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Reducing casualties in the abortion battle


THE struggle over when and whether abortion should remain a legal choice for American women seems likely to rage on for years, and while people of good will struggle over their polarized views, what should be a vital common ground may continue to be neglected.

Whatever else the abortion adversaries believe, most of them would also agree that there are entirely too many abortions in this country.

Of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States every year, more than half are unplanned; more than a quarter -- 1.5 million -- end in abortion. That's a rate higher than for any other industrialized Western nation.

It's here that we may find some real hope of accomplishing what most people agree is a desirable goal -- reducing the rate of abortion by helping women avoid the circumstances that press them to make such a difficult choice.

It's an idea that could join people rather than tear them apart. Here are some general principles I would suggest as a starting point for such a constructive discourse.

First, we should try to teach young men and women their responsibility in creating and caring for human life.

At the very least, young people should hear from us that they are not deficient because they choose to abstain from sexual relations until another and better time.

Today, speaking up for abstention may sound old-fashioned and naive, but if we don't, we run the risk of saying -- with our silence -- that we condone the alternative message of the popular culture, that sexual activity is a necessary way to validate one's maturity.

At the same time, however, we must recognize that not all young people will follow the path of restraint -- even with our best efforts -- so every young American who is sexually active but not yet prepared for the responsibilities of parenthood should have access to complete, intelligent information and counsel on the possible consequences of sexual activity and on the uses of contraception.

Now more than ever, responsible sex education is an appropriate part of the public-school curriculum.

Some of us believe the use of contraceptives is wrong. Those who do have a right to live by that belief. That is one of the great beauties of this democracy: No one can be required to have an abortion or to use contraception.

But for the sake of those who believe that contraception is a better alternative than an unwanted pregnancy that ends in abortion, we should invest in better, simpler, safer contraceptive technology.

Beyond abstinence, education and contraception, there is another partial solution that deserves our attention: adoption.

Some women would choose not to end a pregnancy if they could be relieved of some or all of the emotional, physical, financial and social commitments of rearing a child -- commitments they judge themselves incapable of undertaking for a lifetime.

We need to re-examine the adoption alternative, not as a panacea for abortion but as one of the many ways we can create real choices for people.

There are literally thousands of couples eager to adopt. We should remove undue obstacles to adoption where they exist, making the process as easy as possible, consistent with prudence.

Finally, for those women who might consider an abortion because of economic extremity, we must make sure that carrying a child to term is a realistic choice.

Specifically, we must make the health care needed to have and raise a healthy child as available as the care needed to receive an abortion. That's the New York policy; it should be America's.

Everyone, I hope, would agree that life beyond the womb deserves more consideration, but in this regard our work has barely begun.

We are a long way from creating a society where the concern for new life doesn't end at the moment of birth; where an infant isn't helped into a world that doesn't care if a baby is fed properly, housed decently, educated adequately; where the blind or disabled child isn't condemned to exist rather than empowered to live.

Unless we change the terms of the debate, the question of abortion rights will lock our nation in combat indefinitely.

To allow the current differences on this subject to postpone humane and constructive action to reduce the need for abortion and improve the lot of our children would be foolish.

As we have done for a decade in New York State, we must resolve as a nation to pursue every avenue that helps bring down the rate of unintended pregnancy and, therefore, the number of abortions.

Wouldn't it be useful if both Gov. Clinton and President Bush could join in such a discussion?

Mario M. Cuomo is governor of New York.

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