In our pain, anger and profound sadness over the murder of Dr. Tiller, pro-choice people risk losing an opportunity to see a better day as a country and a movement. In the wake of our loss, it is tempting to continue to categorize in one fixed way all who oppose abortion. To do so would be easy, but also foolish. We must admit and accept that not all who are opposed to abortion are the same. Especially since a new movement of pro-lifers has extended a hand in search of a better way.
Yesterday offered a unique opportunity to make this distinction. Alexia Kelley, co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, was appointed Director of Faith-based and Community Partnerships at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Each of the eleven federal agencies has an Office for Faith-based and Community Partnerships that reports to the White House Office of Faith-based Initiatives. Kelley has been appointed as the liaison for HHS.
Moments after the announcement, John O'Brien, president of the pro-choice group Catholics for Choice, released a statement calling the Kelley appointment "a defeat for reason and logic." He continued, "The administration has talked a lot about reducing the need for abortion, and progressive groups like my own are totally with the administration in doing that," but "to have someone working in HHS who oversaw an organization that is anti-abortion... really beggars belief."
HHS has been called "ground zero in the culture wars" for good reason. Its policies strike at the heart of our most heated social disagreements, particularly those between pro-choice and pro-life groups. HHS oversees the FDA, which approves new contraceptive and abortion methods; the CDC, which promotes disease prevention initiatives on STDs including HIV; and Title X, the nation's contraception program for the poor, among others. One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration was the influence it granted the anti-abortion, anti-contraception movement on HHS policy and functions.
O'Brien's complaint is that the choice of Kelley, given her previous role overseeing a Catholic, anti-abortion organization, puts important social policies in danger of being hijacked by those same Bushian forces. But Kelley is not the Bush-styled pro-lifer of yore. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which Kelley founded, is a progressive organization that has also played a primary role in instigating a nationwide discussion of common ground on abortion. Her group has championed policies aimed at preventing the need for abortion, policies that have been identified as those pro-choice people can support too. It would be a mistake to group Kelley among anti-abortion operatives who snub opportunities to improve the relationship between pro-choice and pro-life communities, and who refuse to do anything to reduce the need for abortion. Her group has worked for policies that can reduce the need for abortion, work that has offended many hard-line anti-choice groups and individuals. To date, she has dedicated her career to finding shared solutions and minimizing this debilitating national conflict.
In November of 2008, Kelley's group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, released its study, "Reducing Abortion in America: The Effect of Socioeconomic Factors," which found that "Analysis of nationwide data suggests that the economic status of pregnant women factors prominently into their abortion decision. Public policies that provide assistance and support to low-income families are rarely framed as ways to reduce the incidence of abortion. However, the findings from this study suggest that a two standard deviation increase in economic assistance to low-income families is correlated with a 20% lower abortion rate in the 1990s. Across the entire United States, this translates into roughly 200,000 fewer abortions. Further, higher male employment in the 1990s was associated with a 21% lower abortion rate; and lower poverty rates were correlated with 10% reduction in the abortion rate."
The report concluded, "Elected officials can utilize effective and appropriate socioeconomic public policies to reduce abortions. These include: promoting policies that increase male employment; lower the poverty rate; provide funding for child care for working women; and increase economic assistance to low-income families. Legislation aimed at these goals can effectively reduce abortion in America."
This is a revolutionary leap in pro-life thought, a dramatic break from the 36-year-long drumbeat by the right-wing anti-abortion movement; that segment has single-mindedly focused on restricting and illegalizing abortion. In fact, the Catholics in Alliance report admits, "Our analysis finds that state laws regulating abortion had little systematic impact on the abortion rate in the 1990s. The one exception may be Medicaid funding. Our analysis consistently finds that Medicaid funding for abortions increases the abortion rate -- a finding consistent with earlier research -- though this effect is never statistically significant. If Medicaid funding does in fact increase the abortion rate, this result is nonetheless consistent with the main the implications of our study suggesting that the abortion rate is sensitive to economic factors."
Kelley is a new style pro-lifer, one who believes a progressive agenda will produce pro-life results. In January 2009, she wrote in an op-ed published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "Voters are looking for a new path forward. The question is, do we have the political and moral will to make it happen? People of faith have a particular responsibility to both collaborate with and challenge the new administration. It's long past time for all of us to move from rhetoric and division to results."
Make no mistake, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good is a Catholic organization that accepts the Church's position on abortion and contraception. But under Kelley's leadership, its efforts were spent exploring an array of policies that succeed at reducing the need for abortion. The organization has taken a notably passive role towards the church's dictates. It has not worked to restrict abortion or make contraception less available, approaches most other anti-abortion and Catholic groups focus on exclusively.
But unlike some of the loudest voices in that movement, she believes the solution rests at the end of a new path that can be entered together. Even if some way along that path we revisit conflicting convictions. The White House has indicated that HHS will be the department that will enact many of the common ground policies that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, working with the White House Council on Women and Girls, is currently helping to identify. And while Kelley's new focus is not exclusively on reducing the need for abortion -- the Office of Faith-based Initiatives is also focused on poverty reduction, health care reform, and encouraging responsible fatherhood -- Kelley will help shepherd, not set, the White House's common ground agenda on abortion through HHS. It's fitting that, as someone who helped spark the common ground effort, she will now help see it through to safety.
Pro-choice people need to improve the national dialogue on the abortion issue. We can lower the vitriol. We can expose the anti-abortion groups that oppose all the proven ways to reduce the need for abortion. We must isolate those that only stoke the coals of hatred in this conflict and, especially those who create the inflamed environment that inspired Dr. Tiller's murderer. The vast majority of self-described "pro-life" Americans abhor the violence, want to move past the conflict and have both sides work together to find common ground. The American pro-life public has longed for leaders like Kelley and, the truth is, so have we.