Corey Friedman

Priests could deny communion to pro-choice public officials under new guidelines the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted June 17 to write, opening a new front in the nation’s abortion wars.

President Joe Biden is considered the target of bishops’ forthcoming statement on “Eucharistic coherence,” but it could also implicate the U.S. Supreme Court’s seven Catholic justices. The court will hear oral arguments this fall in a lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s state law banning abortions after 15 weeks.

Abortion opponents root for a ruling that overturns or severely undercuts Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a constitutional right to obtain an abortion under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

Texas is launching a preemptive strike: The day before the bishops’ vote, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that would make abortion illegal in the Lone Star State if Roe is struck down.

Domestic debate over the right to choose versus the right to life is reaching a fever pitch. Abortion ranks among the most polarizing public policy issues, with few politicians willing to stand in the mushy middle between two heavily entrenched camps.

It’s time for a sweeping compromise on abortion in America, a Solomonic solution with the potential to reframe this seemingly intractable conflict. Such a grand bargain requires sacrifices, but it would fulfill both sides’ primary goals — preventing most elective abortions while preserving legal access to the procedure.

The premise is simple: What if the United States treated abortion like cigarettes?

Adult smoking rates plunged from 42.6% in 1966 to an all-time low of 13.7% in 2018, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. Yet tobacco and nicotine products remain legal and widely available. Instead of enacting restrictions to prohibit people from smoking, government relied on education and persuasion to reduce demand by helping smokers kick the habit.

The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between U.S. tobacco titans and 46 state attorneys general secured a minimum of $206 billion to compensate states for smoking-related health costs. The settlement funds cessation programs and bankrolls the Truth Initiative, which is best known for its antismoking advertising campaigns geared toward teenagers and young adults.

Terminating a pregnancy may have little in common with puffing on a Pall Mall, but a similar approach could drive down abortion rates without the need for restrictions. Federal and state governments could improve sex education curricula, provide free contraception, and incentivize and promote abortion alternatives.

Conservatives’ push for abstinence-only public school sex ed stubbornly stands at cross purposes with the pro-life movement. A 2011 paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One that’s since racked up 406 citations shows that abstinence policies are “ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.”

Teaching safe sex can reduce unplanned pregnancies among teens and young adults. Fears that educating students about contraceptives will encourage them to start having sex have been debunked. Research published in 2008 shows comprehensive sex education has “no significant impact on teen sexual activity.”

The birth control pill is up to 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. Accounting for missed doses, it’s still 91% effective, according to Planned Parenthood. Why not make the pill available at no cost through public health departments and pharmacies?

Experts say that wise investment would largely pay for itself, resulting in a $12 billion annual savings in public health care costs.

For girls and women who still have unwanted pregnancies, government can make abortion less likely by subsidizing prenatal care and hospital maternity services. Federal and state agencies could also reduce or eliminate adoption costs, which can exceed $50,000.

With buy-in from both sides, there’s no limit to how well a harm reduction strategy can work. Making abortion unnecessary might save more unborn lives than making it illegal. As the failed drug war proves, prohibition and punishment don’t always succeed in changing behavior.

To strike such a compromise, pro-choice advocates must admit that abortion, while legal, is an undesirable public health outcome that should be minimized to the greatest extent possible without coercion.

And pro-lifers who equate abortion with murder must admit that public investment and frank discussions about sexuality in high school health classes are an awfully small price to pay.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.