WASHINGTON — President Obama has gotten a lot of mileage out of his declared desire to want to reduce abortion. He repeated the claim when he visited Pope Benedict XVI in July.
Pro-life participants in Obama’s task force to reduce abortion agree that the effort to find “common ground” on the issue is more than window dressing.
Even those critical of his pro-abortion policies agree that the task force is intended to produce real results, not just placate pro-life or religious voters with meaningless consultation.
But where the participants differ is on just what those intended results are: to reduce the number of abortions done in the United States or to reduce “the need for” abortion — or simply to justify new legislation providing more government funding for contraception and sex education promoting it.
One of the earliest participants in — and critics of — the task force announced on April 29 was Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based lobby group that promotes conservative Christian values.
She attended a meeting with White House staff and 20 people from organizations concerned with the abortion issue.
“I identified only four pro-lifers out of those 20,” Wright told the Register.
Towards the end of the meeting, the person in charge, Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, asked Wright for input. But when Wright responded that the government could reduce abortions by restricting the procedure, by rallying public sentiment against abortion, or by defunding it, Barnes “testily” interrupted, saying, “It is not our goal to reduce the number of abortions.”
At that point, the room fell into a stunned silence. Barnes, who was formerly a board member for Emily’s List, an organization that raised funds for pro-abortion candidates, then elaborated. The task force’s goal was to “reduce the need for abortion,” she said.
Wright reported this in an Internet story later, which she speculates got her disinvited from further meetings.
The difference is significant, Wright later told the Register. “There is no way to quantify a reduction in the need for abortion,” she said. “But you can quantify a reduction in the number of abortions and so you can hold the government accountable.”
The issue was raised by Obama’s visit to Pope Benedict XVI, where he was widely reported to have promised to reduce the “number” of abortions rather than just “the need.”
However, a second look at the president’s words when he announced the task force, which was also widely reported as being about reducing the number of abortions, shows he actually stated that its goal was to “reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion.”
Wright suspected at first that the task force was a deceptive maneuver to co-opt the organizations or individuals involved into supporting or appearing to support what was actually a “preset” program.
But this fear was dispelled at the outset by organizers of the meeting, she reports, who stated clearly that the task force would not claim any participants had “signed on” to the ultimate recommendations.
However, Wright is afraid that the task force will ultimately recommend “more government funding for abortion providers,” specifically for sex education and for contraceptives and contraception promotion.
“These programs have been a big failure in terms of reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions,” said Wright. “But they continue to get a lot of government funding.”
Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America in Washington and a member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, says the White House task force to reduce abortion need is “a sincere effort or I would not be a part of it.”
Schneck has participated in “four or five” conference calls with White House staff, which have consisted mostly of “us listening while they talk about what they want to do. … I haven’t had much to say: I’m a very small fish.”
The point seems so far to be outreach using well-connected individuals such as Schneck, who belongs to several organizations involved in common ground activities.
Schneck gathers from these calls that the people in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships who are leading on the abortion issue are focusing on two bills pending since the previous administration: the Pregnant Women Support Act and the Ryan-DeLauro bill.
“The question is how much these initiatives have really caught the attention of the real powers that be in the White House yet. There’s a lot going on right now over there,” said Schneck.
The first measure, introduced by Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat from Tennessee, in 2006, would provide health care and child care for pregnant women. In its current form, however, Schneck believes it might be opposed by pro-abortion groups and politicians because it extends State Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits to unborn children. This refers to federal medical funding provided for the children of poor but working adults, who are themselves ineligible for federal aid.
The second bill, the work of Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, both Democrats, would increase health care for poor mothers, free visits by nurses to first-time mothers, increase a tax credit for adoption, and provide child care for couples in college.
More problematic for many pro-lifers, the bill would fund contraceptives for low-income women and sex education focused on abstinence but also the use of contraceptives.
Chris Korzen, the Washington-based director of Catholics United, also believes that these two bills are being considered by the White House.
Korzen, too, is “absolutely convinced” the Obama administration is sincere and that compromise measures that are also effective in reducing “the need for” abortion do exist.
Schneck observes that the Obama administration has emphasized inclusion of those three controversial words — “the need for” — in describing the initiative to appease pro-abortion groups “who don’t see abortion as a moral issue.”
Deidre McQuade, assistant communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life secretariat, is highly critical of the notion that there is any need for abortion. “There is no medical need for abortion,” she said.
Nonetheless, she says, the Church supports any common ground initiatives that authentically respect the dignity of life and of women. But the bishops’ conference doesn’t believe contraception respects either of those and so opposes the Ryan-DeLauro bill.
On the other hand, she says, if the White House task force helps get the Pregnant Women Support Act passed, “We would be fully, wholly, joyfully behind that too.”
McQuade says everything of value in the Ryan-DeLauro bill is also in the Pregnant Women Support Act — and much more besides.
As for the task force, McQuade won’t call herself an outright skeptic, but she does say, “It’s unclear to me that it really exists.”
The White House insists that it does. In response to inquiries from the Register, White House director of specialty media Shin Inouye issued this statement: “The staff has been very active and has held dozens of meetings and calls with stakeholders from across the spectrum. This input is being gathered, and the staff’s findings will be sent to the president.”
Those who are outside this loop are the most skeptical of the administration’s motives. Representative of these is University of Alabama professor Michael New, author of a 2006 study for the Heritage Foundation showing that abortions were reduced by 20% by state laws requiring informed consent and parental involvement and prohibiting partial-birth abortions.
New also issued a harsh critique of a study by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good that claimed increased spending on welfare programs for pregnant women and unwed mothers reduced the abortion rate.
New said he is “very skeptical about the Democrats in general and Obama in particular” with regard to any actions to reduce abortion.
“This seems to be a continuation of the soft rhetoric Obama used during the election to reach out to conservative and religious voters. It was apparently successful. He got more Catholic voters than [2004 Democratic candidate John] Kerry.”
But New says Obama’s voting record as senator indicates no interest in reducing abortion. And the Democratic Party draws strong support from pro-abortion groups and providers such as Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List. It would be hard, he says, for the party to turn its back on them. He also warned pro-lifers to be skeptical of claims that indirect programs aimed at improving socioeconomic conditions will also reduce abortion. “The hard evidence just isn’t there,” he said.
As for spending on contraceptives or their promotion (as provided by the Ryan-DeLauro bill), he says there is no evidence indicating this would have a negative impact on abortion rates. On the other hand, he said, “The introduction of oral contraceptives historically is linked to a general rise in sexual activity.”
New and Wright both urge pro-lifers to see the task force in the larger context of the Obama presidency. Wright notes Obama’s quick restoration of foreign aid for abortion-promoting nonprofit organizations. And the White House and Democrats in Congress are pushing for an omnibus health-care legislative package that will reportedly include federal funding for abortion and override state restrictions on abortion.
Reports National Right to Life: “These bills pose one of the greatest threats to pro-life policies since the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion in 1973.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.