New Religious Left Skirmish: Catholics for Choice Attacks Obama Pick

The group Catholics for Choice attacks an Obama appointment as too soft on abortion rights.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Another skirmish between religious progressives and the religious left has broken out. The group Catholics for Choice, which supports abortion rights, has come out against the appointment of a progressive Catholic activist to direct the federal Health and Human Services Department's faith-based office.

The new HHS faith-based director, Alexia Kelley, is certainly not a hard-core conservative. An adviser to John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, she has since led the progressive Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which has came under attack from the conservative Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights for its messaging around abortion.

"The Catholic Church believes that every human life—whether young or old, guilty or innocent, born or unborn—is both precious and sacred," Catholics in Alliance says on its website. "It remains as the foundation for all principles and elements of social teaching." But the group is more focused on social justice issues like fighting poverty and has promoted ways to reduce abortion that avoid curtailing abortion rights.

Catholics for Choice's president, Jon O'Brien, has issued a withering attack on Kelley's appointment because of her apparent support for some abortion restrictions. An excerpt:

From the beginning, Alexia Kelley directed CACG to ignore the question of access to abortion and reframe the debate in terms of reducing the number of abortions—although polls consistently show that the majority of Catholics support abortion rights. This language around reducing the number of abortions should be a huge red flag to anyone who believes in and seeks to defend a woman's right to choose. While evidence-based prevention methods can go a long way towards reducing the need for abortion, some women will always need access to safe and legal abortion and we must recognize that and ensure public policies support that access.

Alexia Kelley is on record with her support for restrictions on access to abortion, despite her organization's efforts to avoid the question of legalization at every turn. In an audio press conference prior to the 2008 election, Ms. Kelley agreed with other speakers who spoke out in favor of restrictions on abortion, saying, "Catholics in Alliance supports these restrictions as well."

In response, the progressive group Catholics United, closely allied with the White House, has put out a statement supporting Kelley's appointment. From Catholics United Executive Director Chris Korzen:

Catholics United is profoundly disappointed by Catholics for Choice's simplistic, incendiary, and unhelpful reaction to President Obama's appointment of Alexia Kelley to this important post. Alexia—my colleague and friend—is exactly the sort of leader we need in the Health and Human Services department's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships office. Her experience, compassion, and sensitivity to diverse perspectives will be a tremendous asset to the administration's efforts to promote the common good.

O'Brien's statement, as well as his report attacking Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United for our own efforts to find common ground, is a roadblock to progress. It is intended as cover for Catholics for Choice's increasing irrelevance, and its inability to offer any real solutions to the challenges of our day. Despite annual expenditures of more than $3.5 million, the organization accomplishes little more than creating a hostile and divisive political climate—as evidenced by today's statement.

This is an unusual situation. Can you remember the last time a liberal group attacked a Democratic president's political appointment as too socially conservative?

With the Obama administration moving quickly to develop policies aimed at reducing demand for abortion, however, Catholics for Choice's attack may auger more liberal defections in the relatively near future.