WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has picked the former head of a pro-life Catholic organization to run faith-based and community outreach programs at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Alexia Kelley, co-founder of the liberal group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, was appointed Thursday to run HHS's Center for Faith-based and Community Initiatives. (The administration wouldn't immediately confirm that, but the Catholic Reporter published a press release from Catholics in Alliance trumpeting the announcement.) Catholics in Alliance's main goal since Kelley helped found it in 2005 has been to emphasize the Catholic Church's social justice teachings in the political sphere; like other progressive religious groups, it lines up with Democratic positions on health care, poverty, labor and other issues.
On abortion, the group has mostly worked to find ways to reduce demand, rather than to push laws aimed at curtailing the availability of the procedure. But its Web site makes clear that it isn't pro-choice. "Catholics in Alliance believes in the sanctity of all human life -- from conception until natural death," says a frequently asked questions page.
Pro-choice activists weren't happy: HHS oversees health care, including abortion policy, for much of the federal government. Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, called it "a defeat for reason and logic." "The administration has talked a lot about reducing the need for abortion, and progressive groups like my own are totally with the administration in doing that," he told Salon. But "to have someone working in HHS who oversaw an organization that is anti-abortion... really beggars belief." The timing of the appointment -- just days after abortion provider George Tiller was murdered in his Wichita, Kan., church -- is likely to aggravate pro-choice groups even more. (Anti-choice organizations, though, have criticized Catholics in Alliance for giving cover to pro-choice Democrats, by attempting to shift the debate from banning abortion to simply reducing it.)
Aides at the White House and HHS didn't immediately return calls and e-mails for comment.
Update: A spokeswoman for Catholics in Alliance, Jennifer Goff, just sent over a statement. The group clearly wasn't happy with the criticism from Catholics for Choice: "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is working toward reaching common ground in order to make real progress on the moral and political challenges our country faces instead of resorting to spurious attacks launched by those who are more concerned with inflaming the culture wars than effecting positive change."