Under the Glass places both the secular and religious media’s coverage of the Church and other issues of importance under a magnifying glass to uncover what is hidden between the lines.
January 22, 2009

When there is no ground for “common ground” on abortion

On January 14, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article by Alexia Kelley, Executive Director and co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good entitled Reducing abortions: The time is ripe to break old stalemate. In matter of hours, probably to attract wider readership, the article was renamed, “CAN OBAMA UNITE AMERICANS AROUND HIS GOAL OF REDUCING ABORTIONS? PRO: The time is ripe to break old stalemate.”


Kelley’s article was published next to another on abortion reduction, entitled “CON: Priority promise should not be broken,” by Jonathan Merritt.  However, Merritt’s article did not represent a real counterpoint to Kelley’s conviction that President Obama is a real pro-lifer, and that he and only he can bring the debate on abortion beyond the current stalemate to a new “common ground.”


Kelley’s article tries to hammer the same point she made during the election season: that the debate around abortion has been useless and fruitless for pro-lifers, and that the only realistic and, moreover, morally sound decision for those fighting against abortion is to join the Democratic party in its yet-to-be-seen commitment to abortion reduction.


But Kelley’s arguments are based on three false premises and one false opposition.


Her first false premise:


“Abortion has been the grand battle in our nation’s culture wars for more than three decades. After years of polarization, a new consensus has emerged that can unite Democrats and Republicans behind a comprehensive abortion reduction agenda that addresses the connections between poverty and abortion. President-elect Barack Obama is well-positioned to help push this effort as a leader focused on pragmatic solutions and finding common ground.”


For better or worse, there is not such a consensus anywhere. The fact that few almost-façade Catholic organizations appeared during the election season to subtly or openly support Obama is no sign of such tendency. If there were a consensus, droves of pro-lifers would be following Prof. Doug Kmiec in his praise and support for Obama and the “common ground –let’s just focus on reducing” theory.

But Prof. Kmiec himself has described at length what the reaction to his new-found position has been. In fact there isn’t a single pro-life organization with real representation who has bought the “common ground –let’s just focus on reducing” theory.


No matter how many statements Kelley and her colleague Chris Korzen from “Catholics United” release calling for “common ground,” it is a fact that no one perceives them in an imaginary middle from which they can call both sides together. They are shouting “charge” to an army without any foot soldiers.


Kelley’s second false premise:


“The time is ripe to break the abortion stalemate. A post-election poll conducted by Public Religion Research, and sponsored by Faith in Public Life, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Sojourners, found that the vast majority of voters — including 81 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of all voters — want elected officials to reduce abortions by working together to prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption opportunities and increase economic support for vulnerable women.”


The post- election poll Kelley mentions was made public on November 14 by another pro-Obama organization, “Faith in Public Life,” and is the perfect example of how NOT to conduct a poll if you really want to test the public opinion. Or on the other hand, it is the perfect example of how polls can top Disraeli’s list of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics.”


In fact, a simple look at the Topline Questionnaire used in the survey shows an embarrassing level of what pollsters call “leading.” Here is how the question was framed:


Please tell me if you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly DISsagree or completely DISagree with the following statement. Elected leaders on both sides of the abortion debate should work together to find ways to reduce the number of abortions by enacting policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption, and increase economic support for women who wish to carry their pregnancies to term.


Who would say no to such a question, which is the prototype for most of the other questions included in the questionnaire? To think that such phrasing is not prodding the polled individual to a pre-established corral requires a large dose of naïveté, if not malice. Especially when there is not a counter-question, whose response would be quite predictable: “if you consider yourself a pro-lifer, do you believe that the government’s commitment to reduce abortions should stop you from trying to change the current pro-abortion legislation?”


And here is Kelley’s third false premise:


“A national study commissioned by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good found that abortion rates are significantly lower in states that provide robust economic assistance to low-income families, quality child care for working mothers and in places where employment figures are strong… Abortion is a social justice issue that must be understood within the context of strategies to combat poverty and to create a truly pro-family economy that respects life.”


Ms. Kelley refers to a “study” that is really hard not to describe it as bogus. The study, never peer-reviewed, was carried out by  Joseph Wright, a young Assistant Professor  to the Department of Political Science at Penn State University and  Visiting Fellow at  Notre Dame.


Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good never responded, not even mentioned the devastating criticism of Dr.  Michael J. New Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama and an expert on abortion and legislation.


Responding to Wright’s “study” in his article Does Increased Welfare Spending or Pro-Life Legislation Reduce Abortion? Dr. New writes that “unfortunately, their study did not acknowledge any of the previous academic or policy research on pro-life legislation. As such, they did not engage or find fault with previous research indicating that pro-life laws were effective. Overall, it seems that Catholics in Alliance was primarily interested in making the case that welfare spending was the best way to reduce abortion. They even refused to properly acknowledge and publicize their own findings which indicated that certain types of pro-life laws were effective.”


Dr. New continues: “My analysis of their data indicates that welfare spending only has a marginal impact on the incidence of abortion. Additionally I find that both public funding restrictions and informed-consent laws are effective at reducing state abortion rates. This adds to the body of research which finds that pro-life laws are effective.

Dr. New later smashed the timid response of Mr. Wright in an even more revealing article (“Reducing Abortions: Responding to Faulty Methodology and Presentation”) on how the “study” completely broke every possible principle of sound statistics. Since then, neither Mr. Wright nor Ms. Kelley have responded to the overwhelming data. They have just repeated their self-serving results as "a fact."


After praising Obama and the Democratic platform for including “specific language that references the essential role social and economic supports play in reducing abortion,” Kelley concludes with a false opposition, without, of course a zest of drama:


“Research tells us what works. Voters are looking for a new path forward. The question is, do we have the political and moral will to make it happen? People of faith have a particular responsibility to both collaborate with and challenge the new administration. It’s long past time for all of us to move from rhetoric and division to results.”


But at this point, we already know that there is no research telling us what works –at least not what Ms. Kelley thinks works- and that the droves of  voters committed to “a new path forward” are a mirage.


What we do know is that too many pro-Obama Catholics like Ms. Kelley have been trying to make the point that pro-lifers should forget about changing abortion laws and focus only on working together for social justice, as if both options were mutually exclusive and could not be pursued at the same time.


That is not what the U.S. bishops think. At their November meeting, they clearly rejected the notion that the pro-life movement has failed by assailing Roe v. Wade. “A good state protects the lives of all.  Legal protection for those members of the human family waiting to be born in this country was removed when the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade in 1973.  This was bad law.”


That, for our bishops, is the only common ground.



Alejandro Bermudez

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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