Abortion is the single most divisive, polarizing and destructive issue in American politics. It is an issue that has been used by political consultants for decades to drive a wedge into the Catholic community, severely diluting our ability to have a voice on a range of other important topics.

Consider the following: If I say “Catholic Democrat” what is the next word that comes into your mind? “Abortion”. It is the issue that sucks all the air out of the room, and keeps us from making progress on other important issues like human rights, poverty, worker’s rights and stewardship of the environment. The politicians on both sides know it. They use this issue to bend our community to their political ends.

But a new study (“Induced Abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide”, G. Sedgh, et al) published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, offers some data which may allow some common ground for Catholics. It may also allow us to make headway on other important issues such as the war in Iraq, poverty, human rights, and stewardship of the environment.

The position of the Roman Catholic Church is clear. As Catholics, we believe in a “consistent ethic of life” from the moment of conception to a natural death (“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, November,2007) Abortion is an intrinsic evil, and morally unacceptable in all cases. Every abortion is a tragedy. Every abortion is a failure of the Catholic community. Every abortion is a failure of society to protect our women and our children. Every child deserves a chance at life, and every woman deserves unfettered healthcare options.

But what if making the practice illegal had no effect on the number of abortions? What if making the practice illegal actually caused more harm? What if making the practice legal actually caused the number of abortions to go down?

If all this were true, it could change the nature of debate, and strengthen our community and our ability to be a force for positive change in the world.

The facts of the study are clear. First, there is some encouraging news. The number of abortions is down worldwide for the period from 1995 to 2003, by from 46 million to 42 million. Every abortion is a tragedy, and a diminution of the number is a good thing.

However, the rest of the data in the study is bracing. We know, for instance, that unsafe abortion is major cause of maternal mortality, and a threat to women’s health. We also know that safe abortions have relatively few heath consequences.

The study’s most startling finding is that overall abortion rates are roughly similar between developed countries (where abortion is largely legal) and developing countries (where abortion is largely illegal). This indicates that criminalizing abortion has no effect on lowering the abortion rate, but it does have the effect of causing serious risks to women’s healthcare. In effect, criminalizing abortion does more harm than good.

The study also says that 48% of all abortions were unsafe, and that 97% of all unsafe abortions happen in the developing world. Of the 42 million abortions performed, 35 Million of them were performed in the developing world, where the practice is largely illegal.

If all this is true, then what is an American Roman Catholic to do? We need to work for an end to the practice of abortion, the same as before. However, we need to achieve this without criminalizing it, as this only causes a greater harm. As Democrats have shown with their “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act” bill (HR 1074) and the “Prevention First Act” (HR 819) bill, they are serious about finding new solutions to serious problems posed by the practice of abortion. Their new approach could be a forerunner of a strategy that will avoid the divisiveness of the past, and give a glimmer of hope that we can make real progress on this issue in the future.