Onward, Christian soldiers

With its allies now controlling Congress and the White House, the religious right launches a crusade to cleanse America of sin. The first battlefield: Women's bodies.

Published January 3, 2003 10:13PM (EST)

An ice and snow storm forced Jerry Falwell's school, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to shut down for a day in early December, but even that act of God didn't keep him from his life's missions. While most employees, teachers and students at the fundamentalist Christian school stayed home and didn't venture out on the roads, Falwell slid behind the wheel of his Chevy Suburban to pick up his wife at the hairdresser's. One can't blame him for feeling invincible these days. Religious conservatives fasted and prayed that antiabortion candidates would win in November; Falwell believes their prayers were answered when the Republicans won control of the 108th Congress.

Christian conservatives believe they tipped the close Senate elections to the GOP in Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri (though they lost a heated run-off in Louisiana). And Falwell gives much of the credit to fierce campaigning by President Bush, himself a born-again Christian, in the final days before the election. "His work brought out the religious conservative vote, which elected the people we want to have in office," Falwell says. "No one in the world would deny that the religious conservatives certainly played a major role in regaining Republican control of the Senate. It's encouraging to think that if we get people out, we can make a difference every time, just like in the election of Ronald Reagan."

Former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats may blame voters' preoccupation with terrorism and the impending war with Iraq for their party's midterm loss, but the Christian fundamentalists weren't distracted. With messianic zeal, they focused on a plan to control the nation's political agenda by securing the Senate. Many give credit to political strategist Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who is now chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. Now, as the 108th Congress readies to begin its work, it's clear that the religious right will press the most conservative agenda in recent American history -- and it's clear, too, that Falwell and other conservatives have faith they will achieve their goals.

The agenda is so controversial that it has created deep divisions even in Bush's White House. Though such internal dissent is usually hidden, it flared into the open late last year when John DiIulio, a top policy adviser who departed in frustration, ripped the influence of the religious right on Bush. Thus far, however, the president has done little to discourage the troops of the religious right from their radical mission to make the government and judiciary agents for the moral cleansing of America. In their vision, churches would be given government funds to carry out social services. Prayer would be allowed -- and encouraged -- in public schools. Israel would be backed virtually without question in its conflict with the Palestinians because that would fulfill a prophecy portending the second coming of Christ. Foreign countries would have to pass a moral litmus test to receive U.S. aid.

Clearly, though, the principal aim of hard-line religious conservatives is a tighter control on reproductive options and the enshrinement of the heterosexual nuclear family as the paragon of public virtue. Making abortion illegal is central to that goal.

Their strategy stops short of a direct, immediate assault on the Supreme Court's historic 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion. The Christian right abandoned the idea of an antiabortion constitutional amendment two decades ago, concluding that obtaining approval from a majority of the state legislatures would be too difficult. As of January 2002, a Mellman Group poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe the Supreme Court should continue to rule that abortion is legal everywhere in the United States, rather than let each state have that power.

Instead, the first item on the religious right's agenda is a ban on late-term abortion; the House of Representatives approved the ban in July. Christian conservatives are counting on the GOP's slim 51-48 majority in the Senate to pass the ban as well as a number of other measures that, taken together, will impose a more conservative Christian view of morality on the entire nation. Protestant fundamentalists and traditional Catholics want the government to limit sex education, promote abstinence until marriage, downplay the use of condoms to protect against diseases, and curtail the use of birth control pills, which they consider "abortifacients." (While birth control pills are designed to prevent ovulation, it is believed that sometimes they don't and that the egg is fertilized but not implanted in the womb.) And social conservatives want to limit U.S. aid for programs in foreign countries that don't adhere to these standards. Some recent nominees to influential committees and panels even regard sex between a husband and wife with misgiving.

At the same time, the religious right will continue to press for approval of dozens of conservative judicial nominees, whose confirmations were stalled as long as Democrats controlled the Senate. But with the Republican takeover, Democrats effectively conceded that they couldn't block the nominations anymore when they confirmed Michael McConnell, an abortion critic, to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says he will move quickly to confirm the administration's choices. And if, as expected, Bush has the chance to name one or two justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, the religious right will then set it sights directly on Roe vs. Wade. "That's a biggie," Falwell says. "It won't be easy, but that's our goal and we won't stop until it's done."

It's an old agenda. What's new is the likelihood that it can be achieved. Not only do Republicans now control the Senate, but Bill Frist, the new majority leader from Tennessee, is also seen as a staunch ally by many conservative Christians. But the issues are enormously volatile, and some analysts warn that the right could precipitate a backlash not just from the American left but from moderates at the center, too. "In some ways, it's a fiercer debate than we've ever had before," says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, who studies the religious right. "We're getting down to the fundamental choice between individual rights and social order."

Pro-choice advocates fear religious right-wingers will exploit their new political leverage to redefine women's reproductive rights so that they conform to core religious beliefs: No sex is allowed before marriage, human life begins at conception, and no one can destroy that life.

"We really have to face up to the fact that one of the key things that these folks want to do is void women's right to choose, send women back in time, and establish the family that they believe the Bible mandates, which is a male-headed family," says Marjorie Signer, spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, representing 18 denominations of Christian, Jewish and other religious groups. "We're not fully engaging the beast and fully and completely understanding what is motivating the religious right. In our analysis, they want to establish a theocracy, a Christian ethos as a political philosophy."

Even before the GOP regained control of the Senate, Christian conservatives were exerting their influence under the sponsorship of the Bush White House. Since taking office in January 2001, the administration has appointed staunch abortion opponents to positions where they could limit reproductive freedom. Other initiatives are more obscure, but the message is just as clear: In its 2003 budget, which Congress has not yet approved, the administration proposes eliminating the requirement that health insurance plans for federal employees provide coverage for prescription contraceptives.

Bush angered Christian conservatives in August 2001, when he decided not to ban stem-cell research outright. Such research may lead to cures for Alzheimer's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases. Instead, Bush tried to reach a compromise with the scientific community by allowing federally funded research on existing stem-cell cultures, or "lines." Religious-right groups oppose this stance because microscopic human embryos are destroyed to harvest stem cells, a procedure opponents equate with abortion. Yet even the right is divided on this issue. Nancy Reagan, whose husband, Ronald, suffers from Alzheimer's, has been quietly lobbying for an overhaul of Bush's restrictive policy.

But many analysts see Bush's affront to the religious right as an exception. "Before this election the Bush administration had taken every opportunity to give the extreme right-wing of his party what they've wanted on social issues, but they were doing it quietly," says Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Now they'll be more out front. I think there will be steamroller in January that will attempt to crush reproductive freedom. We're talking about sending women back to a time when they were barefoot and pregnant."

Not surprisingly, most of the policy changes have been made in the Department of Health and Human Services. Under former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, a longtime abortion opponent, the department has steadily made policy changes that promote sexual abstinence, reduce access to information about contraception and, most importantly, establish rights for fetuses. The department even removed reports from its Web sites on sex education, the use of condom to protect against AIDS and other diseases, and information undermining suggestions of a link between abortions and breast cancer.

But one of the key strategies of the new conservative Christian campaign is to establish -- in policy and legal precedent -- that fetuses have rights under the law, separate from the rights of the mother. The initiatives to achieve that goal are often innocent-seeming bureaucratic subtleties that have no more than limited practical impact and so receive little public attention But they appear to be part of a broader plan for an incremental religious revolution.

Last summer, for example, one of the quieter changes that Thompson's department made was promoting "embryo adoption." The administration set aside about $1 million for a worthy program that encouraged people who were unable to have children of their own to use embryos left over from fertility procedures. Pro-choice advocates worried that the decision to call the process "adoption" rather than "donation" would be a step toward giving fetuses -- or in this case embryos -- rights as people. Their concerns were realized soon enough.

In October, Health and Human Services included fetuses under the State Children's Health Insurance Program, even though that was unnecessary, according to sources in the department. Medicaid covers low-income pregnant women. And if states wanted the insurance program to cover prenatal care, they could have asked for permission. Rhode Island, for example, uses the funds for parents. Pro-choice advocates saw this as another underhanded attempt to attack Roe vs. Wade. The Family Research Council, a conservative Washington-based religious group that believes "God is the author of life, liberty, and the family," sees it as a simple act of recognizing fetuses' rights. Pro-choice critics are "obsessed with abortion," the group said in a news release, and they "simply do not want people to think of the unborn child as a member of the family, even in the context of health care."

That same month, the department created the Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, after letting a similar committee dissolve during the summer. The new panel's charter focuses on how research "specifically" affects humans, with an emphasis on "special populations, such as neonates (premature babies), children, prisoners, the decisionally impaired, pregnant women, embryos and fetuses," as well as other less defined groups, such as "individuals and populations in international studies." The department won't say if the committee's charter changes the legal status of embryos or fetuses, but conservative religious groups applauded the move as another extension of rights to the unborn.

The administration also appointed religious conservatives to influential, but less visible, positions that are below the public's radar. Dr. Thomas A. Coburn, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. While in Congress, Coburn challenged the effectiveness of condom use to prevent AIDS and advocated abstinence. When he left the House, he joined the board of directors of Family Research Council. Washington political observers say Coburn's name came up for other positions, including Thompson's job and that of U.S. Surgeon General.

Months later, in October, the administration named Dr. Alma Golden, a former medical director of Strategies for Adolescent Guidance Education Advice Council, an abstinence-advocacy group, as the department's deputy assistant secretary for population affairs. The Office of Population Affairs oversees Title X, which provides federal funds for family planning and reproductive health services, and Title XX, which funds research and projects on teens' sexual issues. In Bush's 2003 fiscal budget, the administration requested a 33 percent increase, or a total of $135 million, for the office's community-based abstinence-until-marriage programs. As one lobbyist for a women's health group put it: "It's the fox guarding the chicken coop."

Religious right-wing groups can push the administration to name their candidates to key policy positions because they wield considerable power within the GOP. "The Christian right has become closely associated with the Republican party," says Michael Lienesch, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right." "In many places, it's difficult to tell one from the other. In the last couple of years, the Christian-right advocates have learned how to work inside the system much better than before. In the '80s, they were outsiders, knocking on doors trying to get in. Today, they're in."

Indeed, in a controversial article in Esquire's January issue, John DiIulio, the first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, criticized the Bush administration for accommodating the far-right Republicans' agenda at the expense of forming more practical social policies. DiIulio is quoted saying that Karl Rove, the president's senior advisor, asked him to make amends with the evangelical wing of the GOP. "I'm not taking any shit off of Jerry Falwell," DiIulio reportedly told Rove. "The souls of my dead Italian grandparents are crying out to me, 'That guy's not on the side of the angels.'" DiIulio, a professor of politics and religion at the University of Pennsylvania, has since tried to distance himself from his comments in Esquire. DiIulio didn't return calls to Salon.

As an example of how subtle and yet how ambitious the conservative Christian infiltration has been, none is more telling than the rebirth of the Food and Drug Administration's reproductive health committee. As an advisory panel it has no direct policymaking power, yet it is influential The last time the full committee met was in 1996, when it recommended the approval of RU-486. (Marketed as Mifepristone, the drug is used to terminate pregnancies during the first nine weeks.) The full panel didn't even meet to review Viagra. Since its last meeting, all the members' staggered four-year terms have expired and as a result, the panel became the first FDA advisory committee in almost 20 years whose membership lapsed.

For a year and a half, the Bush administration didn't fill any vacancies and didn't renew memberships. Enter Linda Arey Skladany, a former Capitol Hill lobbyist who heads the FDA's new Office of External Relations. A veteran of the Reagan era and the first Bush administration, Skladany has the power to name all 11 members of the reproductive health committee. And she decided to bring it back to life.

In October, just before the election, word leaked out that one of Skladany's choices for the panel was Dr. W. David Hager, who may be best known in his home state of Kentucky for organizing a revival for Billy Graham's son a little more than two years ago. A self-proclaimed pro-lifer, Hager runs a large gynecological practice in Lexington. He doesn't perform abortions, doesn't prescribe contraceptives for single patients, won't prescribe the abortion pill RU-486, won't insert IUDs, and believes headaches and premenstrual syndrome can be alleviated by reading the Scripture. He's also against the more conventional birth control pill, which more than 10 million American women use. As the editor of a book that includes the essay "Using the Birth Control Pill Is Ethically Unacceptable," Hager has said in interviews that he opposes the pill because it is a "convenient way for young people to be sexually active outside of marriage."

Hager's nomination sparked a political firestorm. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., joined Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as well as women's and abortion-rights groups urging the administration not to go ahead with his appointment. "The decision to appoint Dr. Hager is nothing short of irresponsible," Maloney said in a statement to Salon. "I happen to believe that the head of a women's health panel should believe in women's health.

The administration didn't back down. At the end of December the FDA approved all 11 of Skladany's nominations, including Hager. While Hager's name was bandied around as the panel's chairman, Dr. Linda Guidice, a respected reproductive endocrinologist at Stanford University, will fill that position.

Other members include Michael Green, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproduction at Harvard Medical School who has served on the committee in the past; Vivian Lewis, M.D., who teaches reproductive endocrinology at the University of Rochester Medical Center; Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., director of the Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Division and the Women's Reproductive Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center and an expert in hormone-replacement therapy; George Macones, M.D., an assistant professor of the University of Pennsylvania's department of obstetrics and gynecology; Scott Emerson, a bio-statistician at the University of Washington; Joseph Stanford, M.D., a professor at the University of Utah's department of family and preventive medicine; Nancy Dickey, a past president of the American Medical Association; Leslie Gay Bernitsky, M.D., an urologist in Albuquerque, N.M.; and Susan A. Crockett, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the director of maternal services at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital.

"My sense is that there are clearly people on this committee who are well qualified to serve as advisors to the FDA committee on reproductive health drugs," says Amy Allison, program director for the National Women's Health Network, an FDA watchdog group in Washington. "But it's very disappointing that this administration is putting someone like Dr. Hager on a committee charged with these responsibilities. His work has focused on integrating his personal and religious beliefs into his medical practice ... His nomination shows the extreme that the Bush administration is willing to go to in an attempt to restrict women's right to reproductive health relating to abortion and family planning."

Allison says the one other panel member that she has reservations about is Stanford, a past president of the American Academy of Natural Family Planning. Stanford, a Mormon, is a proponent of natural family planning, or the rhythm method as it is known in the Catholic Church. He says he doesn't prescribe contraceptives to his patients. And he strongly believes that women should be informed that birth control pills may not prevent eggs from being fertilized. The FDA, he says, may consider changing labels on the drug to tell women of this risk. Stanford says he's done research providing evidence that fertilization can occur. "It is not absolutely proven, but it has not been disproven," he says. "It's a gray area."

In an essay excerpted on a University of Notre Dame Web site, Stanford explains his position on contraception: "A husband will sometimes begin to see his wife as an object of sexual pleasure who should always be available for gratification. This tendency is reinforced by the dominant perspective on sexuality in our society, which idealizes unlimited sexual titillation and gratification freed (at least theoretically) from any consideration of pregnancy. Sterilization and hormonal contraceptives especially feed into this prevalent and highly distorted male perspective (which is also adopted by many women)."

Stanford is also against in vitro fertilization because the procedure often creates more embryos than are used. "That's probably the No. 1 one issue: Embryos are either discarded or used for research," he told Salon. But he says that as a member of the FDA panel he won't impose his views on others. "It will be challenging and difficult," he says. "But in my professional career, I've worked with people with different views on ethic issues than I do. There's no problem if people deal with the issues in an intellectual and honest way."

At its next meeting, the panel is slated to discuss controversial hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women. Initially scheduled for Nov. 13, the meeting was postponed until sometime early this year. However, if the committee at some point is asked to review RU-486, the so-called abortion pill, Hager must recuse himself. As a spokesperson for the Christian Medical Association, he wrote a letter last summer to the FDA criticizing its approval of RU-486 in 1996. "It would be hard to look at the petition if you had a hand in writing the petition," says Brad Stone, an FDA spokesman. "It's like being the judge and also being the one who is asking for judgment. It's an awkward situation." Salon's calls to Hager's office weren't returned.

Religious groups, adamantly opposed to the "abortion pill," are rallying around Hager. Connie Mackey, Family Research Council's vice president for government relations and a self-described feminist, says she agrees with Hager's conclusion that RU-486 is harmful to women and doesn't think his religious beliefs should disqualify him. His nomination also shows, she says, that Bush "is committed to bringing in people of faith and giving them a shot at working in conditions of influence."

The Bush administration has even given religious conservatives unofficial -- but powerful -- positions. John Klink, a former advisor to the Vatican, accompanied an American delegation to a U.N. family-planning conference in Bangkok in December. The State Department says Klink is working in a "voluntary capacity at the behest of the White House," according to a recent article in the New York Times. Last year, Klink was nominated to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. When it appeared the Democratic Senate would block his confirmation because he opposes contraception and abortion, he withdrew his name. But that didn't mean he left the political stage.

In Thailand, the U.S. delegation provoked outrage among the other participants when it threatened to withdraw its support for a 1994 agreement reached in Cairo that calls for increasing the legal rights and economic status of women and improving healthcare to control population growth. The U.S. officials contended that phrases in the accord, such as "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights," could be construed as promoting abortion. This stance is consistent with Klink's other work. When he was part of the Holy See's delegation to population conferences in the 1990s, the Vatican condemned the use of condoms for family-planning purposes or as protection against AIDS and HIV.

At home, restricting abortion was a major issue for social conservatives in the midterm elections. Christian Coalition in America, founded by Pat Robertson, began a voter registration drive the year before, in November 2001. Scorecards graded candidates' voting records. If they supported, among more mainstream Republican policies, abortion limitations and funding cuts for United Nations population-control programs, politicians received high marks from the coalition. "We believe pro-family influence is alive and well in the U.S.," says Ronn Torossian, spokesman for the coalition. "We expect both houses to continue that."

This month, religious right-wingers in Congress will begin to press their domestic antiabortion legislative agenda. First order of business: a ban on late-term abortion. This procedure, medically referred to as a dilation and extraction, or D and X, can be used after the 20th week of pregnancy when the mother's life is in jeopardy. But more often, studies have shown, it is done simply to end the pregnancy when both the mother and the fetus are in good health. The procedure gets a lot of press, but there is disagreement on how often it is performed. In 1996, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit focusing on sexual and reproductive health issues, surveyed the 2,000 hospitals, clinics and private practices that performed abortions and found that only 14 performed late-term abortions and that they accounted for 650 such procedures that year. Other studies, however, suggest late-term abortions are much more common.

Assuming Bush signs the late-term abortion ban into law, the religious conservatives will push other bills to erode Roe vs. Wade -- all of which have already passed the House. The Unborn Victims Act recognizes unborn children as human victims when they are injured or killed during the commission of federal crimes. The Child Custody Protection Act makes it a federal crime for any person, other than a parent, to knowingly transport a minor across state lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion if the minor hasn't complied with state parental-involvement laws.

Then, there's the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which would allow healthcare entities, such as Catholic-affiliated hospitals, to refuse to comply with existing laws and regulations pertaining to abortion services. For example, they might not provide emergency contraception, high dosages of birth control pills given to reduce the chance of pregnancy that are most effective when taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. Catholics for Free Choice found that only 5 percent of the emergency rooms in Catholic-run hospitals provided such "morning-after pills" on request; only 23 percent provided it for rape victims. "The agenda of the right is absurd," says Frances Kissling, president of the Catholic group. "If you think abortion is the worst thing you can imagine, then you should support contraception even more."

Concerned Women for America is lobbying for these bills. Based in Washington, the group helps its more than 500,000 members "bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy." Wendy Wright, senior policy director for the organization, says she thinks there are enough antiabortion votes in Congress to pass all the initiatives that would further restrict women's access to legal abortion. She also says a recent poll done by New York-based Zogby International for the Buffalo News shows that younger people's support for abortion is decreasing. "Partial-birth abortions show how extreme abortionists have become," Wright says. "Here's a baby about to be born and it's treated in a gruesome manner. This generation of kids have grown up with abortion; they've seen the effects on the adult in their lives and on their peers."

However, Alan D. Crockett, a Zogby spokesman, says that a poll done in mid-November shows that while more Americans oppose access to legal abortions today than 10 years ago, more are also in favor. "It's still a highly volatile issue," he says. "But basically, Americans are split right down the middle."

What American women don't realize is that the administration has taken significant steps toward taking away their reproductive freedom, says Kate Michelman, president of National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), a pro-choice group. "The pro-choice movement is rather complacent in the belief that the right to choose is safe. We face the most hostile political environment we've ever faced since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. With the Senate returned to anti-choice leadership hands, there is no barrier to passing legislation that restructures freedom of choice in every conceivable way."

Not all these bills may become law, and some may be overthrown at a later date, but Bush is making sure that the federal judiciary will carry on his social conservative agenda for years to come. He is expected to have the chance to place one or two justices on the Supreme Court -- Justice John Paul Stevens is 82 and Chief Justice William Rehnquist turned 78 in October -- and he's unlikely to commit the sins of his father. Robert Boston, a spokesman for the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says Bush the younger won't nominate a justice like David Souter, whose views on abortion weren't clear before he landed on the high court. Instead, Boston says, Bush will name someone in the vein of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. "He'll vet the social conservatives and make sure they're comfortable," Boston says. "Essentially, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are going to have veto power."

If history is a guide, the U.S. Supreme Court may be reluctant to issue a ruling on social policy that could provoke a furious, divisive reaction. And that may be emblematic of the broader risk faced by adherents of the religious right. In a nation already deeply divided over emotional issues that revolve around the separation of church and state, the public may turn angry if it appears they are abusing their political mandate. This happened in 1994 with Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. Indeed, in Louisiana's run-off for the U.S. Senate, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu's victory against Suzanne Haik Terrell, one of Bush's hand-picked candidates and a strong abortion opponent, may indicate there is a limit to how far the religious right can push its agenda. "There may be a backlash among more moderate voters," says Green at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute. "Clearly, the religious conservatives have an opportunity, but the margins in the House and Senate are very small, and moderate Republicans may desert and vote with the Democrats.

"I can see why they are so excited, but they may wind up being disappointed," he adds. "Reagan talked a real good game, but he was a good politician and whatever you may think, he understood that these are very divisive issues. George W. Bush is also a very good politician. But Bush has a heck of a problem: The religious conservatives are a strong constituency and they supported Republicans and they supported him in 2000. He wants them in 2004, but he can't give them everything they want."

Even Falwell claims to understand moderation. He knows religious conservatives can't be too greedy and press for too much, too fast. Falwell has the luxury of patience. He expects his flock to help reelect his ally, George W., in 2004 and then brother Jeb, now the Florida governor, in 2008. "It's an encouraging time," Falwell says, "and we must not fumble the ball."

By Louise Witt

Louise Witt is a writer who lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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