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Jane Ahlin, Published March 23 2013

Ahlin: Extremists not interested in abortion middle ground

Here are the questions and results of a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Jan. 12-15, 2013:

Q. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe v. Wade decision, or not?

Q. Which comes closest to your view on abortion: abortion should always be legal; should be legal most of the time; should be made illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life; or abortion should be made illegal without any exceptions?

Granted, that was a nationwide poll, and North Dakota statistics might not be as uneven in the tilt toward keeping abortion legal. Then again, they might. Last summer, the sound defeat at the polls of the so-called “religious liberty” amendment – a measure favored by the same groups supporting the passel of anti-abortion amendments in this legislative session – suggest that the unintended consequences likely to occur with laws based on religious ideology are understood by North Dakotans.

Yes, North Dakotans deeply respect religious beliefs. However, we also believe in the old saw, “the rights of your fist leave off where my nose begins.”

When it comes to reproductive rights, “my nose” is the theology of my own religious tradition, while the “fist” is that of legislators who would force me to accept theirs; “my nose” is the freedom to plan a family and have access to safe and reliable birth control, while the “fist” is birth control that must pass the religious dictum of a politician; “my nose” is my doctor’s office where we make intimate decisions about my health, while the “fist” is state-mandated scripts my doctor must recite or government interference in my ability to access health care, including IVF and end-of-life options.

In the debate about the extreme overreach of the North Dakota Legislature’s anti-abortion laws, it should not escape notice that the truth is – as it always has been – no woman can be forced by law to use birth control, much less have an abortion. No parent, no husband, no boyfriend, no physician, no judge has the legal right to mandate birth control or abortion for any woman. Period. On that, forces on the right and forces on the left are in complete agreement. Her doctors might advise that a pregnancy threatens her health or even that the fetus has abnormalities incompatible with life, but ending a pregnancy cannot be forced. Her economic situation may be dire; she may have a history of serious mental illness; heavens, she may have six children under the age of 8 at home already. Doesn’t matter.

Nothing trumps a woman’s right to bear children, and we should celebrate that fact. But here’s the rub: As right-wing religious zealots more and more have co-opted the Republican Party (certainly that’s true in North Dakota), the attitude toward women who believe they are responsible for the entirety of their reproductive lives has become patronizing and punitive. And while there is no end of concern for embryos and fetuses, children get short shrift.

The basic assumption in political bodies used to be that people of good faith were on both sides of the abortion issue and working together to prevent unintended pregnancy was not out of the question. That day is gone, although I’d like to think, not for good. There is middle ground; unfortunately, extremists aren’t interested.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.