The Monitor's View

Obama's anger management on abortion

His task force to reduce the number of abortions could alter American politics.

By

As if Barack Obama didn't already have enough on his plate, he is now attempting to do the impossible in American politics.

He has formed a White House task force of advocates on both sides of the abortion divide and asked them to agree on ways that government can help reduce the number of abortions.

The group's proposals are due this fall, possibly coinciding with the Senate's vote on Mr. Obama's nominee for a new Supreme Court justice. Congress is also weighing a bill aimed at making it easier for a pregnant woman to choose to go to term and to put her baby up for adoption.

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Even if the task force's efforts fall short, the president has done a service by trying to alter the angry tone of a debate that still polarizes Americans some 35 years after the high court defined a right to abortion.

His timing is good. A new Gallup poll shows a slight majority of Americans now identify their political stance on abortion as "pro-life." This shift may be due in part to advances in medical science that have enabled premature babies to be kept alive at earlier and earlier stages. (The point of prenatal "viability" was a big factor in the court's Roe v. Wade decision outlining when government can regulate abortion.)

While some experts dispute the Gallup poll's results, Obama nonetheless has picked up on the uneasy feeling that many Americans still have toward abortion, even if they agree with its legality.

Abortion, says Obama, is not just about a woman's freedom to choose. It is also a moral and ethical issue that affects women, their families, and society. (He didn't mention the effect of abortion on the foetus.) He has also called for a "conscience clause" in contracts for healthcare workers who don't want to participate in abortions; such a step would also need to protect the abortion right.

In a speech this week at the University of Notre Dame, Obama said the key role for government on this issue is to help women avoid an unwanted pregnancy. For both sides to find common ground on even that aim would not mean they must give up their positions on abortion's legality. In fact, the president said, the opposing views on defining the point at which human life begins are "irreconcilable" (and, as he put it last year, that issue is "above my pay grade").

The president offered an alternative way to deal with the abortion issue in his Notre Dame talk:

"When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe, that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. That's when we begin to say, 'Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions.'"

It may be overly ambitious to assume government can greatly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and then also help the remainder of those women put their child up for adoption.

But if anyone has the skills for reconciliation and the passion of hope to do so, it is this president.

Obama just might do the impossible for American politics.

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