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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | White House Begins Discussions on Strategies To Prevent Unintended Pregnancy

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | White House Begins Discussions on Strategies To Prevent Unintended Pregnancy
[May 7, 2009]

The White House has begun hosting discussions to craft its "common ground" policy for preventing unintended pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion, the Wall Street Journal reports. Although the initial meetings -- which include participants from both sides of the issue -- indicate some areas for compromise, "plenty of disagreements remain," and the Obama administration is expected to face challenges in forming policies that appease both sides, the Journal reports. For example, abortion-rights opponents tend to focus on initiatives that encourage pregnant women to carry their pregnancies to term, such as so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" that discourage abortion. Abortion-rights supporters, meanwhile, have focused on preventing unintended pregnancy through initiatives like more support for contraception.

The White House meetings, which began about one month ago, each include about one to two dozen people and are expected to continue for another six to eight weeks, according to the Journal. Melody Barnes, President Obama's domestic policy adviser who is leading the initiative, said the White House is interested in hearing ideas on several areas, including sex education; pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere; responsible use of contraception; adoption; and maternal and child health care. The Journal reports that the White House decided before the meetings began that the agenda would not include discussions about whether abortion should be legal.

According to the Journal, participants in the meetings so far have suggested policies including improving education about contraception; better sex and relationship education; greater access to emergency contraception; better family-leave policies; encouraging adoption; and ending employment discrimination against pregnant women. The Journal reports that one suggestion was to establish a "concrete goal" to reduce abortion, such as a 25% reduction in the number of abortions over four years. The number of abortions in the U.S. peaked at 1.6 million in 1990, declining annually since then and reaching 1.2 million in 2005, the last year for which data are available. Barnes said that the White House hopes to have a proposal in place by the end of the summer but does not intend to seek official endorsements from any of the meetings' participants.

Barnes said that although not every issue discussed will lead to an agreement, the administration believes that "there is enough common ground and potential for common ground here that people can help us to move forward." Participants in the meetings have expressed support for Obama's efforts to bring both sides to the table, the Journal reports. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a participant in the meetings, said, "If you hear all points of view it makes for better policy." David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and an abortion-rights opponent who is involved in the talks, said, "When people get into a room working on a common problem, it's harder to demonize them when they leave the room."

Some advocates on both sides of the issue remain somewhat skeptical that the meetings will help ease tension surrounding the abortion debate, the Journal reports. National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, who is involved in the meetings, said that there will "still be women who need abortion and still groups trying very hard to prevent access to that right." She added that she supports Obama's efforts to reach out to abortion-rights opponents, as long as his policies remain consistent with the abortion-rights agenda. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life, said that he was not invited to participate in the discussions and that Obama's funding policies and other matters will lead to an increase in abortions.

The Journal reports that the meetings demonstrate Obama's effort to "make good" on his campaign pledge to "defuse tensions around polarizing issues." While Obama has been clear on his support for abortion rights, he also has stressed a desire to find ways to reconcile both sides of contentious issues. According to the Journal, the meetings could benefit Obama's other political interests by showing a "genuine interest in finding common ground," which could in turn "persuade some to judge him on other policies where they may agree with him, such as economics" (Meckler, Wall Street Journal, 5/7).