I fear that this phrase-du-juor "common ground" will come to replace
any real discussion of the issues. What is "real discussion"? It’s talking about what, exactly, "abortion reduction" means in policy terms. It’s talking about why family planning funding still, in this day and age, needs to be not only defended but explained as a critical health service? It’s talking about why, if comprehensive sexual health education includes strong abstinence messages, anti-choice advocates still oppose it and what we can do to ensure that all young people – not just those that religious extremists deem worthy – deserve a strong sex-ed program. Is finding common ground always a
good thing? I understand finding the places of intersection, sure. I
understand respectful dialogue and discussion that actually encourages
movement rather than stagnation. But what does it mean when, without
the proper groundwork laid for true, honest discussion of the more
contentious culture war issues of our time, we plunge into the attempt
at "common ground" public policy?
We see legislation introduced
like the Pregnant Women’s Support Act as a "common ground" attempt at
addressing the abortion issue by removing any discussion of abortion –
or unintended pregnancy. It’s not hard to see, as Cristina Page writes
on our site, why those who advocate for medically accurate,
factual information in the provision of women’s health services would
not support a bill that funnels money to religous-based, "pregnancy
support" organizations that proslyetize while failing to provide even
the slimmest amount of actual medical information (with no licensed
health care providers on staff, either). This wouldn’t be so bad if the
above was simply a bill to "support pregnant women" but the bill has
been and is being touted as an attempt at reaching common ground, one of the tenets of which is "abortion reduction."
So it was a bit startling for me to read about President Obama’s decision, announced yesterday, to maintain the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives
which will focus, in one of four missions, on "reducing teen pregnancy
and reducing the need for abortion." Reducing teen pregnancy is a
virtuous and appropriate goal for the federal administration – as is
reducing unintended pregnancies (which would have the natural result of
reducing abortions). But it’s unclear to me why these issues are being
placed under the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, or how faith-based
organizations that receive federal funds will use said funds to "reduce
the need for abortion" or reduce teen pregnancy.
As Time reported, President Obama was clear on the
campaign trail that he disagreed with some of the decisions made by
President Bush about the ways in which the office was run:
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you get a federal grant," Obama said then, "you can’t use that grant
money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate
against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their
But yesterday, in his announcement, he made
no such claim only going so far as to say that issues such as those
above should be "decided on a case by case basis." As for Obama’s
pronouncement on the trail that "We will also ensure that taxpayer
dollars only go to those programs that actually work", it’s equally as
vague how the office will actually accomplish that. According to Time
It was a pledge Bush made as well in the
early days of the faith-based initiative, insisting that "results"
would be the only criterion by which programs were judged. But
measuring the effectiveness of programs that receive government money
turns out to be a monumental task, and the Bush Administration never
did implement a widespread assessment program.
it may be true that assessing the effectiveness of government funded
programs is a monumental task, let it be noted that the government has
done it successfully in relation to tax-payer funded, ideologically
based, abstinence only programs – the results of which the Bush administration
promptly ignored. Last year, the Mathematica Report, conducted by the
federal government, concluded that after over $1 billion in taxpayer
funds to state level abstinence only programs, said programs failed to
teach young people to abstain from sexual activity and did not delay
the age of sexual initiation.
So, when President Obama declares
that the Office of Faith Based Initiatives is going to take on the
reduction of teen pregnancy and the need for abortion, one has to ask,
how exactly? With such a mission at the heart of an office expressly formed to funnel federal funds to faith and neighborhood based programs, there is cause for concern. This office could very well continue to support abstinence-only programs via faith-based organizations that make a case for the continued funding.
Further, I have written this before and I will write it
again – "abortion reduction" or "reducing the need for abortion" is a poor excuse for a goal. For one thing, most women do not "need" an abortion – they decide to
have an abortion based on a variety of personal and private factors. The
goal? Improving women’s access to health services including family
planning for women and their partners, contraception and overall sexual
and reproductive health services. The goal? Improving every young
person’s sexual and reproductive health and well-being by providing
comprehensive sexual health education that teaches them how to protect
and care for their health, how to navigate their own sexuality (this is
very different from teaching young people "how to have sex" as
anti-choice voices who seem utterly terrified of sexuality twist these
words to mean) and how to engage in healthy relationships.
Though the Office includes a 25 member advisory board, the board has yet to be solidified. Some emerging common ground organizations have already proclaimed their love for Obama’s efforts at tackling "difficult issues" like poverty, hunger and of course "abortion reduction." Faith in Public Life was fairly jubilant in their affirmation of Obama’s council picks,
"The religious leaders included in the President’s Council embody this ideological and religious diversity, as well as a shared commitment to results and the common good."
I remain cautious about the ways in which the Office of Faith Based Initiatives is going to tackle critical health care issues like the reduction of teen pregnancy and the need for abortion, considering the larger issues of access to family planning, contraception, comprehensive sexual education and more that have yet to be addressed. Will the new advisory council be able to come to consensus on these issues? The list below includes some of the more well-known faith voices Obama has reached out to and includes Pastor Joel Hunter, a man known for turning down (some say "released from") a position leading the Christian Coalition for his opinions on re-prioritizing the religious right organization’s agenda from being first and foremost an anti-abortion organizaion to working to combat poverty, hunger, global warming, HIV/AIDS. Reverend Jim Wallis has been a vocal advocate for a more "common ground" approach to reproductive rights issues.
- Judith N. Vredenburgh, President and Chief Executive Officer, Big Brothers / Big Sisters of AmericaPhiladelphia, PA
- Rabbi David N. Saperstein, Director & Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and noted church/state expertWashington, DC
- Dr. Frank S. Page, President emeritus, Southern Baptist ConventionTaylors, SC
- Father Larry J. Snyder, President, Catholic Charities USAAlexandria, VA
- Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., Pastor emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist ChurchCleveland, OH
- Eboo S. Patel, Founder & Executive Director, Interfaith Youth CorpsChicago, IL
- Fred Davie, President, Public / Private Ventures, a secular nonprofit intermediary New York, NY
- Dr. William J. Shaw, President, National Baptist Convention, USAPhiladelphia, PA
- Melissa Rogers, Director, Wake Forest School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and expert on church/state issuesWinston-Salem, NC
- Pastor Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, a Church DistributedLakeland, FL
- Dr. Arturo Chavez, Ph.D., President & CEO, Mexican American Cultural CenterSan Antonio, TX
- Rev. Jim Wallis, President & Executive Director, SojournersWashington, DC
- Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, Presiding Bishop, 13th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal ChurchKnoxville, TN
- Diane Baillargeon, President & CEO, Seedco, a secular national operating intermediaryNew York, NY
- Richard Stearns, President, World VisionBellevue, WA