Ceasefire in the Culture War Over Abortion

How does a democratic, pro-choice president avoid engaging in a culture war? This is the question that faces Barack Obama as he begins to shape his domestic policy. His presidency is not yet 100 days old, and already Obama has been excoriated by gays (for inviting Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration); by conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals (for his position on stem cells); and by secularists (for the wide-ranging mandate of his faith-based office).

White House officials say the president is as determined as ever to encourage the old warriors on all sides to lay down their swords. Forging common ground on reducing abortion and teen pregnancy and supporting maternal and child health is a top priority, says Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic-policy chief. This is why the president revoked the Mexico City rule—which prevented organizations that receive federal funds from providing abortions and abortion counseling abroad—on a Friday at 7 p.m., after most reporters had gone home for the weekend and not, as his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton did, in broad daylight on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. ("He's really smart," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "He didn't go out of his way to poke pro-lifers in the eye.") Conciliation is also the rationale behind the diverse list of religious leaders appointed to the president's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—a list of 15 that includes the progressive Rabbi David Saperstein and the conservative former president of the SBC, Frank Page. (More will be announced soon.)

Since at least 2006, Obama has been talking about "abortion reduction," a holistic approach to pregnancy and parenthood that includes not just legal abortion, but also sex education; access to birth control; good prenatal care and postnatal support; and adoption services. The goal of reducing abortions is, in principle, embraced by many on both sides and is one of the four stated policy goals of the faith-based office. Together with the White House Council on Women and Girls, the office will form a committee to come up with an abortion-reduction initiative, Barnes says. The group will meet for the first time this month and Page—who calls himself "a pro-life person, unashamedly"—has been asked to join.

On the right, the old guard remains mostly unimpressed. Obama may say he is open to conservative points of view, they argue, but the domestic policies he's enacted so far reflect a clear liberal agenda. He rescinded the Mexico City policy nicely—still, he rescinded it. He reversed President George W. Bush on stem cells. He initiated a revocation of the "conscience clause," the broad language Bush instated late in his second term that allows health-care workers to refuse to provide services, including abortions and birth-control prescriptions, because of a moral objection. His Health and Human Services pick, Kathleen Sebelius, is a pro-choice Catholic who has been reprimanded by her bishop. Obama "campaigned as a center-left person domestically, but he's governing hard left," says Land.

On the left, old-style women's groups remain wary of a conciliatory approach. "I tried a common-ground thing in 1979," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. It fell apart, she says, over the right's insistence on limiting access to birth control.

Opposition is to be expected—especially from the right and from groups at both extremes. "There's a culture-war industry on both sides," says Joshua DuBois, director of the faith-based office. "What's helpful to the president and to us is a lot of people are weary of that. People are looking for ways out." But some centrists who initially supported Obama are beginning to express anxiety that his outreach to them may have been a vote-getting ploy. David Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics at McAfee School of Theology. In March, he was tapped by the left-leaning group Faith in Public Life to lend his name to a letter in support of Sebelius. The letter praised the governor's achievements in the area of abortion reduction in Kansas despite her pro-choice voting record. Weeks later, Gushee wrote an op-ed in USA Today retracting his signature and calling on Obama to put some substance behind his rhetoric by moving quickly on his abortion-reduction promises. "My article was not 'I've given up on you,' it was 'Please do this.' You're at risk of losing the hope and confidence of those who are waiting for this."

The White House says it is just getting started, and Rachel Laser, who works for the centrist group Third Way and is an advocate for abortion reduction, agrees. She is in regular touch with DuBois and believes a substantive initiative will come. "There's a gravity in this town that pulls people to extremes when they're governing," she says. "Given that gravity, we have to be patient. No one can work miracles." As the hopeful wait, you can almost hear the warriors sharpening their knives.