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Following the Leader: Why Progressives Must Not Abandon Their Commitment to Reproductive Rights

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The 32nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision of Roe v. Wade comes at a time of intense debate about abortion, religion, sexuality, and family in American life and politics. For the last several months, the media has been pervaded by often inaccurate stories of the role that abortion and other controversial topics played in the 2004 elections and the degree to which these issues have become an insurmountable liability for moderate and progressive politicians. Leaders and activists are questioning publicly and privately the extent to which the right to abortion should be a central plank of their agenda and whether that right can or should be moderated or curtailed to rebuild their political base.

We at the Center for American Progress believe that those who cherish freedom and privacy must not walk away from their commitment to a woman's right to choose whether and when to have a child. Although progressives can and should find new ways to communicate the values underlying support for reproductive rights, their interests will not be served by parroting conservative rhetoric on abortion. Rather, they will only accomplish a betrayal of a core set of principles that runs throughout the progressive agenda – principles that include equality for women, support for healthy families, and the right to make personal decisions free from governmental interference.

Instead of retreating from the perceived albatross of abortion (and further demoralizing steadfast supporters), the way for progressives and moderates to broaden their appeal and strengthen their ranks is to show leadership in this controversial area. Leadership requires grappling with difficult issues – not ignoring them. The divide this country faces regarding difficult issues like abortion presents an opportunity for those on the left to demonstrate leadership, not to show how well they can follow. Progressives must ask – and strive to answer – the hard questions, such as what is the proper balance to be struck between respect for fetal life and respect for women as moral decision makers? How can the government best support women in their decisions to have or not have children? How can we reduce the frequency of abortion in ways that preserve rather than compromise women's autonomy?

Leadership also involves articulating a vision. Progressives need to acknowledge that the conflict over abortion cannot be solved with simple solutions. Instead, a comprehensive plan to improve women's health and lives and give them real choices is necessary. Such an agenda would include not only legal abortion but also access to contraception, medically accurate sex education, pre- and post-natal care, child care, health care, paid family leave, job training, job protection, and a living wage. For until we as a society create a climate in which women have the social and economic means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to raise the children they want to bear, we are all responsible for every abortion that occurs.

Finally, leadership means defending that vision. This does not mean adhering rigidly to a position and refusing to consider alternative viewpoints. But it does mean standing up for the values in which one believes. Doing so is not only inspirational but informative. The public needs to be reminded that support for legal abortion and other reproductive rights comes from a specific and tragic history. Roe did not mark the beginning of abortion in this country. Illegal and unsafe abortions resulted in death, serious illness, and infertility for thousands of women, which provided much of the impetus for making abortion legal. When challenged by those who would criminalize abortion, progressives must remember this history and explain what they are about: protecting women's health and lives, ensuring that children are born into families that can care for them, and keeping women and their doctors out of jail. They must seek to fill, not create, a void in the current political landscape.

The issue of abortion will not go away any time soon. It is a complex issue that evokes strong responses from religious, health, and policy perspectives. But it is precisely because it touches such a strong chord in our society that it cannot be ignored. Our culture and our knowledge about pregnancy have changed significantly since Roe was decided. A new dialogue about abortion is not only appropriate, it is necessary. The issue deserves critical thinking and a thoughtful response anchored in the conviction that we as a society should strive to reduce the incidence of abortion but that that goal is best accomplished by giving women access to health care, respect as responsible moral agents, and real options to shape their lives. If progressives rebuild the foundation for legal abortion and the broader agenda of which it is simply one part, it will become much easier for them to explain persuasively why their view is the moral and compassionate position. In other words, if progressives lead on this issue, Americans will follow.

Shira Saperstein is deputy director of the Moriah Fund and a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress. Jessica Arons is the Legal Policy Associate for the Women's Health Project and the Faith and Progressive Policy Project at the Center for American Progress.

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