Mourning the loss of “moral values” voters, Democratic leaders have been softening the party’s language on reproductive rights. In a recent speech, Senator Hillary Clinton called abortion “a sad, even tragic choice for many,” praised faith-based programs and said, “the jury is still out” on abstinence-only education. New DNC chair Howard Dean, meanwhile, said the party ought to make space for “pro-life” Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has actively courted at least two of them for key Senate races in 2006. These gestures, along with the ascension of antichoice Senate minority leader Harry Reid, have prochoice groups rightly concerned about the party’s will and ability to defend reproductive rights.

Congressional Democrats will need every ounce of party discipline and political nerve to oppose right-wing Republicans as they push for antichoice judicial appointments and fetal-rights bills that chip away at the already compromised right to abortion. In this context, seeking “common ground” on abortion by shifting from a prochoice message to one that emphasizes preventing abortions holds as much peril as promise. In the first place, it ducks the central question: Should a woman have the right to decide whether or not to bear a child? Rather than returning the “moral values” mantle to prochoicers, the common-ground approach cedes it to religious conservatives. It makes no sense from the standpoint of narrow political self-interest either. The prochoice position is a mainstream one, favored by a majority of Americans, even most Republicans.

If Democrats are going to talk about preventing abortions, they should point out the hypocrisy of the antiabortion crowd and the depth of their fanaticism. The assault not only on abortion rights but on family planning, sex education and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention reflects a far-right cultural agenda that most people oppose. The Christian right has made real headway in its effort to install a theocratic and narrow vision of “family values” that punishes dissenters with unwanted pregnancies, disease and even possibly death. The Republicans have already defunded the United Nations Population Fund, reinstated the global gag rule and lavished tax dollars on abstinence-only

education (almost $400 million since 2002).

As the right pushes its agenda, HIV rates have been increasing among gay men, minorities and drug users, and an alarm was raised recently about a new strain of HIV that is resistant to most treatments. But the Bush Administration has audited, censored and defunded HIV-prevention programs geared toward at-risk groups. Globally, the Administration just awarded a $9 million abstinence-only grant to the Children’s AIDS Fund over the objections of a USAID review committee that deemed the group “not suitable for funding.” (The fund’s director, Anita Smith, and her husband, Shepherd Smith, are darlings of the US abstinence-only movement.) As a recent report by Representative Henry Waxman notes, abstinence-only curriculums are riddled with falsehoods and sectarian religious instruction, informing students that sweat and tears can spread HIV, condoms fail 31 percent of the time, 5 to 10 percent of women who have abortions become sterile and life begins at conception.

While there’s no evidence that abstinence-only programs work, studies have proven the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education in preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs–but no federal funding exists specifically for these programs. Congress can rectify this by voting for the Responsible Education About Life Act (sponsored by Representative Barbara Lee and Senator Frank Lautenberg), which matches dollar for dollar Bush’s abstinence-only funding with grants for sex education programs that include accurate information about abstinence and contraception. Protecting health, respecting choice (not to mention telling the truth)–now those are moral values.