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Life Lesson

Hillary Rodham Clinton is absolutely right. I've waited many years to write that sentence, but, hey, if you live long enough. ... I'm referring to her superb speech earlier this week on the politics and morality of abortion. There were two very simple premises to Clinton's argument: a) the right to legal abortion should remain, and b) abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy. It seems to me that if we are to reduce abortions to an absolute minimum (and who, exactly, opposes that objective?), then Clinton's formula is the most practical. Her key sentences: "We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women. ... The fact is that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

Echoing her husband's inspired notion that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare," the senator from New York seemed to give new emphasis to that last word: "rare." Hers is, in that respect, a broadly pro-life position. Not in an absolutist, logically impeccable fashion—which would require abolishing all forms of legal abortion immediately—but in a pragmatic, moral sense. In a free society, the ability of a woman to control what happens to her own body will always and should always be weighed in the balance against the right of an unborn child to life itself. And, if she and the Democrats can move the debate away from the question of abortion's legality toward abortion's immorality, then they stand a chance of winning that debate in the coming years.

For too long, supporters of abortion rights have foolishly and callously trivialized the moral dimensions of the act of ending human life in the womb. They have insisted that no profound moral cost is involved. They remain seemingly impassive in the face of the horrors of partial-birth abortion. They talk in the abstract language of "reproductive rights" and of a "war against women." To acknowledge that human life is valuable from conception to death has been, at times, beyond their capacity. They have seemed blind to the fact that, as Naomi Wolf once alluded in this magazine, mothers and children have souls and that, in every abortion, one soul is destroyed and another wounded. And they seem far too dismissive of the fact that the concerns of many pro-life Americans are not rooted in intolerance but in the oldest liberal traditions of the protection of the weak.

All this has undermined the pro-choice movement. Its members seem godless in a faithful culture. They have come to seem indifferent to pain, almost glib in the face of human tragedy. Of course, this may not be true in the hearts and minds of many pro-choice activists. But, in the arena of public debate, it is the cold corner into which their rhetoric has condemned them.

How to change? Clinton's approach is the right one. Acknowledge up front the pain of abortion and its moral gravity. Defend its legality only as a terrible compromise necessary for the reduction of abortions in general, for the rights of women to control their own wombs, and for the avoidance of unsafe, amateur abortions. And then move to arenas where liberals need have no qualms: aggressive use of contraception and family planning, expansion and encouragement of adoption, and a rhetorical embrace of the "culture of life." One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record and rhetoric: a relentless defense of abortion rights—even for third-trimester unborn children—with no emphasis on the moral costs of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

Clinton did one other thing as well. She paid respect to her opponents. She acknowledged the genuine religious convictions of those who oppose all abortion. She recognized how communities of faith have often been the most successful in persuading young women to refrain from teenage sex. She challenged her pro-choice audience by pointing out that "seven percent of American women who do not use contraception account for 53 percent of all unintended pregnancies." She also cited research estimating that 15,000 abortions per year are by women who have been sexually assaulted—one of several reasons, she said, that morning-after emergency contraception should be made available over the counter. By focusing on contraception, she appeals to all those who oppose abortion but who do not follow the abstinence-only movement's rigid restrictions on the surest way to prevent them.

But even this is not enough for the Democrats to move the issue out of its current impasse. The party needs to end its near fatwa on pro-life politicians and spokespeople. Harry Reid and Tim Roemer are a start. The Democrats should learn from President Bush's canny use of the issue. He is firmly pro-life. And yet he gave several pro-choice politicians key slots at the Republican convention. The new number-two at the Republican National Committee, Jo Ann Davidson, is pro-choice. When the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats, something has gone awry. One obvious option: Find every way to back Pennsylvania's Robert Casey Jr. in his campaign to wrest a Senate seat from the most extreme and intolerant pro-life absolutist, Rick Santorum. Or take a leaf from Tony Blair's book. In his cabinet, the 36-year-old Education secretary, Ruth Kelly, is adamantly pro-life as a matter of conscience and is even a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei. Her personal views on this do not impact her political position—or Blair's own support for abortion rights. But her inclusion in the Labour Party shows a recognition that, on such profound moral issues, party lines are inappropriate—and often self-defeating.

In some ways, this does not mean a change of principle. Democrats can still be, and almost certainly should be, for the right to legal abortion. But, instead of beginning their conversation with that right, they should start by acknowledging a wrong. Abortion is always wrong. How can we keep it legal while doing all we can to reduce its damage? Call it a pro-life pro-choice position. And argue for it with moral passion. If you want to win a "values" debate, it helps to advance what Democrats value. And one of those obvious values is the fewer abortions the better. Beyond the polarizing rhetoric, a simple message: saving one precious life at a time.

Peter Beinart is off this week.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.