By staking out a position on abortion rights last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton did exactly what must be done in these polarized times. She sought common ground with the "enemy."
Realizing that those who support the right to obtain abortions and those who want a ban on abortions have one thing in common -- reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country -- Clinton challenged both sides "to improve the quality of health care for women and families, to reduce the number of abortions and to build a healthier, brighter, more hopeful future for women and girls in our country and around the world."
Abortion, said Clinton, "in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." By steering a careful course, she shows a thoughtful face of the pro-choice movement. New York has the highest abortion rate in the nation, a fact that is not only troubling to anti-abortion folks.
Clinton is not the only pro-choice leader with a nuanced position, but groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League have found it difficult to convey the diversity of the pro-choice movement.
"We have had a much more broad view of reproductive health and rights," says Kelli Condon, NARAL's New York executive director, "but much of the American public sees us as merely advocating abortion rights."
Legislatively, whether the issue is abortion, Social Security reform, the makeup of the judiciary or the war in Iraq, little will be accomplished in Washington so long as hard-liners remain unyielding. Reasonable people can disagree, but calling an opponent's religious faith into question because he supports abortion rights is uncivil -- and un-American.
Clinton doesn't shy away from acknowledging honest, faith-based differences of opinion. As she told a family planning conference in Albany last week: "I, for one, respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available. But that does not represent even the majority opinion within the anti-abortion community."
A CBS News/New York Times poll last month showed that a significant majority of people favored abortion rights, though more Republicans than Democrats wanted to see greater restrictions on availability.
America is neither a theocracy nor a one-note democracy; a choice of political leaders should not be based on a single issue that voters do not have at the top of their lists of priorities. But even if abortion is a litmus test, those who want to eliminate abortions must support alternatives that are more realistic than abstinence for all.
"Just say no" will never work. What's needed are more resources for family planning and sex education. And, yes, we need so-called emergency contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill, a matter now before the New York State Legislature. After Washington state made emergency contraceptives more readily available, unwanted pregnancies dropped precipitously.
When one reaches out one's hand in good faith, one hopes to connect with a hand reaching back. Clinton is doing that, and setting an example for how we proceed in the next four Bush years on any number of difficult issues.
X E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.