Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions

The New York Times
January 25, 2005
Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions

ALBANY, Jan. 24 - Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that the opposing sides in the divisive debate over abortion should find "common ground" to prevent unwanted pregnancies and ultimately reduce abortions, which she called a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

In a speech to about 1,000 abortion rights supporters near the New York State Capitol, Mrs. Clinton firmly restated her support for the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. But then she quickly shifted gears, offering warm words to opponents of legalized abortion and praising the influence of "religious and moral values" on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active.

"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," Mrs. Clinton said.

Her speech came on the same day as the annual anti-abortion rally in Washington marking the Roe v. Wade anniversary. [Page A17.]

Mrs. Clinton's remarks were generally well received, though the audience was silent during most of her overtures to anti-abortion groups. Afterward, leaders of those groups were skeptical, given Mrs. Clinton's outspoken support for abortion rights over the years.

Mrs. Clinton, widely seen as a possible candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, appeared to be reaching out beyond traditional core Democrats who support abortion rights. She did so not by changing her political stands, but by underscoring her views in preventing unplanned pregnancies, promoting adoption, recognizing the influence of religion in abstinence and championing what she has long called "teenage celibacy."

She called on abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion campaigners to form a broad alliance to support sexual education - including abstinence counseling - family planning, and morning-after emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault as ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.

"We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," Mrs. Clinton told the annual conference of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State. "The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

Leading anti-abortion campaigners, in both New York and nationwide, pounced on Mrs. Clinton as a suspect spokeswoman for compromise and common ground.

"I think she's trying to adopt a values-oriented language, but it lacks substance, at least if you compare it to her record," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council in Washington. "If you look at Senator Clinton's voting record on this issue, it's like Planned Parenthood's condoms - it's defective."

Mrs. Clinton's address came as the Democratic Party itself engages in its own re-examination of its handling of the issue in the wake of Senator John Kerry's loss in the presidential race.

Democratic senators such as Harry Reid of Nevada and Dianne Feinstein of California have also pressed for a greater focus on reducing unintended pregnancies, and some Democratic consultants have urged that party leaders mint new language to reach voters who identified moral values as a top issue for them in last November's election.

"Our focus in the speech was to make sure that she still communicated that she was pro-choice - she doesn't want to undermine that - but she also thinks we can have some common ground among all sides and make abortion rare," Neera Tanden, legislative director for Mrs. Clinton, said in a telephone interview.

Before the election, Mrs. Clinton was a visible and public defender of abortion rights, appearing at a huge rally in Washington last spring and denouncing what she called Republican efforts to demonize the abortion rights movement.

And in her remarks, she seemed to acknowledge that this image of her was well known by anti-abortion campaigners while adding that, to her, it did not tell the full story about her views. "Yes, we do have deeply held differences of opinion about the issue of abortion and I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available," Mrs. Clinton said, going on to assert that even some critics still support abortions in some cases, such as when the life of the mother is at risk.

The senator also made a nod to the values issue on Monday in praising faith-based and religious organizations for promoting abstinence.

"Research shows that the primary reason teenage girls abstain from early sexual activity is because of their religious and moral values," Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton made clear that she did not favor abstinence-only programs of sexual education.

"We should also recognize what works and what doesn't work and to be fair, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs," Mrs. Clinton said. "I don't think this debate should be about ideology - it should be about facts, and evidence. We have to deal with the choices that young people make, not just the choices we wish they would make."

Mrs. Clinton's remarks drew some gasps and head-shaking from those gathered here when she offered a string of statistics and data that, her aides said, were meant to show that preventing unwanted pregnancies could be a unifying issue for supporters and opponents of abortion rights.

Several audience members inhaled sharply, for instance, when Mrs. Clinton said that 7 percent of American women who do not use contraception make up 53 percent of all unintended pregnancies. She also cited research estimating that 15,000 abortions a year are by women who have been sexually assaulted, one of several reasons, she said, that morning-after emergency contraception should be made available over the counter.

After the speech, several members of the audience said they viewed Mrs. Clinton as a "hero" of the abortion rights movement, but also noted that her address seemed intended to reach more conservative and religious voters as well as perhaps in hopes of broadening her base of support for a possible 2008 run.

"I understood what Senator Clinton meant when she said abortion could be a sad and tragic choice, but we see women express relief more than anything else that they have the freedom to choose," said Martha Stahl, director for public relations and marketing for Northern Adirondack Planned Parenthood. "Mrs. Clinton really seemed to be reaching out here."

Christina Fitch, legislative director of the New York State Right to Life Committee, said: "She's talking about common sense, common ground, but we have yet to see her reach out her arms like a lot of other people have and support things like a partial-birth abortion ban. We want to see her extending olive branches on protecting life."

Mrs. Clinton supported a proposed ban on late-term abortions as long as it included an exception to protect the health of the mother; in turn, she has opposed such a ban when it lacked that exception. She has also supported some state parental notification laws under which a teenager must involve at least one parent in the decision - but only when there is an exception in the laws that allows the judge to bypass the law and let the teenager obtain an abortion on her own - a process known as "judicial bypass," which Mrs. Clinton has also supported before.

Mrs. Clinton also weaved several jabs at the Bush administration into her remarks, at one point saying that the White House had put the lives of many women and girls worldwide "at risk" by restricting abortion counseling services.