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Faith-Based Teen Pregnancy and Abortion Reduction?

Posted Feb 10 2009 11:33am

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:

"If 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 religion."

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 Magazine, 

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.

While 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
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