LOS ANGELES — "We can do better. And help is on the way." When I heard that refrain in Sen. John F. Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, it reminded me of why I am a Democrat at heart. In my lifetime, the Democratic Party has stood consistently on the side of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.
But I have not cast my vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in 12 years because the Democrats have refused to extend their protection to the weakest and most vulnerable - unborn children.
Given the terrible number of abortions that are allowed each year in our country - "1.31 million pregnancies were terminated by abortion in the US" in 2000, the most recent statistics available, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute - we surely can do better.
And Senator Kerry should make just such a proposition part of his campaign. I am not suggesting that he commit himself to overturning Roe v. Wade - although I think it should be overturned. But I am suggesting that he challenge those who are considering abortion to "do better," and that he challenge the United States as a nation to "do better" by them.
Which brings me to Kerry's other rhetorical flourish: "Help is on the way." I am confident that the Democrats could create a policy that the Republican Party, for all of its pro-life rhetoric, has to my knowledge never offered. Kerry could offer a guarantee that any woman with an unwanted pregnancy would be assisted by the federal government, perhaps in league with faith-based initiatives, and that she would be granted the kind of support that would help her consider her options. That means financial aid, adoption counseling and, most important, should she decide to raise her child, continuing material support after the birth.
Kerry, who as a Catholic professes a personal antipathy toward abortion, must understand that this is the right thing to do. After all, the immediate effect of his moral leadership in this matter would save lives, just as surely as young Lieutenant Kerry saved Lt. James Rassman's life on that uncertain day on the Bay Hap River.
But Kerry should also understand that leadership on this issue could go a long way toward sealing a Democratic victory in November. Providing options and support systems that could help limit the number of abortions would appeal to the majority who believe that abortion should be avoided whenever possible. It could galvanize many undecided antiabortion voters who, like me, long to return to the Democratic Party. And in a time of discouraging polarization, such a stand could create common ground that most of us can agree upon: Abortions are a catastrophe in our culture, not just another lifestyle choice.
Mary Jo Bane, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, writes in a recent essay, "We are all losing the opportunity to make important progress in limiting abortions." Kerry could, if he so chooses, live up to his rhetoric and lead our country in doing better.
• Paul J. Contino is a professor in the humanities and teacher education division at Pepperdine University. ©Los Angeles Times.