Healing a great divide

The Baltimore Sun

President-elect Barack Obama has said that he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act shortly after assuming office. The act would strike down local and state laws related to limiting abortion, parental notification and such. According to some reports, he may even do this as one of his first (and therefore closely scrutinized) initiatives as president.

That would be a huge mistake.

Please note: I'm a fan, a one-time lifelong Republican who voted for Mr. Obama and wrote extensively in support of him. But here's my question for the president-elect: Why start Round Two of the culture wars as one of your first acts as president? Why reinvigorate the religious right - a sop, perhaps, to your critics on the left who want you to be "more progressive"?

I am somewhat uniquely placed to foresee the ramifications of what you are said to be planning to do. I was a leader at the start of the anti-abortion movement. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, I collaborated with my father, evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer (now deceased), and Dr. C. Everett Koop (soon to be Ronald Reagan's surgeon general) on an anti-abortion film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I directed the films. We went on the road with a nationwide seminar tour that, taken together with other writings of my father's and our meetings with Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, launched and then sustained the evangelical pro-life movement.

I've changed my mind. I now believe abortion should remain legal. However, like many Americans, I also believe that we should do all we can to make it a last option. For Mr. Obama to simply sweep away everything that is dearest to the anti-abortion folks with the stroke of a pen would be unfortunate. Abortion is legal and will stay that way without the next president doing anything other than closely scrutinizing his court appointments.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama said: "This is an issue that - look, it divides us. ... We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby. Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion."

Why not follow up that statement with early action? Why not first find a way to show Americans who are ambivalent about abortion that he is doing something to make abortions less frequent?

How Mr. Obama deals with abortion could be his "Nixon goes to China" moment. As a progressive Democrat, he is in a position to defuse the bitterest element of the culture wars and begin to heal our country in a way that no Republican president has been able (or willing) to do.

Since 1973 and Roe v. Wade, the Republicans have talked incessantly about being "against abortion" but have done little to help women to deal with unwanted pregnancies. Mr. Obama could do the opposite. Instead of signing the Freedom of Choice Act, why not surprise the pro-life movement by announcing a major effort to reduce abortions, drawing attention to programs ranging from improved adoption services to age-appropriate sex education? None of this would conflict with his core value of keeping abortion legal and defending Roe.

Mr. Obama will need every American to support the sacrifices he will soon be calling on all of us to make. Why should he start his term in office by shrugging off the good will of millions of Americans who disapprove passionately of legal abortion and yet, as of now, are favorably disposed toward him?

Mr. Obama, why make your opening move a revived culture war? Defusing, not inflaming, the anti-abortion community's anger is the best long-term defense of a woman's right to choose. It is also what is best for America.

Please give us a break from divisions and fulfill your promise to bring us together.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of "Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back." His e-mail is frankaschaeffer@aol.com.

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