As I see It: Cynthia Tucker

Lipstick. Pig. Palin. Pathetic.

OK, now that I have your attention, can we talk about something important?

I know it's hard to focus on anything but the dumb dust-ups that emanate furiously from the campaign trail — especially since the 24-hour "news" channels insist on elevating every meaningless contretemps — but we ought to try to have a serious discussion, anyway.

As long as motherhood and family values and teen births are already part of the conversation, can't we spend just a few minutes talking about family planning? If bipartisanship and cooperation are the new watchwords, can't we discuss something most of us agree on — contraception? If change is really in the air, can't we change our stubborn refusal to do the one thing that would further reduce the abortion rate?

Abortions have been declining for the past three decades. In 2005, the last year for which figures were available, the U.S. abortion rate dropped to 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, the lowest rate since 1974, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that advocates family planning. The actual number also declined to a total of 1.2 million in 2005, 25 percent below the all-time high of 1.6 million abortions in 1990, according to the same Guttmacher survey.

Nevertheless, the abortion wars have been rekindled in this presidential campaign — the same battle lines drawn and the same fighting words uttered. What is this really about? Why do we keep yelling past each other?

For years now, polls have shown consistently that most Americans believe abortion laws should remain as they are; the sensitive issue of terminating a pregnancy, most of us agree, should be left to a woman, her physician and her conscience. As admirable as Gov. Sarah Palin's decision was to bear her fifth child, Trig, after she and her husband learned he had Down syndrome, most of us wouldn't want the government to force all other families to make the same decision. It's not the business of outsiders — any more than the difficult issues surrounding the case of Terri Schiavo were the business of Congress.

But many Americans also believe that abortion is a morally troubling issue and would agree with Bill Clinton's formulation from his 1992 campaign: Abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." So why don't we all unite behind a broad public campaign to urge the use of contraceptives?

The flip side of the news about declining abortion rates is this: Nearly half of all pregnancies to American women are still unintended, and about 40 percent of those pregnancies will end in abortions, the Guttmacher Institute says. Unintended pregnancies have been decreasing among higher-income women, those with the resources to readily obtain contraceptives. But unplanned pregnancies have increased among poor women.

So let's make this simple: We can concentrate on working-class and poor women. Since conservatives are reluctant to provide a comfortable social safety net to help those women support children born outside marriage, they ought to sign on quickly. And for those social conservatives who still insist that teenagers ought to be taught abstinence only (although research shows that approach a miserable failure), there is still room for you under the big tent — supporting a broad public campaign for contraception that focuses on adults.

Of course, the ultraconservative fringe — those who insist that sex is intended only for procreation — will not want to get with the program. They're the ones who distort the science about condoms, insisting that they don't protect against pregnancy or disease. They're the ones who push legislation to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control. But those fringe right-wingers don't represent the values of the broad American middle.

As Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech, "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country."

So, if we're serious about change, if we want problems solved instead of partisan wrangling, if we really want solutions and not sound bites, let's get started pushing contraception.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.