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Finding Common Ground in Abortion Debate Minefield

Democratic candidates are on solid political ground in opposing criminal penalties for women who have abortions and supporting safe and legal abortion as a general principle, according to numerous opinion polls. But the common ground turns into a minefield for Democrats addressing a range of related issues, such as parental consent, partial birth abortions and the "morning-after pill," according to other recent polls.

Two recent articles help clarify the issues and political ramifications. David D. Kirkpatrick's article in the New York Times, "For Democrats, Rethinking Abortion Runs Risks" provides an overview of the political challenge:

In their search for middle ground on the subject of abortion, Democrats are encountering a mixture of resistance and retreat from abortion rights advocates in their own party. Since its defeats in the November elections, nothing has put the fractured soul of the Democratic Party on display more vividly than abortion. Party leaders, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and the new chairman, Howard Dean, have repeatedly signaled an effort to recalibrate the party's thinking about new restrictions on abortion....But abortion rights advocates warn of a bigger revolt within the party if its members start compromising on new abortion restrictions like parental notification laws or the fetal-pain bill.

"Better Choices," a Boston Globe Editorial, provides a thoughtful exploration of alternative policies that can help find common ground:

Access to reliable birth control is an obvious way to reduce the need for abortion. Birth control has been legal since the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision by the Supreme Court, but religious conservatives have blocked making even condoms available in high schools. ...women who are driven to have abortions -- the majority of whom are young and poor -- would have better options if society provided them with support in raising their children. Instead, states are passing ever more stringent welfare laws that eliminate benefits for pregnant women and for those with ever younger children. Some centers for unwed mothers provided by opponents of abortion do provide prenatal care and parenting classes, but most simply aim to steer women away from abortions. After that, they're on their own. Women who are desperate should not be forced into motherhood, but financial and social support would help make their decisions more of a true choice.

...Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who opposes abortion, has filed the ''Prevention First Act," which would require insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives, give emergency contraception to rape victims, and fund comprehensive sex education, including discussion of birth control, in public schools.

Majorities of Americans still support keeping abortion legal in at least some circumstances. But everyone should be able to agree on ways to make abortions less frequent or necessary. Reid's legislation would be a good test of the sincerity of all those calling for common ground.

The stakes are high for Democrats, including future support of Catholics and feminists, and balancing the concerns of all Democratic constituencies will not be easy. But an earnest search for common ground can help create a stronger Democratic consensus