It’s Time to Find Common Ground on Sex

When President Barack Obama talks about finding common ground on abortion, as he did during his commencement address at Notre Dame over the weekend, he's not really talking about abortion at all. The president is pro-choice, which means that he believes that women should have access to legal abortions and that Roe v. Wade should remain the law of the land. What he's really talking about is sex—specifically, who should have it, under what circumstances, and who should bear responsibility for the (desired or undesired) consequences. Abortions—to state the obvious—result from sex. To reduce the number of women seeking abortion, domestic policy wonks need to find common ground on sex.

Obama, who reminded NEWSWEEK's editor Jon Meacham last week that he is "not naive," knows that this won't be easy, and his Notre Dame speech was full of encrypted language meant to placate and motivate folks on both sides. (I wrote about abortion language in a column in April.) When he said, "Let's reduce unintended pregnancies" he was talking to the left, to the folks who believe that comprehensive sex education is the best way to assure that young girls don't unexpectedly find themselves at the abortion clinic—a potent point in light of new Centers for Disease Control data that show teen pregnancies to be on the rise for the first time in 14 years. He was talking to the folks, in other words, who believe that teenagers are likely to have sex no matter what they hear about love and abstinence and what they need is access to birth control that works.

When he said, "Let's make adoption more available [and] provide care and support to women who do carry their children to term," he was talking to those on the right, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who back a bill in Congress called the Pregnant Women Support Act. These are the folks who believe that no woman should feel too poor or too on the margins to carry a baby to term. These folks also point to the CDC report cited above and to charts therein demonstrating that the number of women who receive no or little prenatal care during pregnancy is on the rise.

What's wrong, the president seemed to be saying, with going at the abortion problem from both sides? Nothing, based on the reaction of students, faculty, and administrators at Notre Dame to the president's speech. Except that, on a practical level, to stop unwanted pregnancies and support women who make the decision to give birth means talking about sex.

Americans, it turns out, are pretty sure how they feel about abortion. Seventy-five percent of them want it to be legal at least some of the time, according to Gallup—but half call themselves "pro-life," and just 40 percent believe it is morally acceptable, also according to Gallup. (American Catholics are no different from other Americans in their view of abortion's moral dimension.) Americans, in other words, already believe what Obama preached at Notre Dame: that abortion is a "heart-wrenching decision for any woman [and is] not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions." So while a number of professional activists in Washington may go to their graves fighting for or against Roe v. Wade—and while the ethical debates and dilemmas that undergird those fights are as important and intractable as any in our time—these are not the people who will ultimately carve out the common ground the president so valiantly seeks.

To reduce the number of women who seek abortions, culture warriors on both sides need to sit down together and talk about the values—Biblical, cultural, and traditional—that have led them to where they are on sex, especially teen sex, premarital sex, and single parenthood. This will be difficult, for in this matter the distance between what we do and what we believe we should do is great. And then each side needs to give a little. Perhaps the left could start by conceding that sex is an activity best enjoyed by mature people in a committed, loving relationship. And then the right might concede that teenagers do have sex even if it's not in their best interests and that a condom, easily obtained, might prevent a lot of heartache down the road.

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