Let's reduce abortion through prevention

BOSTON – Let me begin by sharing one of the deep dark secrets of columnists everywhere. Much as we like the powers-that-be to do what we tell them, we vastly prefer that they don't do it until we tell them.

Most of us live with an embarrassing little fear of what will happen between the time we have finished a column and the time you will read it. Heaven forbid that some institution comes to its senses before we have published our screed against its nonsenses!

Such was my frame of mind when I chastised the FDA for delaying approval of putting Plan B, the after-the-act contraceptive, on the drugstore shelf.

Emergency contraception is the no-brainer in the abortion controversy. If taken soon enough, it can prevent 80 percent of unwanted pregnancies. Anyone, everyone, looking to reduce the number of abortions should agree on reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies.

What was the shelf life of such a column? I was sure the FDA folks would hit themselves upside the head before I hit them over the head.

That, dear reader, was about eight weeks ago. The newspapers in which it ran are being recycled into cardboard boxes. There is still no peep from the FDA. Still no Plan B on the drug store shelf. Still no Plan C, if C stands for the ever-elusive Common Ground.

So once more into the breach. It's no secret that there's a solid anti-abortion majority in the Congress. We have an opponent in the White House. We even have a new senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, who believes in the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions.

Ever since the pundits mislabeled the election as an election on values, they've been telling abortion-rights advocates to move toward a middle ground. But how far does the anti-abortion movement have to go before we notice that they've fled that territory for the furthest edge of the public domain?

While Plan B has languished, the opponents have pushed their own plans. In Kansas, an ambitious attorney general, Phill Kline, wants to rifle through the names, sexual histories and medical records of 90 women who had late-term abortions. He justifies this on the flimsy grounds that he's just looking for the victims of child rape.

In Wisconsin we see the case of the pharmacist who refused to give a young woman the birth control pills prescribed by her doctor. The licensing board will have to choose between his conscience and her contraceptives.

In South Dakota the Legislature became the most recent body to enact a "trigger law' saying that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the only legal abortion would be to save the life of a pregnant woman. No exceptions for rape or incest or even if the fetus has died in the uterus.

As for Washington, Congress happily enacted a bankruptcy bill limiting the ability of an average citizen to get a fresh start. But it allowed criminals to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying a fine for violence against abortion clinics.

Do people tag the pro-life movement as extremist only when someone kills a doctor? Or have their leaders fallen in love with their own press clippings and begun to overreach?

In column A on Plan B, I reminded the FDA that the place where those who want abortion to be "safe, legal and rare' meet those who want to end abortion is and ought to be birth control.

While I've been in the waiting room, a new report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute says that public-financed family planning has gone down in 27 states, forcing clinics to turn away four out of 10 women who need subsidized contraception. The Bush budget has proposed cutting Medicaid spending further, while Congress is fixated on making it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion.

Which is the better way to reduce abortions? By prosecution or prevention? After years of playing defense, NARAL Pro-Choice America has gone on the offense. In a recent ad, they challenged opponents to join them in decreasing abortions by increasing access to birth control.

At the same time, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, an abortion-rights opponent, has introduced a model bill for the pro-life/pro-choice/pro-contraception middle. The Prevention First Act would more than double federal money for family planning clinics, require private health plans to cover prescription contraceptives, and force abstinence-only education programs to be accurate when they describe contraceptives.

This bill has met with the sound of one party clapping.

Still think the Democrats are too beholden to the pro-choice left? We're seeing a Republican Party beholden to the anti-birth control right. Plan A, B, C? One side wants to prevent unwanted pregnancies, the other to punish them. Who holds the title to the middle ground now?

E-mail Ellen Goodman at ellengoodman@globe.com