Sunday, January 30, 2005

Senator Clinton's Values Lesson

The New York Times
January 30, 2005

Senator Clinton's Values Lesson

People in the Democratic Party who have been focused on social issues like abortion and gay rights were devastated by the results of the November election, and they have been wondering how to pursue their concerns in the inhospitable environment of the new Bush administration. Last week, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped define a promising path.

Speaking on Monday to about 1,000 abortion rights supporters in Albany, Mrs. Clinton did two important things. First, at a moment when women's reproductive freedom is under severe assault, she firmly restated her support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. What made Mrs. Clinton's speech noteworthy, however, was her second, complementary tack. Without retreating on principle, she deftly shifted the focus of the abortion discussion to where there is the broadest agreement, and where President Bush's policy failure is most apparent - namely, abortion prevention. Echoing her husband's call to make abortion "safe, legal and rare," the senator said that abortion "represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," and that "the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

This is sensitive political terrain, and Mrs. Clinton surprised, even offended some in her audience by voicing respect for those who oppose legalized abortion based on sincere religious or moral beliefs. Her critics argued that while the sentiment sounded fine, the reality is that most organized abortion opponents also oppose greater access to birth control, including backup emergency contraception. Even if that is true, it misses the point. The target of Mrs. Clinton's argument is not anti-abortion activists, but the broader public. Without giving ground on basic principles, she was appropriating the values issue for Democrats who support abortion rights - challenging "people of good faith" on both sides of the debate to find "common ground" in pursuing the shared goal of reducing the number of abortions.

The anti-abortion movement began gaining political traction when it focused on fairly narrow issues that most Americans find troubling - like parental notification and so-called partial-birth abortion. Meanwhile, it shifted attention away from President Bush's opposition to things that Americans almost universally favor and which are most critical for women trying to control their reproductive destiny, like ready access to birth control and comprehensive family planning. Mrs. Clinton wisely seeks to turn the argument around.

On the same day Mrs. Clinton spoke, the new Democratic minority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, introduced the Prevention First Act, a modestly revised version of a bill introduced in the last session, which sets forth a detailed agenda for addressing the problem of unintended pregnancies. It calls for medically accurate sex education, including but not limited to abstinence counseling; expanded access to family planning services for low-income women; easing the availability of morning-after emergency contraception for all women, including victims of sexual assault; and putting an end to the discriminatory practice of health care plans of covering prescription drugs like Viagra, but not prescription contraceptives for women.

These are practical steps for cutting the nation's abortion rate. Perversely, they are also steps President Bush refuses to take. Thanks to Mrs. Clinton's frank talk, now everyone should know that.