It's time for a new kind of conversation about abortion

COMPASS: Other points of view

February 1, 2009 

We stand at an extraordinary historical moment for our nation: For the first time, we have elected an African-American president in an election that inspired young and old, people of all races and faiths, men and women, rich and poor.

Many were moved by candidate Barack Obama's call for a new conversation about race, a renewed commitment to our democracy and an agenda that aspires to reach a greater good for all.

Today we focus on the piece of that agenda that holds great promise for reproductive rights.

In the wake of President Obama's inauguration, it is tempting to use the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade to recite a litany of policies we want our new administration to enact: rescinding the global gag rule; restoring affordable birth control at college health centers; reversing the Bush administration's midnight rule that allows health care providers to refuse basic reproductive health services.

While these policy changes are important, they will remain vulnerable to the ebb and flow of politics if we do not also do our part to change the public conversation about abortion.

At a national level, and here in Alaska, we have great opportunity to change the conversation. Alaska was the second of four states to legalize abortion prior to the Roe decision. The state engaged in meaningful and broad-based dialog about why it was important to afford women the right to make this choice.

The 30 years since have brought yearly legislative attacks on reproductive freedom and decreased family planning funds.

What has been the effect on sexual health in Alaska?

We have some of the highest chlamydia rates in the nation. Teen birth rates increased in 2006, after a steady decline. Abortion rates have held steady. Many women across the state lack access to family planning services.

We know that women have abortions for many reasons. Even if we disagree on abortion, we should agree that providing reproductive health care and prevention education to all Alaskans is a priority.

While all can engage in the conversation about abortion, reproductive health decisions are so important, so intimate, they must rest with the individual woman, and if she needs to do so, in consultation with her family, medical provider or spiritual adviser.

As our nation renews its commitment to building a better future, we each must be free to make profoundly personal decisions about our reproductive lives. As with all freedoms, there are limits. But a government that respects the personal integrity and dignity of its people interferes in private lives as little as possible and helps ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make these decisions responsibly.

We can continue with the politics of abortion we have known for a generation, one that has exploited Alaskans' ambivalences and fear for political gain.

Or we can begin a new conversation, one that recognizes that both the decision to have a child and the decision to have an abortion come from a place of profound respect for the value of life and a strong commitment to ensuring a better life for all.


Geran Tarr is director of the Alliance for Reproductive Justice. Jeffrey Mittman is executive director, ACLU of Alaska.

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