Finding Common Ground in the Abortion Debate

It’s possible to reduce abortion without banning it — lawmakers just need to consider a few alternatives.

When I begin teaching new freshmen how to compete in Congressional debate, I always give them a set of rules about how they should act when competing. My number one rule: Never talk about abortion. When you debate abortion, regardless of your position, passionate feelings on both sides usually come to a boil. There are no winners in that argument. The pro-life and pro-choice movements both demonize the other, almost never looking for a common ground.

The strongest supporters of the pro-life movement are white evangelical protestants. The Pew Research Center finds that 42% believe abortion is a critical issue — one that helps them decide what candidate or party to vote for. Even for those white evangelicals who do not believe abortion to be a critical issue, a further analysis by the Pew Research in 2016 finds that 75% of them believe abortion is morally wrong. Often times in heavily white, Protestant states such as Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina, abortion clinics are shut down under mountains of restrictions because of anti-abortion sentiments. In heavily Republican states, conservatives roll over liberal objections, which mirrors the lack of compromise on abortion rights in Democratic states. This steamrolling over minority parties has caused massive national backlash against both sides, specifically in states with extensive abortion restrictions.

Across the nation, laws which restrict abortion have become rallying cries for pro-choice and pro-life advocates. In Texas, laws were passed that required abortion clinics to meet surgical standards as well as forcing abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. It caused over half of the clinics in the state to close. Because of this pro-life advocates herald these restrictions as effective means of decreasing abortions and protecting the sanctity of unborn life. However, in Texas, these restrictions failed to meet expectations. While restrictions did lead to a 70% decrease in medication-based abortions and a 14% decrease in abortion overall, it was countered by a 7% increase in surgical abortions, a more dangerous procedure, as well as an 11% increase in women traveling to other states to receive abortions.

Luckily, one of the answers to the problems of conservative lawmakers has been in pharmacies and doctors’ offices for years: birth control.

Laws that restricted abortion using a tangle of regulations were not nearly as effective at decreasing the overall abortion rates as conservative lawmakers had hoped. Conservative lawmakers now find themselves between a rock and a hard place: they believe they have a moral obligation to protect the unborn, but also have to be wary about making the restrictions too stringent. With limits on a woman’s right to choose under heavy scrutiny by high level courts and pro-choice advocates fighting tooth and nail to protect a woman’s right to choose, it is time for conservative lawmakers to look for a new solution.

Luckily, one of the answers to the problems of conservative lawmakers has been in pharmacies and doctors’ offices for years: birth control. The Washington University Medical School in St. Louis examined the effects of providing free access to birth control, including birth control pills and intrauterine devices, in the the local community and discovered that increased access reduces abortion rates by 62% — a striking success. Compared to the plethora of restrictions Texas lawmakers passed in their efforts to restrict abortion, it seems impossible that one single policy could have such a significant impact. However, their results were corroborated by the Colorado Health Department, which found in a 6 year study that free access to both long acting and short term birth control reduced abortions by 48%. Conservative lawmakers have traditionally opposed expanding access to contraceptives, but it is ironically their greatest weapon in the fight for the unborn. If conservative lawmakers in Texas had supported funding for free or low-cost birth control, they would be able to dramatically reduce abortions and protect the sanctity of life.

Sex education is one of the most powerful tools to stop unplanned pregnancies and reduce abortion.

In addition to providing free birth control, lawmakers could also expand sexual education. In Hawaii, the abortion rate decreased by 30% after the school system expanded and improved sexual education courses across the state. Even though causation could not be established, Hawaii can serve as a model for other states to begin to reform their sexual education programs. Comprehensive sexual education programs are extremely effective at reducing unplanned teen pregnancies, while abstinence-only education has been shown to have a only a minor effect. Rather than promoting comparatively ineffective regulations, and possibly unconstitutional ones, states should focus on creating comprehensive sexual education classes and stopping the root of the problem: unplanned pregnancies. In 2012, the Brookings Institute found that unplanned pregnancies are the cause of almost 90% of all abortions. By teaching students about the dangers of unsafe sex and promoting responsible decisions as well as the use of protection, states can prevent unwanted pregnancies. Sex education is one of the most powerful tools to stop unplanned pregnancies and reduce abortion.

Either of these solutions could bring both sides of the aisle together. Conservatives want to reduce abortion and liberals want to expand access to contraceptives. In spite of an era of ever-increasing partisanship, goals from both sides could be achieved — together. However, these solutions are not without their own controversies. Some religious lawmakers would have to compromise on their stances on birth control and sexual education, but in return they would see the dramatic reduction in what they perceive as a great crime. Liberals would possibly have to sweeten the deal by promising to support the Hyde amendment, the law that bans giving federal funds to support abortions. Creating effective laws means making some compromises and working with your opposition, and, for either of these options, lawmakers have an opportunity to do both. When we work together, liberals and conservatives, we are a stronger nation. When we pool our interests and find common ground, we can change lives for the better. Even in this era of partisanship and dirty politics, the issues that divide us do not have to be the issues we cannot solve.