As a member of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Nancy Ratzan clearly believes that faith has a role in government. But that doesn't mean she's comfortable with the role the White House's faith-based office is playing in devising Obama's policies on abortion and other reproductive issues. "I have real concerns about understanding those issues from a faith perspective as opposed to a scientific and individual rights perspective," says Ratzan, who is president of the National Council of Jewish Women and a supporter of abortion rights. "You're creating the possibility that the religious views of some are going to be imposed on others."
Over the last month or so, the Obama administration has met with Ratzan and dozens of other activists on both sides of the abortion issue as it seeks what it calls "common ground" on thorny reproductive issues, including its goal of reducing demand for abortion. Now, as the White House begins drawing up a policy plan, advocates on both sides are jittery. "I'm in a trust but verify mode," says Richard Land, who heads public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention, which opposes abortion rights. "I've seen some signs that they are eagerly seeking common ground and other signs that they're not."
The administration is expected to announce its plan as early as this summer, according to those involved in the process. Whether those proposed policies can satisfy the president's pro-abortion rights base while also winning over more conservative religious groups is the biggest test yet for Obama's vow to be a peacemaker in the nation's culture wars.
When Obama rolled out the revamped White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in February, he tasked it with exploring how to "support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the need for abortion." Crafting policy around those goals has been a joint project of the faith-based office and the new White House Council on Women and Girls. Both report to Obama's domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, who has led some meetings with outside groups.
Those sessions have included representatives from organizations as politically far apart as the pro-abortion rights Planned Parenthood and the evangelical Concerned Women for America, which vigorously opposes such rights. The White House asked those and other groups for policy proposals in four areas: reducing unwanted pregnancy, increasing access to adoption, supporting maternal health, and reducing demand for abortion. "There were definitely areas of disagreement," Kristen Day, who runs an antiabortion group called Democrats for Life, says in describing a recent White House meeting. "But for the most part, people were respectful and were doing more listening than debating."
The administration has stressed that it will avoid influencing pregnant women's decisions about whether to have abortions but wants to find ways to support those who decide to carry their pregnancies to term. So far, though, the White House has avoided giving any hint about what its "common ground" plan on abortion and related issues will look like. Aides working on the matter declined to comment for this column.
Some abortion-rights proponents are confident the plan will avoid concessions to abortion-rights foes. "President Obama is strongly pro-choice," says Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood. "I'm hopeful their policy will be helpful on reducing unintended pregnancies."
Some antiabortion groups, meanwhile, worry that focusing mostly on preventing unwanted pregnancy will include support for contraception for young people and comprehensive sex education, forcing them to oppose the White House's plan even if they support other parts of it. Those groups want the administration to embrace the Pregnant Women Support Act. Introduced by Democrats in Congress, the legislation aims to reduce abortions by providing assistance to economically distressed pregnant women. A congressional source close to the bill says the White House has expressed "significant interest" and that another meeting with Obama aides on the legislation is scheduled for this month.
But Planned Parenthood opposes parts of the bill that it says "attempt to influence, rather than inform, a woman's decision whether or not to have an abortion." The most conservative antiabortion groups, meanwhile, see the White House's abortion reduction effort as a politically inspired attempt to co-opt antiabortion voters with "common ground" rhetoric. "There is not a single pro-life policy that Obama has ever supported," says Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. "So there's reason for skepticism."