Harvard Debate Reveals Abortion Shift

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Bill Baird called it “scary.” Serrin Foster spoke of a “big shift.” The crowd whispered about a “new generation.”

The event that frightened the director of the National Choice League but encouraged the president of Feminists for Life was a panel discussion on abortion at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Four of America's most visible pro-life and pro-choice leaders, two from each side, met at the school March 16 to search out common ground on abortion.

But panelists and attendees were shocked at what they found. Though an event organizer told the Register that efforts had been made to keep pro-lifers from packing the audience, most students at this high-profile Ivy League event seemed to be won over by the pro-lifers.

A call to abstinence and personal responsibility was met with vigorous applause, while an insinuation by Planned Parenthood Federation of America Director Gloria Feldt that prolifers were judgmental was met with silence.

“If you students want to make a real legacy,” Serrin Foster of told them, “talk about resources for pregnant women. Do you have day-care facilities for pregnant students? Maternity leave? Health insurance? How many of you have to change diapers on toilet seats? Why does it cost $15,000 for a live birth, but $300 for an abortion? The lack of resources to help women make life affirming choices is what drives them to these desperate straits.”

One young mother, identifying herself as pro-choice, said she had firsthand experience that Harvard wasn't a baby-friendly environment. She said she appreciated Foster's vision of a campus or workplace where pregnant women and mothers were accommodated as readily as athletes and executives. The student said pregnant college women need to know abortion isn't the only option they have.

Pro-Woman, Pro-Life

Foster's pro-life feminism took the night. The notion of a pro-life feminist was foreign to most. She said repeatedly that legalized abortion had created an environment in which women were forced to choose between themselves and their child.

“Women,” she said to generous applause, “should never be forced to choose between being pro-women and pro-life.”

James Kovacs, a third-year law student at the school, agreed. “The person I enjoyed hearing the most was [Foster].

“Her position about looking at things holistically, I think, is right. It needs to go in a direction where we look at issues of, for example, how to deal on the one hand with a woman who has actually decided to have the child — that's where I think common ground can be found.”

An Absolute Right?

But Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt wasn't ready to jump on board. In response to statements about alternatives to abortion, and again in her closing statement, Feldt returned again and again to her view of the privileged status of abortion as a right.

She described her own experience as a teen-age mother growing up in West Texas in the ‘50s. “The birth control pill came out. I popped them like they were candy. I loved my children, but I knew if I had any more I couldn't handle it. It occurred to me that the most basic right for a woman is to control her own body, her childbearing.”

She told the Register that at no point in its development can the rights of a fetus can never be weighed against the rights of its mother.

Feldt was joined on the pro-choice side by Bill Baird, often called the “father of the sexual revolution,” for his work in legalizing birth control for unmarried couples. One of his three Supreme Court victories, Baird vs. Eisenstadt, set the legal precedent for Roe v. Wade.

Gen X'ers for Life

Baird's rhetoric didn't seem to sway the Generation X'ers in attendance. At one point, pro-life panelist Dr. Bernard Nathanson pointed out that he was the only medical doctor on the panel. Baird shot back that he was the only person on the panel “with three Supreme Court victories to give people their freedom.” Baird's claim to fame drew mostly giggles from the crowd.

Feldt, composed throughout the evening, let her guard down when asked if the American political system was unique with regard to its handling of abortion rights.

“What's unique about the U.S. political system is that a small number of very loud people try to intimidate the rest of us,” Feldt said. “We have to speak up and speak out.”

But the activist spirit in the room didn't seem to be on the pro-choice side of the debate. Baird's appeal to pro-choicers to “get up off [their] britches” and Feldt's suggestion that “everyone should be very frightened right now” because of the current “threat to a woman's right to choose” were meant as applause lines. They fell flat.

“What I've heard [here tonight] has scared me to death,” Baird said in his concluding statement.

Harvard sophomore Melissa Moschella wasn't surprised by the student response at the event. “I think too much is made of the huge pro-choice majority [on campuses] because really the majority is very slim,” said the president of Harvard Right to Life.

Moschella added, “We feel the urgency of the issue more than prochoicers — saving human lives.”

She said she was pleased by the event. “I would say that definite progress was made against the stereotype that pro-lifers are violent or extremists or against women.”

Origin of the Event

The March 15 Kennedy School event was part of an ongoing lecture series meant to provide a national stage for the intersection of academia and politics. Recent speakers have included U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former British Prime Minister John Major and the recently crowned King Abdullah of Jordan.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson, the current director the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, moderated the event. A pro-choice Wyoming Republican, he opened by disclosing that in 20 years of the program's lectures, no one had ever before been asked to speak on abortion.

“The students,” Simpson said, “wanted to have a civil discussion on the subject because the vast majority of [them] are morally and intellectually grappling with this issue. We took our marching orders from the students.”

Simpson referred everyone in the crowd to an “absolutely remarkable op-ed piece” that had appeared that day in the Crimson, Harvard's daily newspaper. Co-authored by pro-lifer Moschella and junior Shauna Shames, the co-chair of Students for Choice, the article described the origin of the Kennedy School event.

In the article, “Looking to Agree on Abortion,” the two young women describe their effort to find common ground over dinner one night last semester.

They wrote, “the first and greatest point of agreement was the importance of supporting women.” Then, both sides agreed to denounce “emphatically and unanimously” any violence directed against abortion businesses or practitioners.

Shames said there has been little civil debate about abortion because it's hard for both sides to agree on a common language.

“I don't think it's a futile effort,” Shames told the Register. “If we can do something to end the clinic violence, then everybody will be better off.”

Feminist-for-life Foster thinks they can do better. She said she approached Planned Parenthood's Feldt after the event to see if she would agree to offer more than abortion and contraception to women in need.

“I said I think we could work in other areas ... and continue to have really productive discussion ... and she agreed,” Foster noted. “We will never agree on abortion, but if they call themselves pro-choice, they need to expand into [helping women prepare for] adoption, marital and single parenthood.”

After the event, Foster observed, “There is complete apathy on the other side and the pro-life cause is growing. There is absolutely a big shift.”