Alexia Kelley: Obama’s Poor Choice for “Common Ground” Post at HHS

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Alexia Kelley: Obama’s Poor Choice for “Common Ground” Post at HHS

Frances Kissling

Can pro-family-planning religious groups expect a fair deal from Alexia Kelley, a director who believes that birth control, even for married couples, is immoral?

President Barack Obama’s appointment of Alexia Kelley, founder of
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, as director of the
Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
took the pro-choice movement by surprise. On Thursday, the day that
news of the appointment leaked out, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of
the National Women’s Law Center and a quintessential Washington
insider, told me that she "hadn’t heard anything about it till today,
and we are trying to get to the bottom of it."

What Greenberger
and others will want to know is why the post, which includes oversight
of the department’s faith-based grant-making in family planning, HIV
and AIDS and in small-scale research into the effect of religion and
spirituality on early sexual behavior, has gone to someone who both
believes abortion should be illegal and opposes contraception. That’s
right — Kelley’s group of self-described progressive Catholics takes a
position held by only a small minority, that the Catholic church is
right to prohibit birth control. Were there no qualified religious
experts who hold more mainstream views on family planning and abortion,
views that are consistent with those of President Obama?

The HHS budget for family-planning services grants to faith-based and
community groups is more than $20 million. Can pro-family-planning
religious groups expect a fair deal from a director who believes that
birth control, even for married couples, is immoral? Will programs that
provide contraception to adolescents get funded? Obama’s Feb. 5
Executive Order establishing a new Office of Faith-Based and
Neighborhood Partnerships gave the office and its 11 satellites in
federal agencies a policy role on the issues that are at the core of
HHS’s sexual and reproductive health work: addressing teen pregnancy
and reducing the need for abortion. How can an opponent of the single
most effective way to do both — contraception — lead that effort in
HHS enthusiastically and effectively?

Through Catholics in Alliance, Kelley has sought to narrow the
interpretation of common ground on abortion to efforts to reduce the
number of abortions by providing women who are already pregnant with
economic support for continuing the pregnancy and making adoption
easier. While pro-choice advocates have been in the forefront of
efforts to increase funding for women and children and for pre- and
postnatal care, few researchers believe that if pregnant women get the
level of support common grounders are talking about, they will jump at
the chance to have babies. If one is really serious about making it
possible for women to avoid abortion, contraception is the single most
important component of any program.

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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Kelley and other moderately
progressive Catholic and evangelical groups owe their pull in the
Democratic Party to the disappointment of 2004. They seized on the
Democratic defeat in the 2004 elections as a means to push the party to
the right on sex and reproduction. Democrats, stung by their near miss
in Ohio, desperate to attract swing voters, eager to prove that they
were "sensitive" to religion, took the bait.

With support from George Soros and Michael Kieschnick, the founder
of Working Assets and Credo Mobile, groups like Sojourners, Faith in
Public Life and Catholics in Alliance entered the electoral arena.
Catholics in Alliance and its sister organization, Catholics United,
were active in voter registration and organizing Catholic voters in
swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2006 and 2008. Presenting
themselves as more Catholic than the pope — faithful to church
teachings on contraception, abortion and everything else the majority
of Catholics have long rejected — the groups insisted in press release
after press release that good Catholics could vote for pro-choice
candidates, so long as those candidates were also working to reduce the
number of abortions. After all, they admitted, it was simply not
possible in the current environment to make abortion illegal, so the
next best option was pushing the numbers down.

In part, Kelley’s
appointment is the usual political payback. Catholics and evangelicals
including Kelley provided abortion cover for the president and for
candidates like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. A Democratic governor
from a red state famous for the ferocity and electoral strength of its
social conservatives, Sebelius won a second term in a landslide in
2006. Catholics in Alliance campaigned for her reelection. Though she
faced heavy fire from the religious right when she was nominated,
Sebelius is now the HHS secretary.

Kelley is a distinguished
advocate of healthcare reform and the rights of poor people. For almost
a decade, she worked for the Conference of Catholic Bishops on the
Campaign for Human Development, a grant-making program roundly
condemned by conservatives as too progressive. She entered electoral
politics in 2004 when she served as the DNC liaison to the religious
community. In 2005, she founded Catholics in Alliance. She has much to
offer in government — but not at HHS. There are 10 other government
agencies that have faith-based offices. A far less controversial
placement could have been found at Labor, Housing and Urban
Development, or the Department of Education.

A heated exchange about the appointment between Jon O’Brien,
president of Catholics for Choice (disclosure: I was president of CFC
for 25 years) and Catholics in Alliance/Catholics United is
representative of the struggle between religious progressives who
support gay marriage and reproductive freedom and those like Kelley who
think war and abortion are the same evil. O’Brien was the first
pro-choice leader to criticize Kelley’s appointment, and he went after
her with a vengeance. In a press release,
he called Kelley’s "abortion reduction rhetoric … simply a newly
packaged antiabortion message," claimed the group used "flawed economic
data to support anti-poverty measures as a means to reduce the number
of abortions," and asserted the current policy fascination with "common
ground" has devolved "into an abandonment of ideals."

CFC backed
up its assertions about the anti-family-planning and antiabortion
agenda of Kelley and Catholics in Alliance with a report titled "The Trouble With Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good."
The report asserted that the Catholic Alliance’s "position on abortion
is firmly planted on the far right … In its own words: ‘Catholics in
Alliance is pro-life. We support full legal protection for unborn
children as a requirement of justice and as a matter of essential human
rights.’" In a 2006 Voter Guide, Catholics in Alliance made a
disturbing equation between war and abortion, saying that Catholics
need to "build the essential conditions for a culture of life, to end
affronts to human life such as poverty, abortion, torture and war."

Statements like this undercut the alliance’s claim that its efforts
at common ground seek to end the "culture war" that surrounds abortion.
In response to the Catholics for Choice press release, Jennifer Goff, a
spokeswoman for Catholics in Alliance, said her group "is working
toward reaching common ground in order to make real progress on the
moral and political challenges our country faces instead of resorting
to spurious attacks
launched by those who are more concerned with inflaming the culture
wars than effecting positive change." Chris Korzen, executive director
of Catholics United, characterized O’Brien’s opposition and the CFC
report as "simplistic," "incendiary" and "a roadblock to progress."

most serious charge against Kelley is that under her leadership
Catholics in Alliance used “flawed economic data to support
anti-poverty measures as a means to reduce the number of abortions.”
The misuse of research to promote ideology is a serious charge and if
true would disqualify Kelley from an appointment that requires
adherence to evidence-based policy setting. During the Bush
administration, ideology was often a substitute for science, especially
in the reproductive health field. Obama has promised a return to
scientific integrity.

The charges relate to an August 2008 study by Penn State political
science professor Joseph Wright commissioned by Catholics in Alliance.
Called "Reducing Abortion in America: The Effect of Socioeconomic
Factors," the study is a perfect example of advocacy research gone
awry. It claims that analysis of state level data on abortion from 1982
to 2000 shows that spending money on programs for job creation, primary
and prenatal healthcare, and the nutrition program known as WIC (Women,
Infants, and Children) substantially reduced abortion rates in states
where such measures were taken. Given Kelley’s opposition to family
planning, it’s the only hope she has that a credible argument could be
made that abortions can be significantly reduced without family

In November, following the elections, the study was
removed from the Web site and later replaced with a new version that
plays down the claims of significant reductions in abortion rates based
on spending for programs such as WIC. The new version
attempts to correct a series of serious methodological and
interpretation errors in the original study. Social science researchers
on both sides of the abortion issue expressed concerns about the study,
and one coauthor, Professor Michael Bailey of Georgetown University,
removed his name from the revised report. Given the serious
methodological weaknesses of the first study, there is little reason to
assume a second take by the same author can be trusted.

leaders other than O’Brien have not yet commented on the Kelley
appointment; most are still reeling from Dr. Tiller’s murder. One hopes
they will turn their attention to this appointment and demand a review
of Kelley’s qualifications for this post. Pro-choice groups also
contributed to the president’s election. They deserve appointees who
agree with the platform on which the president ran. The pro-choice
movement’s recommendations for pro-choice appointees to the faith-based
office’s advisory council were ignored. Now, after the Kelley
appointment, the mission going forward must be to ensure that any
additional staff members appointed to faith-based centers in
Cabinet-level agencies reflect the pro-choice, pro-family-planning
values of the administration. As Greenberger and others try to get to
the bottom of the Kelley appointment, greater oversight of, and
consultation on, future appointments need to be secured.

This post first appeared on Salon.