Obama to End Ban on Abortion Funding. What Next?

Women may have easier access and more coverage for abortions, pleasing some, angering others.


Reproductive-rights activists gathered yesterday to blow out 36 candles on Roe v. Wade's birthday cake, feeling particularly giddy over the new president's staunch support of abortion rights. Indeed, Obama yesterday affirmed his belief in a woman's "right to choose," saying the government shouldn't intrude on "our most private family matters." And today he plans to overturn the global gag rule, which restricted U.S. funding for foreign health clinics that provided abortions or referrals for abortions.

While that's music to the ears of the pro-choice community—Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, et al.—abortion opponents would like this to be the last birthday celebration for Roe. Yesterday they had a "march for life" rally on the National Mall attended by thousands. They're worried that abortions will increase under Obama if, say, Medicaid begins granting coverage for them or U.S. military hospitals start providing them.

What's fascinating to me, though, is how the rhetoric is changing among pro-choice activists who are looking to find common ground with their opponents now that they no longer have to push back against President Bush. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, has been emphasizing the need to increase the availability of birth control and reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. The Center for Reproductive Rights has been urging Obama to stop government funding for abstinence-only education but hasn't lobbied for the more controversial Freedom of Choice Act, which would make abortion a fundamental right for all women.

Indeed, Obama himself appears to be treading warily, choosing not to repeal the global gag rule on Roe's anniversary as everyone was expecting. His statement yesterday struck a conciliatory tone. He spoke of reducing the need for abortion and unintended pregnancies, saying, "To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services."

In an online forum yesterday sponsored by RH Reality Check, reproductive-rights activists were struggling to come up with an appropriate message to advance their goals, wanting to appeal to Americans at large. They don't want to be known as "pro-abortion" and would like to be inclusive to those who feel morally conflicted about abortion but want to keep abortion legal. Sarah Stoesz, an activist who fought for the recent defeat of the abortion ban on the South Dakota ballot, admitted that "our refusal to acknowledge genuine moral ambiguity is not helpful and does not move the conversation forward."

I wanted to know, though, how much compromise they were willing to make for the sake of unity. For instance, most Americans favor some restrictions on abortions—parental notification, for example. And many don't want any of their tax dollars going for the funding of abortions, which would occur if the Freedom of Choice Act passed. From the discussion, I got the sense that while reproductive-rights activists strongly support FOCA—which Obama said he would sign if it passed Congress—they understood that it probably shouldn't be a top priority because it's too divisive. Oh, and I was corrected on my use of the word funding when it comes to abortions. The activists prefer to use the term coverage as if to describe any medical procedure that's covered by insurance. Trouble is, abortions are still largely viewed in a category all their own.

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