The President-Elect needs to focus like a laser on the economic crisis once he takes office next month. Not only is there a great deal of human suffering wrapped inside the rising unemployment numbers, but a host of other governmental challenges become more difficult the longer the economic downturn continues. The federal deficit, the solvency of entitlement programs, health care reform, all become more intractable every day the economy is in recession.
But, it is a mistake to think that the economy is the only issue voters care about and it would be a mistake for Obama to entirely neglect other issues. For Catholics – to be more precise, for centrist Catholics who voted Republican in the previous two election cycles but for Obama this time – the economy was certainly a concern. But, many of those Catholic swing voters were only willing to give Obama a hearing on the economy because he had convinced them he was serious about another issue of importance to them: reducing the abortion rate. A group of prominent and not-so prominent pro-life Catholics went to the mat for Obama, starting with Professor Doug Kmiec, and the administration cannot simply throw them under the bus.
Make no mistake: Obama’s initial actions on the abortion issue will not be pro-life. While concern about the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) was mostly a scare tactic employed by GOP operatives (the bill has no chance of passing), Obama will undoubtedly rescind the Mexico City gag rule which prevents agencies that receive federal funding from counseling about abortion services. This and a few other marginal changes can be enacted by executive order. Obama is pro-choice and there is no finessing the point.
But, he can twin his pro-choice executive orders with a call for an abortion reduction summit at the White House for the fall of 2009. The timing provides him eight months of undiluted focus on the economy. He can appoint prominent pro-life Democrats to orchestrate the conference, like Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey or newly elected congressman from Ohio Steve Driehaus. From the pro-choice side, Obama can ask Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro to be one of the leaders of the conference. DeLauro was previously the executive director of Emily’s List so there is no one in the pro-choice community who can question her commitment, yet she also worked in the last session on abortion reduction legislation with Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
The abortion reduction summit could take as its goal the 95-10 initiative by the group Democrats for Life. This initiative groups several policies all aimed at the objective of reducing the abortion rate by 95% over ten years. It is an ambitious goal but it would demonstrate that Obama was serious when he pledged himself, both in his convention acceptance speech and in his third debate, to reducing the abortion rate in America.
The financial crisis facing the nation is so large and so unprecedented that it behooves everyone to give the incoming president some wiggle room on all of his promises. But, those of us who are pro-life Democrats who voted for Obama in part because of his evident sincerity about reducing the abortion rate must keep his feet to the fire. We can multi-task as voters just as he must multi-task as President: We Catholics also want humane immigration reform that focuses on keeping families together, a robust effort to protect God’s creation through stronger environmental policies, and a less militaristic foreign policy. But, a large group of Catholics gave Obama the vote they declined to give John Kerry because Obama crossed a threshold on the abortion issue by dedicating himself to reducing the national abortion rate. We were decisive in 2008 but that doesn’t mean we can’t decide differently next time.