The nomination of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has done more to ignite the intra-Catholic culture wars even than President Obama’s decision to reverse the Mexico City policy. As the announcement neared, Catholic partisans of all varieties took to the airwaves and the blogosphere denouncing or praising Sebelius extravagantly. Where is the truth? Is this a fine appointment or a disaster?
I confess to being ambivalent about Governor Sebelius. I take her at her word when she says she vetoed legislation that would have restricted abortion in Kansas because it was unconstitutional and would provoke needless but costly litigation. The veto was what caused Archbishop Joseph Naumann to publicly call on the Governor to refrain from presenting herself for communion. Naumann’s heavy-handedness inclines me to sympathize with the Governor, and to welcome her to a different archdiocese where our local ordinary does not impose a blanket policy of denying communion to anyone. A member of the Episcopal bench described Naumann’s interventions at last November’s USCCB meeting as "persistent," which is a polite way of saying "over-the-top."
I am also inclined to support Sebelius given the excessiveness with which she has been denounced. A statement from Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said this was another instance of President Obama "appointing pro-abortion extremists" and that "Governor Sebelius never met an abortion she didn’t support." I have difficulty believing an "extremist" of any stripe can get elected Governor of wholesome Kansas twice, still less earn the laudatory comments she received this weekend from uber-convert, and pro-life champion, Sen. Sam Brownback. And, I suppose Mr. Ruse has no idea that Gov. Sebelius supports any particular choice to abort at all, even while she most definitely supports giving women the right to make that choice. Critics would be more convincing if they at least acknowledged that Sebelius has tried alternate ways to lower the abortion rate and, according to most news accounts, succeeded in lowering it nine percent during her tenure.
Gov. Sebelius has been dogged by the accusation that she hosted a notorious practicioner of partial-birth abortion, Dr. George Tiller, at the Governor’s mansion. But, according to Ezra Klein at the American Prospect, Tiller evidently won the invite as part of a fundraiser so this was not exactly an intimate dinner for two where Sebelius and Tiller could plan how to promote abortion. The efforts to dress it up as such are insulting. Still, while almost every liberal Catholic activist I know has sent me an email in the last three days with a link to the Klein story, it would be nice to have Sebelius explicitly come clean on the subject. It is worth noting that the Kansas Attorney General, with the Governor’s support, is investigating Tiller.
Behind the Tiller connection stands the willingness of almost all Democrats to support Planned Parenthood. Now, having never been the governor of a rural, relatively poor state like Kansas, where women’s health services are few and far between, perhaps I do not have a sufficient appreciation for the good things Planned Parenthood does. Who can object to pre-natal care? But, they continue to be so dishonest about the eugenicist views of their founder, Margaret Sanger, that I am inclined to think they still do not entirely reject those views. To be clear: Sanger praised eugenics, her views were repulsive, and shame on anyone who does not qualify their support for Planned Parenthood by stating their revulsion. It would be easier to support Sebelius if she were to make such a statement in her confirmation hearings.
Our concern in getting the history of Planned Parenthood correct is no mere historical fetish. The advent of genetic engineering holds dreadful possibilities in the next few decades. Denouncing the neo-Malthusian views of Margaret Sanger (and others, for she was not alone in supporting eugenics before Josef Mengele gave it a bad name) is important because there is still time to win the national debate about genetic engineering and the limits to be applied to it. But, not if we are falsely denouncing and misrepresenting the views of the woman who will be in a position to affect national policy in this area.