It must be the world’s longest-running game of ideological pingpong. In 1984, Ronald Reagan aimed an overhand smash at international organizations, pledging that America would no longer give family planning money to any group that even counseled or referred women for abortions. Ping.

In 1993, Bill Clinton revoked this global gag rule two days after he took office. Pong.

In 2001, George W. Bush signed the gag order back in place as his first order of business. Ping.

Then, in 2009, Barack Obama rescinded the order again. Pong, anyone?

Obama’s act was greeted with the familiar cheers and jeers of old rhetorical enemies, but I heard a different voice. In the quiet statement that accompanied his move, the new man in the White House described abortion as “a political wedge issue, the subject of a back-and-forth debate that has served only to divide us. I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate.”

The president pledged to do more than lower the volume. “In the coming weeks, my administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world.”

Well, I’ve been around too long to be optimistic about beating this pingpong table into common ground. One of the last things Bush did on his way out the door was to sign a regulation letting any institution refuse to provide services such as emergency contraception. On Inauguration Day, aired a video on BET that perverted Obama’s life story into an ad against abortion. And the very next day, right-to-life marchers bore posters depicting the new, pro-choice president as “Adolf Obama.”

But I shared a modicum of hope for a “fresh conversation.” Pro-choice arguments won on Election Day from South Dakota to Colorado to Washington, D.C. But what also won was the promise of pragmatism over ideology.

It’s not news that Americans want to reduce the number of abortions. This may not be as exciting as the pings and pongs of a political confrontation, but it signals agreement in favor of sex education that’s accurate and contraception that’s affordable and available.

Many pro-choice supporters too are eager to move from a defensive crouch protecting rights to an open stance in favor of both prevention and a wider support system for families. As Frances Kissling, a longtime philosopher for the pro-choice community puts it, “We can use these years to re-establish a reproductive health movement that is clearly recognized for also helping women who want to have babies. ” It’s here that the pro-choice groups can find common cause with the progressive wing of the pro-life movement, including that majority of Catholics who voted for Obama.

But before the first week was out, there was another loud and disruptive pong.

Searching through the economic stimulus plan for a villain, the balky Republican leadership jumped on a provision to allow states to expand family planning under Medicaid. Minority Leader John Boehner was everywhere, fuming in high cable-talk-show dudgeon over the very idea of spending “hundreds of millions on contraceptives. How does that stimulate the economy?”

I’m not sure if family planning expansion would stimulate the economy any more or less than the rest of $87 billion for Medicaid in the plan. I’m not sure if it would jump-start the recovery more or less than, say, arts funding. But I am sure why it was targeted. The right wing was back at the game.

The disheartening thing is how swiftly Obama caved. This is the president who promised to “reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies.” One shot from the right and he told Congress to drop family planning from the package.

Women’s health was reframed as pork and dumped as if it were no more fundamental to family life than the proposal to refurbish the National Mall. All this in an elusive quest for bipartisan support. As Kissling sighed, “This tired and stale debate got a tired and stale reaction. Is it the old story, that women are expendable?”

These are hard times. When jobs go, so does health insurance and with it coverage for contraception. In a tough economy, people face hard decisions about childbearing and child rearing. Unplanned pregnancies rise and with them, yes, abortions.

So, what happened to that fresh conversation? Where did that common ground go? Score this one for the ideologues.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.