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Barnett: A new generation might narrow the abortion divide

Editorial page editorJanuary 25, 2014 

Last Saturday, 41 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion opponents gathered for their annual march and rally on Raleigh’s Nash Square. There were speeches and applause and finally, in conclusion, the strains of the Battle Hymn of The Republic.

A Civil War anthem seems a fitting theme for an issue that has divided Americans for generations. But this conflict will not end with some kind of courtroom Gettysburg in which one side prevails and the other is exhausted and willing to surrender. In this struggle, each side holds fast to an absolute truth – the sanctity of life beginning at conception and the right of a woman to make her own decisions about her body and her health – and those truths are marching on.

Indeed, all these years later, the struggle is growing more intense. The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that tracks abortion trends, reported this month that 22 states enacted a total of 70 abortion restrictions during 2013. It also noted that 205 abortion restrictions were enacted over the last three years, compared to just 189 enacted during the entire previous decade (2001-2010).

Last week brought new incidents. A judge in Texas forced a Forth Worth hospital to cease keeping alive a brain-dead woman who is 22 weeks pregnant. The hospital had used the extraordinary measures to comply with a Texas law that prohibits the withdrawing of life support from a pregnant patient. The judge said the law did not apply because the patient is legally dead and he granted her family’s request that life support be removed.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, a federal judge struck down a recent law requiring doctors to show women seeking an abortion ultrasound images and describe them in detail. The next conflict will likely come when the state Department of Health and Human Services issues new regulations for abortion clinics as required by legislation passed last year. The regulations, ostensibly being imposed to protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions, could make it too costly for many clinics to operate and narrow access to the procedure.

Anti-abortion groups – and the politicians who cynically ride the issue to win office and then pass laws that make life harder for needy children and mothers – consider the wave of legislation a series of victories. And the limiting of access may be having some effect since the trend is toward fewer abortions, though wider use of better birth control is likely the main factor in the decline.

To significantly reduce the rate of abortion in the Unites States – a reduction that abortion rights advocates would welcome if it were the result of free choice rather than more obstacles – will require something other than a raft of laws that seek to curtail a constitutional right.

A significant reduction in abortion will require changing attitudes and mutual respect. It also will require offering wider access to contraception, broader sex education, more support for pregnant women, mothers and infants and a robust investment in expanding adoption.

There’s little sign that the conservatives pushing through abortion restrictions have a commitment to preventing unwanted pregnancies or serving the mothers who choose to have a child or the children that result. Such conservatives are not seeking to make life better. They are committed to making an already painful choice more difficult.

If there is hope for real progress, it doesn't lie with the old warriors. It rests in a new generation of pro-lifers who have never known a nation without legalized abortion. They were on display last week in the annual March for Life in Washington.

Under the leadership of Jeanne Monahan, the newly installed president of March for Life, the event had less waving of photos of fetuses and more emphasis on respecting life from conception to natural death. Conservative politicians got less play and the demands for sweeping legal changes were muted. The theme was support for an alternative to abortion: “Adoption, a noble choice.”

Monahan, who at 41 is the same age as Roe v. Wade, told CNN, “We're trying to do everything we can to encourage women who are facing an unexpected pregnancy to choose life.” Encouraging that choice will ultimately do more than restricting the right to choose.

Julie Ascik, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-president of Carolina Students For Life, attended the Washington march. She said her generation has experienced abortion as a winnowing of its ranks and young pro-lifers feel obligated to stem the loss. Since 1973, more than 50 million pregnancies have ended in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Ascik said, “A lot of us just feel like we’re missing people who could be our friends, who could be in our lives right now and they aren’t because there lives were not deemed worthy or something,” she said.

But with that sense of loss, is also a celebration of life, she said. “We all feel that new life is full of hope. It’s more of a joyful crusade for us than anything else,” she said.

If the young can convert this long civil war into a joyful crusade for a better life for all, perhaps there is hope yet for a truce and, one day, peace.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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