In the News 2009

Catholics’ Rights Rift


It might have seemed like a big victory for left-leaning Roman Catholics this month when President Obama named Alexia Kelley to a post overseeing faith-based initiatives at the Health and Human Services Department. She is well-known as a crusader on Catholic anti-poverty initiatives — first while on the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and most recently as the founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

But the appointment has exposed a nasty rift within the politically active Catholic left. On one side are those whose main interest is protecting abortion rights as a matter of social justice. On the other are those who are much more interested in fighting poverty and who don’t want to spend much time talking about the abortion issue.

Kelley considers herself “pro-life” but in the middle ground on the issue, as she does not favor a repeal of Roe v. Wade. Her focus instead is on efforts to reduce the number of abortions by providing assistance to poor women.

That’s not moderate enough for Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice. O’Brien derides the appointment as a “defeat for reason and logic” — and a sign Obama may not be the ally abortion rights groups were counting on — because the group that Kelley ran opposed efforts to expand access to sex education and contraception as a means of reducing the need for abortion.

The dispute is so heated that, just as Kelley was tapped for the HHS post, Catholics for Choice issued a 28-page report castigating Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good for “simply repackaging the anti-abortion stance of the most conservative elements of society and denigrating those who argue for full sexual and reproductive rights.” As examples, the report cites Kelley’s efforts to change the Democratic platform last year to call for a reduction in the number of abortions as well as her group’s 2008 voter guide, which called on Catholics “to end affronts to human life such as poverty, abortion, torture, and war.”

Even so, in the broader scheme of things, Kelley would not seem like such a big threat to abortion rights. After working for the bishops on an anti-poverty campaign, she helped the Democratic National Committee reach out to religious voters and advised the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign. She later started Catholics in Alliance as a counterweight to more conservative Catholic groups that reject the specter of compromise on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. And this year she backed the confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary when the Kansas governor was under fire for supporting abortion rights.

Kelley declined to comment on O’Brien’s opposition, but several of her allies disputed his characterization of her as wanting to push Democrats toward an anti-abortion posture. Chris Korzen, who heads Catholics United, a group that shares affinities with Kelley’s group on the abortion issue, says the two of them want to find a third way and cites legislation by two Democrats, Lincoln Davis of Tennessee in the House and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania in the Senate, that would provide federal funds to help poor women offset the costs of having a baby. Just as pressing, he says, they both want to inject a Catholic voice into debates about social justice issues.

Korzen sees the O’Brien-Kelley dispute as mainly about comparative shares of Washington clout. O’Brien and his allies “are being left out of these conversations about how to advance some core issues,” he says. “They are feeling the pinch and wondering how to make their effort relevant.”

The chief operating officer of Catholics in Alliance, Jennifer Goff, issued a statement saying that O’Brien was “mischaracterizing our mission” and that her group wants to “limit unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and reduce the number of abortions.”

But that’s precisely where the threat to Democratic solidarity on abortion rights lies, O’Brien says. He argues that the seemingly subtle distinction between reducing the number of abortions, as Kelley wants, and reducing the need for abortions, as O’Brien advocates, means a world of difference, since Kelley’s approach casts abortion in a morally negative light.

Already that debate is threatening the Casey and Davis bills, as abortion rights advocates are shopping an alternative being written by two House Democrats, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Tim Ryan of Ohio. It would increase funding for sex education and contraception.

The article originally appeared in CQ Weekly.


Catholics for Choice