Sarah Palin and the "Abortion Bowl"

Can women turn a controversy into a touchdown?

Photograph: Photo by Newscom

Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the Saints and the Colts is nothing compared to the war of words now unfolding between Sarah Palin and NOW. The back story: For Game Day on CBS, Focus on the Family is sponsoring a controversial commercial in which Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow conveys a distinctly pro-life message. NOW and several other pro-choice groups are organizing protests against the network for accepting the ad. Sarah Palin is exhorting CBS to do the right thing and run the ad (and accusing NOW of a double standard). In round three, NOW fired back at Palin telling CBS do the right thing and pull the ad. And there’s still a week to go.

Still, I don’t see all this as the zillionth chapter in America’s values wars. Instead, I take heart from this exchange, because finally it is women who are representing both sides of one of the most divisive issues of our time. It is women, after all, who are the front lines of the abortion issue. We are the ones who make that profound decision, knowing it will carry a lifetime of consequences. Yet women are often relegated to the sidelines of all the debates and legislative battles.

But with Sarah Palin facing off against NOW, this particular moment could be different. Women could seize this opportunity to find some common ground. We could learn from the mistakes of our political parties, whose members, fed up with extremes, are exiting in droves to become Independents.

After all, when it comes to the abortion issue, women are not as polarized as both sides might like us to believe. Polls reveal that, when asked to self identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” women are roughly split between the two. But polls also show that at the same time the vast majority of women believe that this should be a personal decision. What if, to the tired terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” we added a third called, say, “pro-tolerance”? Meaning, we grant understanding for decisions made in, as Palin puts it, “less than ideal circumstances,” rather than pronounce judgment .

But it won’t be easy. Many entrenched interests are well served by keeping women divided. First, abortion is a fundraising bonanza for both political parties. Second, keeping our focus on abortion allows politicians to backburner other women’s issues. For example, when Obama won his party’s presidential primary, the Democratic National Committee held on to a lot of dismayed Hillary voters by invoking the need for a president who’d protect Roe v. Wade. Once elected courtesy of women’s votes, President Obama cast aside his commitment to abortion rights in the healthcare bill. Similarly, what do the Soccer Moms and Security Moms have to show in the way of progress for women in exchange for delivering 2000 and 2004 to George W. Bush?

What if women finally decided to change things? What if we agreed to a treaty of pro-tolerance based on respecting one another as women for the decisions we must make for ourselves or our family members. Then we could lay down our arms and move forward arm-in-arm, united on the many women’s issues on which Sarah Palin and NOW would actually agree. Like ending wage discrimination. Or insisting that our government and our society address the sexualization of our teenage daughters and the alarming rates of teen dating violence. And, pronouncing Enough! to being governed by a Congress that is 83 percent men, and voting more women into office.

Women have decided most presidential elections since the 1960s. Once we focus on what unites us, not divides us, we will realize that the keys to equality are, in fact, right in our own hands.

Amy Siskind is the President and Co-Founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls.

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