President-elect Barack Obama has tapped Tom Daschle to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, a selection that is due chiefly to Daschle’s expertise in health care and his intimate knowledge of Congress and its ways. The Secretary of HHS, alas, also oversees policies that treat abortion and Daschle is a lapsed Catholic so you can expect the fireworks to have begun by the time you are reading this.
My good friend, and blogger extraordinaire, Rocco Palmo ran an item on Daschle under the headline "Is This War?" Given some of the more outrageous claims among conservative Catholics about the consequences of an Obama administration, there will be no shortage of commentators saying the Daschle choice is a declaration of war. But that is because they want the war: The Church in America today is burdened by a group of conservative prelates and laity all of whom seem to be taking their marching orders from the Republican National Committee.
The Catholic press and blogosphere are the only outlets that view the Daschle selection through the prism of where he stands on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). Most commentators have focused on his other attributes as a policy-maker and noted how these comport with the goals annunciated by Obama during his campaign. The press is not discussing his position on FOCA because they know that FOCA will never pass Congress and the while Deal Hudson and his GOP allies succeeded in making it the bug-a-boo for their friends in the hierarchy, it is a phantom issue, a scare tactic.
But what is Daschle’s position on abortion? Daschle voted in favor of the partial birth abortion ban. He also supported criminal penalties for harming an unborn child when a perpetrator attacks a pregnant woman. NARAL gave him a 50% rating in their voting guide which is remarkably low for a Democrat. In short, it is a mischaracterization to suggest that Daschle is a political tool of the abortion rights movement. When Bishop Robert Carlson asked him to stop referring to himself as a Catholic because of his position on abortion the bishop said, "NARAL claims [Daschle] as one of their number-one supporters." That is factually inaccurate. No one who voted to ban partial birth abortion won such accolades from NARAL.
The pro-life movement has an historic opportunity. A Democratic administration has made reducing the abortion rate a stated goal. This is great progress. The election of many pro-life Democrats in the last two election cycles means there will be a pro-life voice inside the congressional caucuses, men and women who hold seats that could swing back to the GOP. They do not have a veto over Nancy Pelosi, but she can’t remain as Speaker if they lose their seats because the Democrats embrace a radical pro-abortion agenda.
Instead of seizing this opportunity, some pro-life leaders have opted for rejectionism. Before the election, Doug Johnson at the National Right to Life Committee called Obama’s abortion reduction claims a "scam." In a front page story in this Tuesday’s Washington Post, Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League said, "It’s a sellout, as far as we are concerned. We don’t think it’s really genuine. You don’t have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions." Those are the words of a man who has never spoken with a poor woman facing a crisis pregnancy and who has evidently never read a papal encyclical on social justice. These voices can be counted upon to denounce the Daschle appointment.
Despite the fulminations of some, including several bishops, that Obama is the most pro-choice President in history, he is hardly beholden to pro-abortion groups. For starters, they and their donors were mostly backing Hillary Clinton in the primaries. And, so far from being a political ploy cooked up by Obama, switching from the fruitless effort to overturn Roe v. Wade to an abortion reduction strategy of enacting policies that help pregnant women was recommended in the pages of America in an April 19, 1997 article. Eleven years ago. I remember because I wrote it.
Call me an optimist, but I think having a Democrat at HHS with a 50% rating from NARAL is a step in the right direction. The Daschle glass is half-full, not half-empty.