Common Ground Can Be Found

February 4, 2009, 3:01 pm | Posted by
Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent
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For decades, regardless of who inhabited the White House, members of both political parties have churned out position papers and sound bites to advance their views of how key social issues should play out.

Often, this has involved much shouting and gnashing of teeth, especially with regard to the hot-button cultural topics that never seem to have a sliver of common ground.

The ongoing exercises in acrimony and futility may be ending — or at least shifting to a new civility. President Barack Obama called for bipartisanship and unity throughout his campaign and has acted on this philosophy in recent appointments and conversations during his first few weeks in office.

Even before he took office, however, the nation started to see glimmers of common-ground thinking, of moving away from the “us versus them” mentality and into something new and, hopefully in the end, much more effective. And it’s only heating up.

Two historically disparate groups — evangelical Christians and progressives — have crafted a collaborative agenda dealing with some of the most explosive social issues facing the nation, including abortion, homosexuality, immigration reform and torture, which they presented to Obama’s transition team and members of Congress just five days before the inauguration.

They’ve also done extensive outreach with issue groups and religious groups, and have drafted a manual for evangelical pastors.

Come Let Us Reason Together’s governing agenda is the brainchild of two Washington, D.C.-based groups — Third Way, a progressive think-tank, and Faith in Public Life, a religious nonprofit strategy center, along with a handful of university professors and evangelical leaders around the country.

When you look at the participants and their backgrounds, they aren’t exactly the folks you’d expect to see sitting down to lunch together, much less brainstorming on volatile social issues.

But for the past two years, they have been quietly working together to create a common-ground agenda. What started out as a half-day meeting at a diner in Atlanta has turned into a project that is gaining momentum and, hopefully, will redirect the tenor of public discussion of policy issues in our country.

“The culture wars have been characterized by vilifying those who differ from us on provocative issues and treating them as traitors and threats,” explained the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Florida and one-time president-elect of the Christian Coalition. “I believe we can end those wars by thinking of our differences as ways we can learn from each other and advance without compromising core values.”

Forming such an agenda may seem like heresy to diehards on either side, but it has a broad enough appeal that it just might work. Specifically, the agenda calls for:

# Reducing abortions through increased prevention and support measures for pregnant women and their families.

# Protecting the rights of gays and lesbians in the workplace, making it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote employees based on sexual orientation, with an exemption for faith-based employers.

# Supporting immigration reform that paves the way to an earned path to citizenship, including a guest worker program and an effort to keep families together.

# Renouncing torture as immoral, unwise and un-American.

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SCHIP passage to add 4 million children to insurance rolls

February 4, 2009, 10:58 am | Posted by
Associated Baptist Press
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On his 16th day in office, President Barack Obama signed a bill expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by $32 billion, providing coverage to an additional 4 million children in families with incomes too high to receive Medicaid but who cannot afford to buy health insurance.

“Today marks a tremendous victory,” said Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life, one of a number of religious groups that worked more than two years for passage.

The House of Representatives voted 289-139 in favor of the bill Jan. 14 and signed off on minor changes by the Senate Feb. 4 by a vote of 290-135. The president signed the measure into law later in the day in the East Room of the White House.

“This is only the first step,” Obama said at the signing ceremony. “As I see it, providing coverage for 11 million children is a down payment on my commitment to cover every single American.”

President Bush twice vetoed measures in the last Congress to expand the program, saying it would move the nation toward socialized medicine. Due to run out March 31, SCHIP currently covers about 7 million children across the country.

A federal program authorized under Title XXI of the Social Security Act, SCHIP provides matching funds to states while giving broad guidelines for individual states to set their own standards for designing and administering the program.

The new guidelines provide coverage for children from birth until age 19, said Jocelyn Guyer, deputy executive director at the Georgetown Center for Children and Families. It also allows coverage of pregnant women.

Prior to voting 66-32 to reauthorize SCHIP Jan. 29, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have guaranteed that states have the right to extend coverage to children before they are born. That would have put into a law a pro-life regulation implemented by the Bush administration in 2002.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, called rejection of the amendment “tragic” and “yet one more example that America is sadly becoming an anti-child culture.”

Land also criticized the legislation expanding SCHIP as “nothing less than creeping socialized medicine by stealth,” according to Baptist Press.

Previous House and Senate votes on the measure have fallen largely along party lines, but religious groups like the PICO National Network, a faith-based coalition of 1,000 congregations spanning the political spectrum to press for healthcare for the nation’s children, say it is not a partisan but rather a moral issue.

“I am very conservative,” Roy Dixon, a bishop in the Church of God in Christ and life-long Republican told reporters in a conference call Jan. 4. “I have been that way all my life, but I believe that our children definitely need SCHIP, and I’m very glad that it has passed and will be signed today.”

With passage of the federal bill, action now turns to the states. “It’s a good day for kids,” Guyer said. “More work to be done, but a very good day for kids.”

Funding the increase in part is a 60-cent tax increase on cigarettes, to about $1 a pack. Supporters say the provision adds to health benefits, because if tobacco products are too expensive it might reduce the number of people who smoke, while opponents say it unfairly burdens smokers.

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What Can We Do Now To Reduce Abortions?

January 30, 2009, 3:19 pm | Posted by
Salon, Broadsheet
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*For RealAbortionSolutions.org, FPL built a coalition of religious leaders who were already dedicated to common ground solutions to reduce abortions to support an ad campaign to raise awareness about this approach. So far, ads have run in 11 states and during the March for Life in Washington, DC.

In theory, 100 percent of us, regardless of our position on who gets to decide what and when, fully agree that we’d much prefer no woman would have to get an abortion in the first place. Things get pretty murky from there on out. But since November, when voters elected Obama and defeated all three pro-life ballot initiatives, we’ve been hearing rumors that some parts of the pro-life movement have made the pragmatic choice to take a more moderate position. In her story “Pro-Lifers in Obamaland,” Newsweek’s Sarah Kliff takes a close look at some of these rumors.

The piece kicks off with a quote from Sister Sharon, a pro-life activist for two decades, who has come to believe that overturning Roe v. Wade is not a realistic goal. “So much time has elapsed since Roe. I think among veterans, like me, few if any think the Supreme Court is going to overturn it,” she says. “We need to start thinking in practical terms: what can we do now to reduce abortions? And I think that’s very pro-life, if we can lower the numbers.”

To that end, Sister Sharon has taken to marching with a group called Catholics United under the banner: “Congress: Support Pregnant Women and Reduce Abortions Now!” This new emphasis on “reducing” abortion, rather than banning it outright, amounts to “heresy” in some sectors of the pro-life community, according to Kliff. (And the National Right to Life Foundation has already disputed her reporting in an open letter on their site.) Others voice a bunker mentality that may not be unfamiliar to pro-choice activists still weary from the Bush years. “He’s got the House, he’s got the Senate, so I think we may go back to more guerrilla warfare, or go back to working harder on your own abortion clinic in your town,” says pro-life blogger Jill Stanek.

According to the Third Way foundation, 72 percent of Americans support “reducing abortion by preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term.” But even that seemingly benign statement is open to partisan bickering: In her article, Kliff describes the foundation as a “non-profit think tank that promotes bi-partisan co-operation,” while the NRLC calls it a “liberal think tank” staffed by “veteran pro-abortion strategists.”

But she has found several organizations that are willing to give this new tactic a try, including Faith in Public Life, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and RealAbortionSolutions.org (whose slogan is “come together based on results, not rhetoric”). Jim Wallis, the director of Sojourners, described as a “progressive evangelical group,” sounds eminently reasonable when he says, “Let’s look at results. How do you really reduce abortion? You promote women’s health care, you promote involved fatherhood. I think those programs are significant if you’re saving unborn lives.” Other totally smart initiatives discussed in the piece include supporting anti-poverty programs, increasing funding for food stamps and Medicaid, providing access to prenatal healthcare and insurance for women and children, and creating parenting programs and educational grants to help mothers get through high school and college.

When I hear of conservative groups supporting legislation to help out pregnant women and their children, it actually makes me think that some compromise may be possible. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the right to begin, continue or end a pregnancy is absolute. But I also have no problem understanding why other people, even other women, believe otherwise. And while I’ll happily fight those same people tooth and nail to keep abortion safe and legal for all women, regardless of their age and financial situation, I’d consider it a huge accomplishment if we could at least make policy on the parts we agree on.

The legislative cornerstone of this alleged “third way” of pro-life thought, according to the article, is the Support Pregnant Woman Act, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Unfortunately, it’s still not quite there. In general, writes Kliff, “pro-choice legislators push for access to contraceptives, while those on the pro-life side vote for increased funding to pregnancy-support programs.” NARAL Pro-Choice America opposes the act, according to policy director Donna Crane, because of “the absence of important pieces, like contraception, and the presence of some parts tinged with anti-choice values.” I couldn’t find a copy of the Support Pregnant Woman Act online, but I did find the Pregnant Women Support Act, introduced by the Democrats for Life (the only reference to the former is Kliff’s article, so they may be more or less the same thing). There’s plenty to like: funding for daycare on university campuses and for programs to prevent domestic violence, mandated health coverage for pregnant women and for their newborns through the first year of life. There’s also plenty that offended my own pro-choice sensibilities: stricter enforcement of parental notification laws, education and counseling on the “effects” of abortion (which are rarely neutral) and an emphasis on adoption (which, while a perfectly acceptable choice, is not at all the same as abortion, to my mind, given that it requires a woman to go through nine months of labor and delivery).

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Pro-Lifers in Obamaland

January 27, 2009, 3:28 pm | Posted by
Newsweek
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*For RealAbortionSolutions.org, FPL built a coalition of religious leaders who were already dedicated to common ground solutions to reduce abortions to support an ad campaign to raise awareness about this approach. So far, ads have run in 11 states and during the March for Life in Washington, DC.

January 27, 2009

Sister Sharon Dillon has been attending the annual March for Life for 20 years. A pro-life activist since high school, the 50-year-old former director of the Franciscan Federation doesn’t agree with Roe v. Wade–the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But as strong as her convictions are, she’s also frustrated with the kind of single-minded activism she sees around her: young girls chanting, “hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go!” “So much time has elapsed since Roe,” says Dillon. “I think among veterans, like me, few if any, think the Supreme Court is going to overturn it.”

That realization is why she has come to Washington with a different message this year. Dillon is marching with a group called Catholics United who carry a banner that says: “CONGRESS: SUPPORT PREGNANT WOMEN AND REDUCE ABORTIONS NOW!” This is the first time that Dillon has seen any mention of abortion reduction; the battle has always been about Roe and bans. “We need to start thinking in practical terms: what can we do now to reduce abortions?” she says. “And I think that is very pro-life, if we can lower the numbers,” she says.

What Dillon is promoting may not sound radical. But to legions of pro-life activists, even the use of the word “reduction” instead of elimination borders on heresy. The pro-life movement began with Roe v. Wade and has, for 36 years, been centered on protest against legal abortion. The idea of lobbying Congress to reduce abortions–rather than ban them outright–strikes many as a wrong-headed signal that tolerating any level of abortion is acceptable. So they have pushed presidents to appoint justices likely to overturn Roe and urged Congress to outlaw at least some types of abortion, like with the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed in 2003. But at the march in Washington last Thursday, the leftover signs from the massive celebration of President Obama’s inauguration were persistent reminders that such a strategy faces stiff challenges–at least in the short term.

The election of a pro-choice administration and a Democratic Congress has divided the pro-life movement, between those who are preparing for the fight of their lives and those who see an opportunity to redefine what it means to be pro-life. During the eight years of the sympathetic Bush administration, pro-lifers made progress. The Supreme Court is just one vote shy of an anti-Roe majority. Pro-life groups have also promoted state-level restrictions on access to abortion, such as requiring women to have an ultrasound prior to abortion or wait 24 hours. It’s been their most popular tactic and has been on an upswing in recent years: approximately 400 bills restricting abortion were considered by the states in 2007, a more than 50 percent increase from 2006, according to Americans United for Life, the country’s oldest pro-life organization.

But now, many pro-life activists worry that their victories from the past eight years have been made vulnerable. Obama has already repealed the Reagan-era global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy, which had barred the federal funding of non-government organizations that perform or even discuss abortions in foreign countries–even if they don’t use American money for the procedures. And here in the United States, pro-lifers fear that their push for more state-level restrictions may have run its course after all three pro-life ballot initiatives introduced in 2008 failed.

“In reality, if you look at the current situation we’re in, I think those kind of statutes have gone as far as they can go,” says James W. Brown, chief of staff for pro-life Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who recently introduced the Support Pregnant Women Act. “The question is, where does it go from here?”

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Moving On To Common Ground

January 23, 2009, 3:40 pm | Posted by
Birth Control Watch
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*For RealAbortionSolutions.org, FPL built a coalition of religious leaders who were already dedicated to common ground solutions to reduce abortions to support an ad campaign to raise awareness about this approach. So far, ads have run in 11 states and during the March for Life in Washington, DC.

Yesterday, on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Connecticut Catholic Conference announced its solution to the increasing rate of teenagers seeking abortion care in the state. They suggest the state implement abortion restrictions; specifically, they want the state to limit teenager’s access to abortion by requiring parental notification. If lowering the abortion rate is what they’re after, this is the wrong approach.

Studies show that laws which restrict access to abortion often have little-to-no impact on the rate of abortion in a state but instead do something far worse: increase the number of late term abortions. In Mississippi, for example, in just a year after passage of a favorite pro-life restriction, mandating a waiting period before a woman can receive an abortion, researchers discovered the second trimester abortion rate had increased by a whopping 53 percent. In 2000, Texas lawmakers adopted an approach similar to what the Connecticut Catholic Conference recommends and required parental consent before a teenager could have an abortion. Researchers discovered a spike in the number of second trimester procedures obtained by 18-year-olds. It turned out that many 17 year olds opted to wait to have the abortion until they could do it privately.

Call it the pro-life paradox: the strategies of the anti-abortion movement–wherever tried–fail to produce “pro-life” outcomes. The trend is true globally. The countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are those that that have outlawed abortion. Abortion is completely illegal throughout most of Latin America, but abortion rates in Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic have been estimated to be more than twice the U.S. rate. In Brazil and Colombia, they are substantially higher as well. At the same time, these countries’ maternal mortality rates, which are highly associated with unsafe abortion, range from six times to more than 20 times the rate in the United States. Conversely, the countries with the lowest abortion rates are those with the strongest pro-choice policies, abortion is legal and often even free of charge.

During the Clinton administration when pro-choice policies were implemented we witnessed the most dramatic decline in abortion rates ever recorded. Through the eight years of the Bush administration, the anti-abortion movement set national policy, yet none of its strategies resulted in dramatic decreases in the abortion rate. Instead, teen birth rates are now spiking in 26 states and the rates of STDs are rising too. What the Catholic Conference is recommending for Connecticut is not new but rather a continuation of the old policies that have failed, even by “pro-life” standards.

That’s why several pro-life groups have begun calling for a new, common ground approach. Many pro-life people are supporting pro-choice policies that have proven to prevent unwanted pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion. Realabortionsolutions.org is an organization that is supported by many religious groups and is calling for common ground approaches to reduce unwanted pregnancy and abortion, Their tag line is: “Finding real solutions to our high abortion rate based on results, not rhetoric.” Reverend Rich Cizik, vice president for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained the group’s philosophy, “We must move beyond the spiritually damaging culture war era. Deeply felt moral issues must no longer be leveraged for partisan gain. Let’s all join together to be part of a positive strategy to reduce abortions in America that puts problem-solving above political posturing.” The group gets down to brass tacks. Recognizing that one in five abortions is obtained by a teenager and 60 percent are obtained by women with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line, their platform is to favor policies that prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women, and assist new parents.

The new Obama administration and democrat-controlled Congress have committed to the common ground approach as well. To signal their seriousness, on the first day the Senate returned to session, Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the Prevention First Act. This common ground legislation is designed to increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sex education, as well as reduce unwanted pregnancies in the United States. President Obama marked the anniversary of Roe v Wade by stating, “While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services.”

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