Common ground on abortion: effective and principled approaches

January 23, 2012, 3:18 pm | Posted by

Abortion restrictions chart via Think ProgressWith yesterday’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade and today’s massive March for Life here in DC, the often heated conversation around abortion id back in the headlines.  In the midst of these debates, it’s always refreshing to find people of faith and goodwill (both those who oppose and those who support legal access to abortion) who want to work together to reduce unintended pregnancies and support women and families.

Sometimes, anti-abortion advocates inaccurately criticize such common ground efforts as ineffectual or unprincipled.  Those who want to reduce abortions, they argue, should simply support laws that restrict access to the procedure, whether by shrinking the legal time-frame, adding waiting periods, or enacting regulatory laws designed to burden clinics into closing among other strategies.

But a new Guttmacher Institute report finds that globally, these kinds of highly restrictive laws are not actually associated with lower abortion rates. While this study compares national level legislation in different countries, these findings suggest that the restrictive abortion laws many states have passed in the last few years may not actually accomplish their ostensible goal of driving down the number of abortions.

Bryan Cones at U.S. Catholic has another thoughtful takeway from the study:

If being pro-life means being pro-women and pro-children already born in addition to being pro-unborn life, then perhaps it is time to focus equally on giving women power to decide when to get pregnant in the first place. Catholic teaching may be opposed to most forms of modern contraception, but in this case, perhaps it is better to choose the lesser of two evils–or at least this evidence seems to point in that direction.

The report also notes that, “Where abortion is legal on broad grounds, it is generally safe, and where it is illegal in most circumstances, it is generally unsafe.” For some, even those who are morally opposed to abortion, concerns abut safety and women’s health justifiably end up playing an important role in their opinions highly restrictive abortion laws.

Recently, the abortion debate has taken a turn for the extreme, with state legislatures across the country passing more and more restrictive abortion measures, the issue playing a role in dirty political tricks in South Carolina’s GOP primary, and Personhood USA (a far-right anti-abortion organization) attracting every leading GOP candidate except Romney to a forum in Greenville, S.C. earlier last week.

It’s time to inject some reasonable rhetoric back into our political conversation and figure out ways of lowering abortion rates in this country that reflect the values and concerns of those on both sides of the issue.

H/T and image via Think Progress

UPDATE: Chart from the Guttmacher Institute report via Mother Jones:



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Marcia Pally: Stop culture war rhetoric and find common ground on abortion

December 29, 2011, 8:00 am | Posted by
Marcia Pally

Marcia Pally

Marcia Pally, author of The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good, had a refreshing column in USA Today last week, with a clarion call for a different kind of rhetoric and approach to the issue of abortion. Instead of hunkering down in the culture war trenches, she makes a compelling case for the “nuanced ideas” evangelicals have been developing to find common ground approaches to the abortion debate.

Here’s the heart of her principled and pragmatic argument:

Because 73% of U.S. abortions are economically motivated (according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that researches reproductive issues), abortion would drop significantly if medical, financial and emotional support were provided during pregnancy along with day care post-partum services. It would drop further if we re-thought our adoption policies and dealt with the values taught to our kids about the worth of others and of intimate relationships, and — especially for boys — about using others for one’s own pleasure.

Moreover, there’s no reason why evangelicals should not join with other faith groups, secular organizations and feminists in developing such programs.

In addition to supporting (economically, socially, and otherwise) women who become pregnant, we can also work together even amidst difference on the legality or morality of abortion to ensure that women and families have access to the health care and contraception they need.

In a November 2011 New York Times column, Nick Kristof called attention to one such effort, calling a statement in support of family planning organized by The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good a “ray of hope.”  The draft statement says: “Family planning is morally laudable in Christian terms because of its contribution to family well-being, women’s health, and the prevention of abortion.”

Pally points out that the Republican Party’s stance on abortion has cemented the bond between the GOP and evangelical voters.  But with evangelicals’ new approach to reducing the need for abortion and supporting women, that glue might start to come un-stuck:

As Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “If that issue (abortion) were taken off the table, then other issues get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer. Issues like economic justice, racial reconciliation, the environment.”

From my experience working with evangelical Christians across the country, there’s definitely truth to this: people of all religious and political stripes are anxious for a new approach to the issue of abortion and know that battles over legality don’t get at the root cause of why women decide to have abortions. And evangelicals, especially the younger generation, care deeply about America’s role in the world, global and domestic hunger and poverty, protecting the environment, economic opportunity, and a host of other issues.

Abortion is an incredibly important moral issue, but it’s not the only issue that matters to voters of faith. Increasingly, paying lip service to the pro-life cause without actively working to create solutions and alternatives won’t be enough for politicians to maintain their grasp on evangelical voters.

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House Hearing Reveals Fundamental Policy Difference in Religious Liberty Debate

December 7, 2011, 2:00 pm | Posted by

As John noted yesterday, some Catholic bishops and conservative pundits have been criticizing the Obama administration for a purported “anti-Catholic bias,” citing a Department of Health and Human Services grant with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that was not renewed. The HHS funding is awarded to organizations that aid victims of human trafficking; staffers explained that HHS’s decision resulted from a “strong preference” for groups that provide a “full range of gynecological and obstetric care,” which would include information about contraceptive and abortion services.

Last Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a congressional hearing to examine whether HHS’s funding decision was a case of discrimination against faith-based groups. Two opposing threads of reasoning emerged, highlighting the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of this debate.

On one hand, House Committee Chair Darrell Issa argued that the government has a responsibility to accommodate faith-based groups that may fall outside of the bounds of specific guidelines. In an exchange with HHS Assistant Secretary George Sheldon, Issa illustrated his point with a comparison to an Orthodox Jew seeking employment as a driver despite the fact that he is unable to perform his driving duties on the Jewish Sabbath:

ISSA: “Mr. Sheldon… we’re not arguing today specifically about whether those services are right or wrong, about abortions…any of that. We’re arguing over who had the responsibility. And you seem to think–repeatedly, in every answer–that the bishops had the responsibility and I’m going to say from this position as chair that we, the government, have the responsibility to square executive orders, and the law, and our requests for proposals and grant writing. Not the religious-based person who says ‘I can’t drive on Friday night through Saturday at dusk because of my religion, and yes there’s someone else who can’t do it on Sundays; let’s reconcile that.’ It’s our obligation as government. That’s my view.”

D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton voiced the other perspective, disagreeing that the government is responsible for finding ways to reconcile their objectives with faith-based groups’ objectives:

NORTON: “I just want to say for the record that this is a hearing about public money. No one is entitled to a grant in the United States, faith-based or otherwise. There is no preference for any group to receive a grant, and each funding cycle is a new cycle. Public money in our country comes from people with many different background and many different views. They come continually from people with many different religious views. So there is only one issue here, and that issue seems to be whether HHS followed or failed to follow the objective procedures for awarding a grant… I don’t see how Congress can be concerned with anything but two issues: were the procedures followed, and are we paying attention first and foremost to the victims – as opposed to the organizations whose power systems, after all, are in competition with one another?

In this light, allegations of the Obama administration’s anti-religious bias distract from this larger policy debate. It’s important to recognize the root of the conflict in order to have a respectful debate going forward.

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The Catholic Bishops and Religious Liberty: The Big Picture

November 23, 2011, 10:10 am | Posted by

james carroll.pngBoston Globe columnist, religious historian and Catholic progressive James Carroll offers some important context to a story we’ve tracked closely – Catholic bishops’ increasingly tense relationship with the Obama administration over what the Catholic hierarchy has broadly defined as an assault on “religious liberty.”

Carroll isn’t buying it and steps back to offer some perspective about the shifting institutional priorities now driving the Church:

With the bishops’ new “liberty” initiative, the political partnership between the Catholic hierarchy and the largely Protestant religious right is more solid than ever. Such salvos echo those of far-right Christian groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – self-appointed advocates of public prayer, Christian supremacy, family autonomy, and “a culture of life.” Traditional values are, in a favorite phrase, “increasingly belittled” by secular society. Religion is striking back.

But Catholic participation in this extremist counter-culture is uniquely risky. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, carrying out tremendous works of charity and justice across the globe. In the United States, church agencies like Catholic Charities, and institutions like hospitals and schools, are essential to the common good. A narrowly politicized American episcopate can gravely weaken the integrity of such outreach.

Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders didn’t always sing from the same hymn book. When the religious right was first empowered during the Reagan era, Catholic bishops hummed a very different tune. In numerous declarations, they blasted the economic injustice of the unfettered market, defended the social safety net, criticized prevailing assumptions about the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and mustered decisive opposition to the wars in Central America. They did all this without launching partisan electoral campaigns. Those were different days, and different bishops.

As I’ve noted before, Catholic leaders are asking legitimate questions when it comes to a grant denied to the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. And many Catholics who have supported a range of Obama administration policies are urging the Department of Health and Human Services to broaden a proposed religious exemption to include Catholic hospitals and charities that are morally opposed to covering contraception in employee insurance plans.

But Carroll is widening the lens on this “religious liberty” story in a fashion that most reporters can’t because of daily deadline pressure or their own lack of knowledge regarding the tectonic changes that the Church has experienced since Vatican II. As an acclaimed writer and former Catholic priest who has explored both the power of the Catholic Church and the military in a way that blends deep reporting with an intriguing personal narrative, Carroll is well positioned to not miss the forest through the trees.

Catholic bishops’ current fights with the Obama administration can’t be fully understood in isolation from the broader institutional dynamics shaping the U.S Church. This includes the growing influence wielded by a well-oiled Catholic Right lobbying machine – led by groups like the American Life League, and the Cardinal Newman Society – that challenge the bishops to toe a harder line in their political engagement.

The American Life League blasted Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston for participating in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral, attack the bishops’ national anti-poverty initiative and even sought to blacklist a longtime social justice staffer at the bishops’ conference. Catholic conservatives also helped derail the candidacy of Bishop Gerald Kicanas, a moderate bishop from Tucson, who was widely expected to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year.

Archbishop Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, unwittingly proved the point that largely conservative thinkers and right-wing grassroots activists have the ears of bishops these days when he told reporter John Allen that he gets “far more criticism from people who feel we bishops are much too soft on the Democrats, who feel that we are actually in the pocket of the Democrats.” This is a stunning and revealing statement about the conservative bubble many Catholic bishops live in.

Stepping back for an even wider view of what’s driving the U.S. Church today, one can’t discount the significant impact of the late Pope John Paul II and his appointment of bishops. His nearly 27 year pontificate included a strong critique of unfettered capitalism. But the gravitational center of his papacy was often defined by staunch opposition to abortion, contraception, women’s leadership and a “theology of the body” widely embraced by a new generation of priests and bishops.

Many conservatives, including Protestants aligned with the Republican Party, were quick to cheer this worldview. Conservative Catholics like Deal Hudson, former outreach coordinator for George W. Bush, sought to make political hay by aligning Catholics and evangelicals to vote for Republicans.

While in past decades leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago sought to find some common ground amid the conservative-liberal tensions roiling the American Catholic community, these days Catholic progressives, religious sisters and Catholic social justice leaders who supported the health care reform law are demonized as dissidents. George Weigel cheers the End of the Bernardin Era and today’s Church leaders are getting an earful from Catholic Right bloggers, conservative intellectuals like Robert George of Princeton University and culture warriors like Bill Donohue.

Most bishops are unlikely to heed Carroll’s warnings, but that’s a missed opportunity for some needed self-reflection.

Photo: James Carroll

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Eric Cantor Implies Government Should De-Fund Major Hospitals

October 8, 2011, 1:58 pm | Posted by

In his Values Voters speech yesterday morning, Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised that a Republican victory in the White House and the Senate will lead to legislation “eliminat[ing] government funding for any and all organizations that perform abortions.”

Cantor was referencing Republican attempts to de-fund Planned Parenthood, but–as Eliot Spitzer identified when challenging Tony Perkins on this same claim earlier this year–this broad promise would go much further than that.

According to a 2008 Guttmacher study, there are over 600 hospitals across the country whose federal funding would be jeopardized by such a standard. The question for Leader Cantor is whether he intends to de-fund these hospitals as well or, if not, why they should get a special exception.

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