In calling last month for “common ground” on abortion, President Obama launched his search for an unlikely political sweet spot -- a popular stance on an issue that has long been dominated by extremes.
But the slaying Sunday of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller has raised the level of mistrust between the very factions that the White House has been trying to bring together.
The administration had already been struggling to soothe simmering tensions. Two days before Obama delivered his call for common ground at Notre Dame, the White House hosted a meeting of activists on both sides, and a subtle but telling disagreement over semantics arose between an Obama aide and a leading abortion foe. Now some activists say they have yet to see room for compromise.
Tiller’s death is a “massive setback” in the search for common ground, said Cristina Page, a New York City author and abortion rights advocate. “It’s sort of like having a family member murdered and then being asked to make nice with the assassin’s family. It’s unnatural.”
Page, who attended the White House meeting, added: “If there’s common ground here, it’s that it is in the [antiabortion community’s] best interest to not attract homicidal idiots who want to use their cause to justify these acts.”
For the many antiabortion groups that rushed to condemn Tiller’s killing, such language was frustrating but not unexpected.
“There is no question that some in the pro-abortion movement will attempt to paint all pro-lifers with this bloody brush,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The murder of the doctor is not a question of pro-choice versus pro-life. This is a question of civilization versus barbarism.”
Already, those who oppose abortion say that Obama’s rhetoric on compromise has been undercut by his actions, including the appointments of high-profile abortion supporters and moves that include restoring U.S. funds for foreign groups that do abortions.
“It is very hard to find common ground when none of your policies overlap with the people you are trying to find common ground with,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports female candidates who oppose abortion.
Still, last month’s meeting was one of several conversations being hosted by Obama aides, who plan to continue the sessions and draft policy proposals in coming months.
The White House effort is politically sensitive but potentially beneficial. Abortion rights groups helped elect Obama as an advocate. But even if he fails to forge policy changes -- and merely appears to be trying -- the effort could help undercut conservative groups that have long used abortion as a rallying cry against Democratic candidates.
On the day Obama was elected, Land, who opposes abortion, wrote an open letter asking him to back the Pregnant Women Support Act, which sponsors say would reduce abortions by offering economic assistance to pregnant women and mothers. Abortion rights supporters introduced a Prevention First Act, which would increase contraception funding and education to prevent unintended pregnancies.
Land said he feared the discussion could be moving down a path toward a dead end.
“We are not going to support the providing of contraception to minors at government expense,” he said. “That’s an absolute nonstarter for us.”
The disagreement on semantics occurred at the White House before Obama’s May 17 speech at Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic university. Wendy Wright, president of the antiabortion group Concerned Women for America, said she was told that the president was not aiming to reduce abortions, which she wrote “made the room go silent.”
The meeting, she recounted in Human Events magazine, was led by Melody Barnes, head of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council and a former board member of Emily’s List, which supports women candidates who favor legal abortion. According to Wright, Barnes told her that the administration’s goal was to reduce the need for abortions, not the number of abortions.
The difference seemed abstruse to some. “I don’t get what the disagreement is about,” said Nathan J. Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and a participant in the White House discussions. “If anything, they were probably talking past each other rather than having an argument.”
But for others, the distinction is freighted with meaning.
“Abortion advocates object to the phrase ‘reducing abortions,’ ” Wright wrote in an account of the meeting. “It connotes that there is something bad or immoral about abortion.”
That’s absolutely correct, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “I think it’s stigmatizing,” she said. “The issue should be reducing the number of unintended pregnancies.”
Cristina Page was at the May 15 meeting, and said that Wright seemed to purposely pick a fight over words. “We’ve gotten dragged very quickly, by Wendy, back to the same debate that we’ve all suffered through for 36 years,” Page said.
Wright did not respond to several interview requests.
White House officials declined to address the issue raised by Wright. But Barnes said in an interview last month: “Our goal is to reduce the need for abortions. . . . If people have better access to contraception, that’s a way of addressing the issue at its root, rather than do a tally of abortions.”
Joel C. Hunter, an abortion opponent and evangelical pastor who is a member of a presidential advisory panel on faith-based issues DEAD LINK, was hopeful that the group could move beyond rhetorical roadblocks.
“We need to get into the problem-solving realm,” he said, “and away from the ideological debates.”
Another member, Frank Page, an abortion foe and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that he had complained to Obama staffers about their lack of willingness to compromise on policy. “He did give a whole speech about it, but you tell me if any substance on common ground was identified,” he said. “Because I didn’t hear it.”
The White House has tried to send some signals -- however subtle -- that the president is not always going to follow the desires of the abortion rights movement. At Notre Dame, Obama called for a “sensible conscience clause” to protect medical workers who oppose abortion and contraception.
Frank Page said he was encouraged by Obama’s stance on the conscience clause and his willingness to maintain certain limits on embryonic stem cell research.
But beyond those moves, Page said, “There’s not been much to give great joy to the pro-life community.”
Kate Linthicum and Christi Parsons contributed to this report.