False Middle Ground on Abortion, Crumbling
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 10:48:04 AM EST
Frances Kissling has an important essay at Salon.com, in which she outlines what's wrong with President Obama's appointment of Alexia Kelley as the head of the faith based office at the Department of Health and Human Services. The office, Kissling writes, has a budget of more than $20 million for family planning grants to faith based and community groups, and "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."  

As it turns out, this appointment epitomizes the problem of creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party.

Kissling observes that this office
"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?"

... 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?

Fair questions, but there is more:

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."

Sarah Posner, writing at The American Prospect also noted the extremity of the response:

"Catholics for Choice Joins the Far Right, Attacks Common Ground," screams the press release from Catholics United (CU), which is defending the choice of Alexia Kelley to lead the center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services. Catholics for Choice (CFC) yesterday criticized the pick because of Kelley's opposition to abortion.

This is as many of us have experienced, fairly typical. When the views of the so-called common grounders are questioned or challenged, we are normally treated to healthy doses of diversionary tactics, such as strawman arguments and ad hominem attacks.

A few weeks ago, I responded to an op-ed co-authored by a staffer from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (who had previously worked in the communications department of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Here is a sampler of terms they use in discussing those of us who disagree with them:  "malign," "righteous zeal," "absolutist devotion," "predictable to the absurd," "demonization" "hardened agendas" and - my personal favorite -- a "scorched earth rhetorical style."

They conclude with a call to the rest of us to "embrace a spirit of greater humility, compassion and critical introspection..."

It was not hard to figure out where I, (as one of those who has written critically about the politics of abortion reduction) fit on Gehring and Campbell's enemies list. I must be among that notorious lot of unnamed "liberal bloggers" who allegedly "slam Catholics and evangelicals working on this approach as radical 'anti-choice' hardliners cozying up to the Religious Right." I say "allegedly" because Gehring and Campbell offer no examples and make no effort to actually address any of our points.

We saw a similar approach when Robert P. Jones paraded a series of strawmen and red herring in his knock on the contributors of Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America
I wrote:

Jones' main response was to unfavorably contrast our character with those he interviewed for his recent book, Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming Public Life. He complained of "snarkiness" on our part; "sheer incivility," "rancor," "throwing stones," a "binary mindset," and a "take-no-prisoners mentality," while claiming that he is part of a "more humble" movement with a "less defensive attitude." Our "mindset" he writes, "has generated some surprising parallels between the left and the right."

The claim on the part of the common grounders to occupy a less rancorous middle ground between left and right; prochoice and antiabortion camps, has proven to be false when one looks at the ground claimed to be in the middle -- and who in fact holds it in common. What's more, some of the most shrill invective in this discussion has come from the common grounders, whose views are becoming more obviously untenable by the day. As Chip Berlet wrote at Religion Dispatches recently:

Sorting Out the Issues

There are at least three intertwined issues in the ongoing debate:

Adopting the Christian Right Frame
Stepping on the Toes of Existing Allies
Errors in Analyzing Evangelical Voters

As social scientists from Erving Goffman to Charlotte Ryan to George Lakoff have pointed out, if you adopt the frame of your opposition, you are likely to lose more than you gain.

Instead of embracing the Democratic Party platform and its call for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, there is an ongoing effort by some pragmatists to reach out to people of faith by adopting the Christian Right frame of reducing the number of abortions.

This shifts the debate from a framework of human rights for women to a narrower Christian Right framework of labeling abortion as a problem to be solved. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies will also reduce the number of abortions, but this tactic also functions as an umbrella, sheltering issues such as access to contraception, sex education, and prenatal care for pregnant women who choose that path.

We are talking about shifting the frame to gain a political advantage. That's what the Christian Right has foisted on Democratic centrists--a rigged frame. The Christian Right goal has been abortion reduction for decades. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform developed by Team Obama is framed as reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Big difference.


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