Miller: The Battle Over Abortion Language

Advice to would-be culture warriors in the 21st century: walk softly and carry a big thesaurus. According to the conventional wisdom, the culture wars are over in Washington—or, at the very least, reduced to sideline skirmishes. Buoyed by the support of centrist, socially conservative Christians, the Obama administration has ushered in a new era of conciliation. Ideological opponents—especially those on either side of the abortion issue—are now trying to establish common ground. This is one of the priorities of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (I wrote a story about this a month ago.) A first order of business is "abortion reduction," a seemingly noncontroversial and laudable goal. By agreeing that abortion is a complex moral issue and that it should be less frequent, former enemies can work together to find ways to reduce abortions.

Beneath all the optimism though, tensions continue to simmer, and it can seem that differences between the old culture wars and the new ones are merely differences in tone and tactics, not in ideology. In previous eras, warriors fought with rhetorical bludgeons; now they use newfangled semantic weapons so sharp they could split a hair. On both sides, people say they want abortion reduction. But listen carefully to how they say it. On the left, the so-called common ground advocates talk about reducing the need for abortion. With this language, they are saying—in code—that Roe must continue to stand. (When one abortion-reduction bill was introduced in the last session of Congress, women's groups prevailed at the very last minute to change its name from the Reducing Abortion and Supporting Parents Act to the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. "This step proved necessary in order to find common ground among many in the pro-choice and pro-life communities," says Rachel Laser, culture director of Third Way, which helped write the bill.) On the right, folks talk about reducing the number of abortions, signaling a belief that fighting Roe must remain a priority. ("Reducing the number would involve some legal issues," says Frank Page, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention. "People on the left would be violently opposed to anything that would restrict a woman's right to an abortion.") The way you talk about your desire for common ground, it turns out, signals whose side you're actually on. The left wants to reduce demand for abortion; the right wants to reduce supply.

Inside the Beltway, these seemingly invisible semantic differences have big policy implications, for the inevitable question arises: how do folks intend to reduce abortions? Two bills currently in Congress point to the deep, ideological differences that continue to linger. The Pregnant Women Support Act, favored mostly by pro-life groups, provides financial support especially for poor and younger mothers who want to carry their pregnancies to term. The Prevention First Act, favored mostly by pro-choice groups, funds contraception and comprehensive sex education especially to poor and younger women. The conversation about "abortion reduction" then, is not really about abortion but about other hot-button issues: birth control, premarital sex, teen sex and sex education.

Outside the Beltway, who really cares? According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from August 2008, 54 percent of Americans support legal abortion in all or most cases—exactly the same percentage as a decade ago. It's hard to imagine anyone arguing with the basic premise: in an ideal world, fewer American women would seek abortions. How our government achieves that end matters a great deal; how activists talk about achieving it—in terms of need or numbers—matters not at all. In the words of David Kuo, a veteran of George W. Bush's faith-based office: "This stuff doesn't permeate the heartland—nobody gives a s––t."