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BROADENING THE SCOPE ON SEX ISSUES

If you want to anger and polarize Americans just mention any of the issues that are linked to reproduction.

Abortion. Parental notification. Sex education. Contraception. Teen pregnancy. Births out of wedlock. Those are catalysts for everything from protest marches to Supreme Court controversies, from shouting on the floor of Congress to shouting across neighborhood fences. Somehow, we have been unable to find a middle ground in this bitter debate.

Enter what seems an unlikely moderator -- the National Abortion Rights Action League and its president, Kate Michelman. For the last 25 years, NARAL has been an outspoken leader of the pro-choice movement. But recently, it announced a change in its name -- to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (still NARAL, for short) -- and its focus.

What a difference an extra word seems to make! In a speech explaining the group's new direction, Michelman reaffirmed NARAL's basic thrust but outlined an approach that could provide the basis for long-overdue cooperation in the field of reproductive health.

Noting NARAL's single-issue struggle for a woman's right to choose abortion, Michelman said, "It was right to make that fight, but times are changing. We must wake the nation to the broader truth that reproductive freedom is not just whether or not to have an abortion. Genuine reproductive freedom requires the ability to make informed, responsible decisions about sexuality, contraception, abortion, pregnancy and childbirth."

Michelman urged the pro-choice movement to adopt a wider mission, one that is not just pro-abortion, but pro-freedom, pro-family, pro-children who are wanted and loved.

Specifically, she called for reducing the need for abortions, stepping up contraceptive research, offering better sexuality education for teens and better health care for women who choose to bear children.

Those may not be the precise priorities of anti-abortion stalwarts like Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., of Hyde Amendment notoriety or conservative gadfly Phyllis Schlafly. Michelman acknowledged that changing people's attitudes will require sharp and sometimes painful debate and a different mindset toward sexuality, women and childbearing.

"We must tell our children that sexuality is a normal part of life, but involves serious responsibility," said NARAL's president. "We must convince all families to discuss the joys and risks of childbearing -- and the terrible penalties that young families must pay if they're not prepared."

More than anything, declared Michelman, "It's going to take a more concerned nation -- and more dedicated, involved parents. No amount of social drafting, no amount of money, can make up the difference."

Each year, 3 million American women become pregnant although they don't want to and 1.5 million have abortions; about a million teens get pregnant and half give birth; 12 million people are infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and 300,000 babies are born with low birth weight.

"Our vision," said Michelman of the new NARAL, "is that fewer women face unintended pregnancies. That there are fewer abortions. Fewer teen-age parents. Fewer people infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Fewer babies born too early, too small and too sick."

If the two sides can agree that the goals are worth achieving, then at least this country is moving in the right direction on a very bumpy road.

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