Obama's poor choice for faith leader

Why did a pro-choice president appoint someone to HHS who is against abortion AND birth control? Political payback?

By Frances Kissling

Published June 7, 2009 10:06AM (EDT)

President Barack Obama's appointment of Alexia Kelley, founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, as director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives took the pro-choice movement by surprise. On Thursday, the day that news of the appointment leaked out, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center and a quintessential Washington insider, told me that she "hadn't heard anything about it till today, and we are trying to get to the bottom of it."

What Greenberger and others will want to know is why the post, which includes oversight of the department's faith-based grant-making in family planning, HIV and AIDS and in small-scale research into the effect of religion and spirituality on early sexual behavior, has gone to someone who both believes abortion should be illegal and opposes contraception. That's right -- Kelley's group of self-described progressive Catholics takes a position held by only a small minority, that the Catholic church is right to prohibit birth control. Were there no qualified religious experts who hold more mainstream views on family planning and abortion, views that are consistent with those of President Obama?

The HHS budget for family-planning services grants to faith-based and community groups is more than $20 million. Can pro-family-planning religious groups expect a fair deal from a director who believes that birth control, even for married couples, is immoral? Will programs that provide contraception to adolescents get funded? Obama's Feb. 5 Executive Order establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships gave the office and its 11 satellites in federal agencies a policy role on the issues that are at the core of HHS's sexual and reproductive health work: addressing teen pregnancy and reducing the need for abortion. How can an opponent of the single most effective way to do both -- contraception -- lead that effort in HHS enthusiastically and effectively?

Through Catholics in Alliance, Kelley has sought to narrow the interpretation of common ground on abortion to efforts to reduce the number of abortions by providing women who are already pregnant with economic support for continuing the pregnancy and making adoption easier. While pro-choice advocates have been in the forefront of efforts to increase funding for women and children and for pre- and postnatal care, few researchers believe that if pregnant women get the level of support common grounders are talking about, they will jump at the chance to have babies. If one is really serious about making it possible for women to avoid abortion, contraception is the single most important component of any program.

Kelley and other moderately progressive Catholic and evangelical groups owe their pull in the Democratic Party to the disappointment of 2004. They seized on the Democratic defeat in the 2004 elections as a means to push the party to the right on sex and reproduction. Democrats, stung by their near miss in Ohio, desperate to attract swing voters, eager to prove that they were "sensitive" to religion, took the bait.

With support from George Soros and Michael Kieschnick, the founder of Working Assets and Credo Mobile, groups like Sojourners, Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance entered the electoral arena. Catholics in Alliance and its sister organization, Catholics United, were active in voter registration and organizing Catholic voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2006 and 2008. Presenting themselves as more Catholic than the pope -- faithful to church teachings on contraception, abortion and everything else the majority of Catholics have long rejected -- the groups insisted in press release after press release that good Catholics could vote for pro-choice candidates, so long as those candidates were also working to reduce the number of abortions. After all, they admitted, it was simply not possible in the current environment to make abortion illegal, so the next best option was pushing the numbers down.

In part, Kelley's appointment is the usual political payback. Catholics and evangelicals including Kelley provided abortion cover for the president and for candidates like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. A Democratic governor from a red state famous for the ferocity and electoral strength of its social conservatives, Sebelius won a second term in a landslide in 2006. Catholics in Alliance campaigned for her reelection. Though she faced heavy fire from the religious right when she was nominated, Sebelius is now the HHS secretary.

Kelley is a distinguished advocate of healthcare reform and the rights of poor people. For almost a decade, she worked for the Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Campaign for Human Development, a grant-making program roundly condemned by conservatives as too progressive. She entered electoral politics in 2004 when she served as the DNC liaison to the religious community. In 2005, she founded Catholics in Alliance. She has much to offer in government -- but not at HHS. There are 10 other government agencies that have faith-based offices. A far less controversial placement could have been found at Labor, Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Education.

A heated exchange about the appointment between Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice (disclosure: I was president of CFC for 25 years) and Catholics in Alliance/Catholics United is representative of the struggle between religious progressives who support gay marriage and reproductive freedom and those like Kelley who think war and abortion are the same evil. O'Brien was the first pro-choice leader to criticize Kelley's appointment, and he went after her with a vengeance. In a press release, he called Kelley's "abortion reduction rhetoric ... simply a newly packaged antiabortion message," claimed the group used "flawed economic data to support anti-poverty measures as a means to reduce the number of abortions," and asserted the current policy fascination with "common ground" has devolved "into an abandonment of ideals."

CFC backed up its assertions about the anti-family-planning and antiabortion agenda of Kelley and Catholics in Alliance with a report titled "The Trouble With Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good." The report asserted that the Catholic Alliance's "position on abortion is firmly planted on the far right ... In its own words: 'Catholics in Alliance is pro-life. We support full legal protection for unborn children as a requirement of justice and as a matter of essential human rights.'" In a 2006 Voter Guide, Catholics in Alliance made a disturbing equation between war and abortion, saying that Catholics need to "build the essential conditions for a culture of life, to end affronts to human life such as poverty, abortion, torture and war."

Statements like this undercut the alliance's claim that its efforts at common ground seek to end the "culture war" that surrounds abortion. In response to the Catholics for Choice press release, Jennifer Goff, a spokeswoman for Catholics in Alliance, said her group "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." Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, characterized O'Brien's opposition and the CFC report as "simplistic," "incendiary" and "a roadblock to progress."

O’Brien’s most serious charge against Kelley is that under her leadership Catholics in Alliance used “flawed economic data to support anti-poverty measures as a means to reduce the number of abortions.” The misuse of research to promote ideology is a serious charge and if true would disqualify Kelley from an appointment that requires adherence to evidence-based policy setting. During the Bush administration, ideology was often a substitute for science, especially in the reproductive health field. Obama has promised a return to scientific integrity.

The charges relate to an August 2008 study by Penn State political science professor Joseph Wright commissioned by Catholics in Alliance. Called "Reducing Abortion in America: The Effect of Socioeconomic Factors," the study is a perfect example of advocacy research gone awry. It claims that analysis of state level data on abortion from 1982 to 2000 shows that spending money on programs for job creation, primary and prenatal healthcare, and the nutrition program known as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) substantially reduced abortion rates in states where such measures were taken. Given Kelley’s opposition to family planning, it’s the only hope she has that a credible argument could be made that abortions can be significantly reduced without family planning.

In November, following the elections, the study was removed from the Web site and later replaced with a new version that plays down the claims of significant reductions in abortion rates based on spending for programs such as WIC. The new version attempts to correct a series of serious methodological and interpretation errors in the original study. Social science researchers on both sides of the abortion issue expressed concerns about the study, and one coauthor, Professor Michael Bailey of Georgetown University, removed his name from the revised report. Given the serious methodological weaknesses of the first study, there is little reason to assume a second take by the same author can be trusted.

Pro-choice leaders other than O’Brien have not yet commented on the Kelley appointment; most are still reeling from Dr. Tiller’s murder. One hopes they will turn their attention to this appointment and demand a review of Kelley’s qualifications for this post. Pro-choice groups also contributed to the president’s election. They deserve appointees who agree with the platform on which the president ran. The pro-choice movement's recommendations for pro-choice appointees to the faith-based office's advisory council were ignored. Now, after the Kelley appointment, the mission going forward must be to ensure that any additional staff members appointed to faith-based centers in Cabinet-level agencies reflect the pro-choice, pro-family-planning values of the administration. As Greenberger and others try to get to the bottom of the Kelley appointment, greater oversight of, and consultation on, future appointments need to be secured.

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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Abortion Barack Obama Birth Control Catholicism Religion