The Obama Administration’s Office
of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships announced an Advisory Council
and four key priorities this week. In addition to addressing poverty
and promoting interfaith dialogue, the priorities consider "how we
support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the
need for abortion," and call for "encouraging responsible fatherhood."
Notice how women are paired with children
and pregnancy/abortion concerns. Men apparently only need help with
fatherhood. This gendered pairing strikes me as paternalistic and misguided.
For one thing, the issue of abortion
isn’t just about teens and unwed mothers. Married women have abortions,
too. Many women who make a moral decision to have an abortion do so
with a male partner’s support — does that fit the Advisory Council’s
definition of responsible fatherhood? As the Religious Institute says in our Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision,
We affirm women as moral agents
who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make the decision
as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances.
That decision is best made when it includes a well-informed conscience,
serious reflection, insights from her faith and values, and consultation
with a caring partner, family members, and spiritual counselor. Men
have a moral obligation to acknowledge and support women’s decision-making.
Also, reducing the need for abortion requires
more than addressing teen pregnancy. I pray the members
of the Council will not set up roadblocks to abortion access as part
of a "reduction" strategy. I pray, rather, that they agree
that one way to ensure that any woman, teenage or older, will not face
the moral decision to have an abortion is to reduce unintentional pregnancies.
I’m not the first to make this observation and won’t be the
"Addressing teen pregnancy"
does not automatically translate into effective strategies to reduce
teen pregnancy. Young women and men need comprehensive sexuality education
and access to contraception. So do adults, both single and married.
As a faith-based initiative, the new
office must also recognize that "faith matters" when it comes to
delaying mature sexual behaviors, which can affect teen pregnancy rates.
I am not talking about abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. We know they don’t work!
Active, consistent involvement in a faith community does.
As a 2003 study by the Christian Community found "A
strong connection to adults in the congregation; the provision of information
on how to make sexual decisions; and the portrayal of sex in a healthy
and positive way are strong contributing factors to these teens who
were the least likely in the study to have had intercourse…Clearly
caring adults in the congregation have a significant role to play."
Teens need attentive leaders, teachers and parents to help them make
responsible moral decisions. They need positive examples of good sexual
decision-making (something a faith community can offer), and accurate
information presented in the context of their faith values.
So far, only four women have been named
to the President’s Advisory Council. Four out of 15 spots doesn’t cut it so long as women make up
half the population and are central to the Council’s stated priorities.
Ten more members are still to be appointed; perhaps the Obama administration
will appoint female role models for the young women they are trying
How about a woman who is a member of
the clergy, or a feminist who has worked her whole life in faith communities
to support women and girls? Now that would be a role model for young
women of faith!
When these women are invited to participate
on the Council, I hope they will suggest that President Obama edit the
four priorities to read: "encourage responsible sexual decision-making"
(by men and women) and "reduce teen pregnancy through comprehensive
sexuality education." These revisions will help us move beyond gendered
priorities and put the focus on healthy sexuality. Those seem to fit
better – scientifically, practically, and faithfully – not only
with reducing the need for abortion, but with encouraging strong parenting
and challenging poverty as well.