Why an Abortion Compromise Is a Waste of Time

Sen. Bob Casey has been showing his "abortion compromise" language around Washington today. The idea is that a compromise could win over Sen. Ben Nelson, who has threatened to filibuster if the Senate does not add Stupak language to its version of the health-care-reform bill. We have not seen the Casey compromise, but we do know this: Nelson isn't buying it. And neither are other opponents of abortion rights. Doug Johnson, a longtime lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, told Politico today: "This is an exercise in cosmetics—putting lipstick on a legislative warthog."

This should not be a surprise. If you examine the recent history of abortion compromises in Congress, you find a consistent failure to convince senators that abortion is an issue with room for compromise. Likewise, an attempt to win over Nelson with an abortion compromise is all but guaranteed to fail.

This year, Congress considered three "compromise" bills dealing with abortion issues: Casey's Pregnant Women Support Act, the Prevention First Act and the Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act. They had an awful lot in common: all aimed to reduce the number of abortions in the United States. Their sponsors often talked about things like "common ground" and "compromise." All three of these bills had been introduced repeatedly in previous sessions of Congress. And none has ever come out of committee.

Why couldn't any of these abortion compromises, all of which have a worthwhile goal, gain any traction? Back in April, NEWSWEEK columnist Lisa Miller wrote an excellent column summarizing the situation:

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.

We've watched the same thing happen year after year with attempted abortion compromises: pro-life and pro-choice groups say common ground is indeed a worthwhile goal but cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. For example, if we agree that we should reduce the number of abortions, do we reduce the for abortions (offering women greater education and access to preventive measures), or do we reduce to abortion (lowering numbers by making the service less available)? Both could lower the abortion rate, but in markedly different ways. Even if we decide to focus on reducing the need for abortion, should that be accomplished through education about contraceptives or about abstinence only? Common ground, it turns out, is riddled with fault lines. So each side pursues her own bill and neither gains enough support.

This is not at all to say an abortion compromise would be a bad thing. Personally, I would love to see legislators standing in support of a compromise bill and applaud those who take the risk of doing so. There definitely are certain issues, like increasing support for low-income women and making adoption easier, where I don't understand why it's so challenging to create a policy with widespread appeal. Most Americans support this kind of approach: 72 percent favor reducing the number of abortions, according to a 2007 Third Way poll.

But politically, it just never pans out. Abortion is such a hot-button issue that legislators are too cautious to back these bills, nervous that they might inadvertently support their opposition. As Kristen Day, director of Democrats for Life, told me for a story I wrote earlier this year on abortion reduction, ""I think the biggest obstacle [for abortion-reduction legislation] is that people look at it and they're going, 'Okay, what's the angle here? What are you pushing?'"

Nelson may vote for the health-care bill; he may not. He might be won on cost containment, affordability, or some other issue. But an abortion compromise will not be the deciding factor. So Senate Democrats would be wise to move their wooing to other issues.