Pro-Roe prolifers?

William J. Stuntz, whose "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews" essay drew a year-end endorsement from New York Times columnist David Brooks, now lists the issues on which he believes the secular left and the Christian right may cooperate: abortion, poverty at home, poverty abroad and spreading freedom/nation building. His thoughts on spreading freedom and nation building, like Terry's post on Jan. 1, single out Tony Blair as defying Americans' recent categories of polarization:

I haven't noticed any groundswell of opposition from evangelicals to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have noticed that Tony Blair has become a hero among many evangelicals over the past couple of years, because he speaks so eloquently about the hellish suffering that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein inflicted on their peoples, and about the moral obligation of the rich world to do what it can to stop that suffering. Blair is a man of the left. He also appears to be a more-than-nominal Christian. That combination sounds contradictory only because we are too accustomed to the usual political categories. If the categories change, we might see a good many Tony Blairs -- on this side of the Atlantic.

His proposals for fighting poverty at home are attractive . He emphasizes creating more wealth rather than transferring it, and fighting crime by decrease the frequency of punishment for certain crimes:

There is a kind of Laffer curve to criminal punishment -- at some point, more bodies in the state penitentiary mean less deterrence. When a prison sentence is a rare event, it carries great stigma. Make it common, and it becomes a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. That does nothing to lessen the allure of crime and drugs for the young men who still live outside prison walls.

Stuntz admits that abortion is the most difficult topic on which to find common ground, and his proposal would ask the most of prolifers:

Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law's endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement's friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal.

. . . A lot of pro-lifers understand this, and their number is steadily growing. For the near future, the movement is likely to keep doing what works -- finding ways to encourage young women to "choose life." The old Clinton slogan -- safe, legal, and rare -- may actually become a reality. The compromise here is simple: let's agree to leave Roe alone, at least for now, and to fight this cultural battle on a cultural battleground. Not a legal one.

In one sense his proposal is easy: It's not as though Roe will be the subject of a national referendum or even state-by-state debates anytime soon. Most prolifers who looked to Congress to pass a Human Life Amendment probably began realizing by the mid-1980s that they had better become accustomed to disappointment. Further, at Stuntz argues, 30 years of legal abortion has changed the focus of the debate:

Today, abortion is a constitutional right. Back-alley abortions are no longer a story; partial-birth abortions are. And since the pro-life movement stopped focusing all its energies on changing the law, the culture has moved steadily in its direction. Few medical-school students learn how to perform the procedure, not just because they fear protests but because they have qualms about it. So do millions of young women. When I was a college student in the 1970s, abortion was talked about, and often done, casually. I don't think that's true today. But if the Supreme Court overruled Roe and a couple dozen states criminalized early-term abortions, those trends would quickly reverse. Abortion would become not a moral question, but a civil liberties question -- just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea of finding common ground in the abortion debate is not new -- the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice began in 1992. But I find it difficult to imagine that movement will gain critical mass, unless one or another edge of the abortion debate is suddenly willing to sacrifice its core convictions.

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