortions, I’m going to have to have birth control covered,” Audelo argued.

“No,” responded Michelman. “You have to be a nun.”

Discussion eventually turned to the idea that the anti-choice movement’s true goal is “to end all abortions at any stage of pregnancy for every woman at any time. The end,” according to Michelman.  And that has now started simply by denying it to women who are poor and sick.

“It’s written in stone that poor women will never be granted the right to have healthcare that allows pregnancy termination.  It’s over.  We lost it,” Michelman declared.  “We are going to have a Roe v. Wade legal moment with poor women before we can ever get it back.”

It didn’t have to be that was, the panel explained.  Early in the Clinton administration, there was the chance to pass a reproductive choice amendment that would have codified Roe v. Wade into federal law, and made it impossible for states to pass legislation that chipped away at the ruling.  “We destroyed our own possibilities,” Michelman said.  “Some of us decided that we needed a three tier approach.  It would be the legal right, but not the funding, and minors’ rights would happen on a state by state basis.  We had everybody lined up and ready to go, but because it wasn’t all three pieces at once, some of the groups pulled away and some of the senators left.”

Once Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, any chance at passing such an amendment was over.

“There are times when you got to go when you have a chance,” said Michelman.  “Not a compromise.  It would have stripped the states of the right to deny access to abortion and birth control.”

Neville agreed.  “If we had pushed for [a reproductive choice amendment] now, it wouldn’t have succeeded, but when the dust settled we would have been in a very different place right now,” he argued, as we would have been advocating from a point of strength rather than giving up women’s reproductive rights before we even started the healthcare negotiations.

Instead, today we have more restrictions, more waiting periods, more hurdles and many fewer clinics, putting reproductive health less accessible than it has been in decades.  “It is ridiculous that my mother had easier access to abortion than I do right now,” said Audelo.

So how do we both keep our reproductive rights from eroding even farther and, hopefully, restore some of them as time progresses?  For one thing, we have to stop the silence when it comes to talking about abortions and abortion rights.  “The pro-choice message is not getting to the hill, and the pro-life movement is talking every day,” Audelo noted.  “We have to do this as a movement – you have to come out of the pro-choice closet.”

In the meantime, when it comes to abortion rights, is common ground a lost cause?  Perhaps Digby puts it best.

“I don’t want to share common ground with people like Sharron Angle.”