How abortion bans might help the debate

They could force the majority of people on both sides to find common ground.

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The South Dakota legislature, in an effort to ban abortion, could force the US Supreme Court to enshrine Roe v. Wade as the law of the land for all time. If this happens, such a decision would soon become the poster child for unintended consequences.

The South Dakota law may very well require the Supreme Court to show that stare decisis (precedent) is more than just a rhetorical strategy used by conservative justices to win Senate approval. But since Roe v. Wade is, and has been, the law of the land for 33 years, I'm more interested in another unintended consequence of the South Dakota law: that it may force the majority of the good people on both sides of the ugly abortion debate to find common ground.

The stage is already being set. Afraid of a backlash that would galvanize the pro-choice movement, many prominent antiabortion leaders are advising legislators in Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee not to pass bans under consideration similar to South Dakota's. Instead they are urging smaller steps such as requiring doctors to show women their fetal ultrasounds and to mandate counseling for women who opt for abortions. Which brings us to common ground.

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Pro-choice groups should endorse these kinds of requirements. Pro-choice organizations should make it clear that every abortion ends a life, albeit a potential one. They should stop euphemizing and start making it clear that they really understand how emotionally wrenching an abortion can be.

I say this as someone who (a) went through an abortion with a girlfriend in college (b) spent three years working in an abortion clinic counseling men and (c) has been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the ACLU.

The abortion debate, like every debate in America, is all about the fringes. Most people who are antiabortion are not extremists. Most readily make exceptions for rape and incest (while the South Dakota law doesn't). They just honestly believe that an abortion takes a life. And most pro-choice advocates do not take abortion lightly. They understand the gravity of the act. They just believe that the mother has rights that trump the rights of the unborn.

I learned about the middle when I counseled men accompanying their girlfriends, wives, daughters, and friends to their abortion procedures. I learned to stop emphasizing the medical procedure and just listen. What I heard from many of them was that they were grieving. Some called it a death. Some called it a loss. Only a tiny percentage treated it like a medical procedure.

Many of the women who worked at the clinic were mothers. They knew exactly what their patients were giving up. And for the most part, they said so. They weren't afraid to speak the language of loss. They acknowledged the pain. They worked to make sure no woman took it lightly and that none would ever have to return.

My work at the clinic also brought me into contact with antiabortion protestors. And while they didn't exactly represent the middle ground, they persuaded me to understand that every abortion is a loss, not a medical procedure.

If Roe v. Wade becomes truly settled law, then there's nothing to stop people of goodwill on both sides from stepping toward the middle. Without the fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, pro-choice advocates can give more ground in the emotional discussion about abortion. And without the hope of overturning Roe, antiabortion groups will eventually allow their less extreme members to have a stronger voice.

Jim Sollisch is creative director for an advertising agency.

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