Alexia Kelley has political credentials that would make most left-leaning groups happy: She served as a faith adviser to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during his 2004 presidential bid. Last month, she vigorously supported the appointment of pro-abortion Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services. And Kelley's group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, encouraged Catholic voters to support pro-abortion candidates in some cases.
But when President Obama tapped Kelley to head the faith office at Health and Human Services (HHS) last week, at least one pro-abortion group cried foul. Despite Kelley's support for pro-abortion candidates, her organization says it's pro-life. That's a position Catholics for Choice (CFC) couldn't forgive. CFC President Jon O'Brien called Kelley's appointment "a defeat for reason and logic."
The dust-up is revealing: During its political convention last August, the Democratic Party trumpeted a new abortion platform that focused on "abortion reduction" and finding a common ground between pro-abortion and pro-life forces. Abortion supporters-including vigorously pro-abortion groups like NARAL-vowed they would protect legalized abortion, but also support government programs aimed at helping women facing unplanned pregnancies. Pro-life supporters, including evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter, said the new platform would allow pro-life forces to make concrete gains toward reducing abortion while it remains legal.
But as Obama builds his administration and crafts life-related policy, trouble may be brewing, especially if pro-abortion groups can't find common ground among themselves.
No sooner had news surfaced about Kelley's appointment than CFC released O'Brien's statement condemning the move, saying it "calls into question whether President Obama's administration is serious about reducing the need for abortion." O'Brien said Kelley has emphasized reducing the number of abortions instead of the need for abortion-a major point of contention among many who embrace the abortion reduction plank. (The most adamant pro-abortion forces fear an emphasis on reducing the number of abortions will entail restricting access to abortion.)
CFC's former president, Frances Kissling, wrote a blistering column about Kelley on Salon.com, saying that Kelley's group opposes birth control, a claim Kissling didn't substantiate, but one that provided anti-Kelley fodder for many in the pro-abortion blogosphere. Kissling added that a person against birth control couldn't offer comprehensive advice to a federal health department that promotes safe sex.
Sarah Posner of the American Prospectrepeated the birth control claim, saying that Kelley once wrote this about pieces of women's health legislation: "not all are perfect; some include contraception-which the Church opposes."
But whether that statement means Kelley is anti-birth control isn't clear. Her group's website doesn't provide a statement on birth control, though it does provide a link to a teen pregnancy prevention site that promotes condom use.
While Catholics for Choice slammed Kelley, another liberal Catholic group slammed Catholics for Choice: Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, praised Kelley and called O'Brien's statement against her "simplistic, incendiary, and unhelpful." Jennifer Goff of Kelley's own Catholic group called the attacks "spurious." The National Catholic Reporter called her appointment "terrific."
The inter-club volleys left some wondering: What does Kelley actually believe, and how will it affect her work at HHS? From her public statements so far, it's hard to tell. Her group does claim a pro-life position, and Posner quotes Kelley from her 2008 book, A Nation for All (co-written with Korzen): "Each abortion constitutes a direct attack on human life, and so we have a special moral obligation to end or reduce the practice of abortion to the greatest extent possible."
Kelley has promoted the Pregnant Women's Support Act, legislation aimed at helping women facing unplanned pregnancies. Pro-abortion groups have opposed the bill, while conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have supported it.
But Kelley has been careful when speaking about abortion restrictions-some say she avoids the subject-and her group hasn't emphasized the legality of abortion. Her middle-of-the-road approach surfaces again in her book: "Culture warriors in America will argue that to be pro-life, we must ensure that the unborn are protected under the law. This would indeed be an ideal situation. But legal status doesn't always realize the goal that we desire."
Pro-life groups have criticized the reluctance of Kelley's group to support abortion restrictions, and for her support of pro-abortion candidates. Some say her difficult-to-discern positions provide little help to the pro-life cause.
If pro-lifers are hoping for seats at Obama's table, Steve Waldman of Beliefnet doesn't think the Kelley controversy bodes well: "If pro-choicers object to the appointment of Alexia Kelley then there's literally no kind of pro-lifer who will be acceptable."