It's time for abortion foes to yield ground


BOSTON - Have you been listening to all the Democrats talking about real estate? Despite a campaign that hinged on foreign policy and a candidate who couldn't speak straight, many have decided that the culprit is abortion. And they've gone out shopping for "common ground."

In his state of the (liberal) union address, pro-choice stalwart Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said, "Surely we can all agree that abortion should be rare and that we should do all we can to help women avoid the need to face that decision."

Then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech that was widely described as a retreat, said, "There is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate - we should be able to agree that we want every child born in this country to be wanted, cherished and loved."

The intriguing part is that only pro-choice politicians seem to be in this market. When the president, in his message to core supporters at the March for Life, mentioned "seeking common ground," he added the killer qualifier "where possible."

Where exactly is it "possible" to find common cause with those who call themselves pro-life? In the three states where women must legally be told the lie that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer? In Virginia, where a state legislator introduced a law that would have made women report "fetal deaths"? Among those who think that stem cell research is homicidal?

If there is any shared turf in this debate, it would be the one that both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Kennedy bid for: a flat-out campaign to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Yet at this moment, the Food and Drug Administration has once again delayed approval of putting Plan B, the after-the-act contraceptive, on drugstore shelves. This emergency contraceptive, if taken soon enough, can prevent over 80 percent of unwanted pregnancies.

It's been four years since the manufacturer applied for approval to have Plan B sold over the counter. One FDA advisory committee after another has found it safe and effective for all ages.

Even the notion that it would lead to increased sexual behavior has been dismissed by a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Indeed, as David Grimes of Family Health International wrote, saying that emergency contraception would promote risky sexual behavior is like saying "that a fire extinguisher beneath the kitchen sink makes one a risky cook."

Nevertheless, the acting director of the FDA overruled his own panel. If you want to know why he has delayed and delayed, check the pro-life Web sites. Plan B is described, casually and wrongly, as an abortifacient.

Common ground? Didn't Bill Clinton already stake out the terrain when he said abortion should be safe, legal and rare? There are 3 million unintended pregnancies a year. Half of them end in abortion. There were about 51,000 fewer abortions in 2000 because of emergency contraception. Even if and when Plan B is approved, it still won't be available without a prescription - and therefore a delay - for girls under 16.

Surely, anyone opposed to abortions should be stocking the shelves at their neighborhood drug store. But it's the pro-choice Center for Reproductive Rights that has filed a lawsuit to force the FDA to follow its rules.

How do you find common ground when your opponents are standing put on scorched earth? I mean, we also agree that teen pregnancies have gone down because of abstinence and better contraception. But the administration pays for abstinence-only sex education that teaches that contraceptives don't work.

The millions of women who have had abortions do not regard them as a victory. For most they were failures - whether of contraception or relationships - accompanied by mixed feelings of regret and relief. Safe, legal and rare. We're already at the meeting ground. The question is not how far we move but when the other side will get there.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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