As White House Readies Abortion Plan, Packaging Emerges as Major Issue

There's a growing debate on how to package the "common ground" plan.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

As the White House readies its plan for finding "common ground" on reproductive health issues and reducing the need for abortion, a major debate has emerged over how to package the plan's two major components: preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion.

Many abortion rights advocates and some Democrats who want to dial down the culture wars want the White House to package the two parts of the plan together, as a single piece of legislation. The plan would seek to reduce unwanted pregnancies by funding comprehensive sex education and contraception and to reduce the need for abortion by bolstering federal support for pregnant women. Supporters of the approach say it would force senators and members of Congress on both sides of the abortion battle to compromise their traditional positions, creating true common ground that mirrors what President Obama has called for.

But more conservative religious groups working with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships say they would be forced to oppose such a plan—even though they support the abortion reduction part—because they oppose federal dollars for contraception and comprehensive sex education. This camp, which includes such formidable organizations as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention, is pressuring the White House to decouple the two parts of the plan into separate bills. One bill would focus entirely on preventing unwanted pregnancy, while the other would focus on supporting pregnant women.

The White House declined a request for comment. Advocates for both plans say the administration has offered no hint about how it will come down on the matter. But with the White House expected to announce its plan on abortion and related issues this summer, advocates on both sides are strenuously lobbying for their plan, arguing that it offers the only true hope for common ground on very thorny issues.

"We welcome the opportunity to seek common ground with this administration . . . and to work on behalf of pregnant women and unborn children," says Deirdre McQuade, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is pressuring the White House to decouple pregnancy prevention from supporting pregnant women. "But issues of pregnancy prevention are much more divisive and would only slow down much-needed assistance to pregnant women."

Supporters of the all-in-one approach, meanwhile, say that decoupling the prevention of unwanted pregnancies from supporting pregnant women poses a bigger threat to common ground because a support-only bill would trigger strong opposition from abortion rights groups, which the White House would be unlikely to defy.

Some abortion rights groups have already come out against the Pregnant Women Support Act, the model for advocates of splitting pregnancy prevention and support for pregnant women into separate bills. "For the pro-choice community, that bill has lots of incendiary language and coercive policy," says Rachel Laser, who directs the culture program at the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way and is pressing the White House to take a comprehensive approach on its reproductive health plan.

Recently introduced by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Tennessee Rep. Lincoln Davis, the Pregnant Women Support Act would increase resources for pregnant women seeking alternatives to abortion and would extend the federal children's health insurance program to "unborn children." Advocates of decoupling support for pregnant women and pregnancy prevention say abortion rights supporters are free to support the Prevention First Act. Introduced in previous congresses, it expands eligibility for the federal family planning program and increases support for comprehensive sex education.

"You can have two different coalitions working on each bill," says Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life, who is in regular contact with the White House. "If you mix them together, you'll have more problems than progress."

But supporters of the all-in-one approach say that passing a support-only plan is unrealistic in Democratic-controlled Washington. "There would be a strong reluctance in the pro-choice community to trust that if Congress moved support-only, that a prevention-only package would also pass," says Laser. "There's also a fear that support-only would be defined as the new common ground. For the pro-choice side, the most important part of common ground is pregnancy prevention."

Laser and some prominent abortion rights supporters are pushing the White House to support the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, which is expected to be reintroduced by Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Tim Ryan in coming weeks. The bill attempts to reduce unintended pregnancies by providing low-income women with better access to contraception and to reduce the need for abortion by giving women who ask for it information about alternatives to abortion, among other things.

For the White House, the decision about which tack to take is largely a question of whom it feels more comfortable alienating: religious groups like the Catholic bishops, which it has been trying hard to win over, or abortion rights groups, a key part of the Democratic base that it doesn't want to lose.

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  • Corrected on 06/30/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.