Pro-Lifers Granted White House Meeting

A group of pro-life leaders met this week with the White House Office of Faith and Community partnerships. Wendy Wright, of Concerned Women for America, attended the meeting. Wright is joined by Kevin Eckstrom, of Religion News Service, to discuss the recent gathering, which included talk about how to reduce abortions.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: Whether it's a weave, braids, twists or locks, hair is big business in African-American communities, but the recession is leaving some beauty salons with empty chairs. We'll talk about it in a special Beauty Shop that's coming up. But first, our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. This week, we return to a topic we've been following closely: the relationship between conservative evangelicals and the Obama administration.

The White House Office of Faith-Based And Neighborhood Partnerships recently invited in a group of pro-life evangelical leaders to talk about strategies to reduce abortions, something the president promised on the campaign trail. In a moment, we're going to bring in Kevin Eckstrom. He's the editor of the Religion News Service. But first, here with me in the Washington, DC studio is one of the leaders who attended the meeting, Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women of America. Welcome.

Ms. WENDY WRIGHT (President, Concerned Women for America): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Welcome to you both, actually.

Mr. KEVIN ECKSTROM (Editor, Religion News Service): Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, Wendy, how did the meeting come about? Was it something you requested? Was it something the White House initiated?

Ms. WRIGHT: I initiated it. And I thought it was important that we follow through on President Obama's promises to represent all Americans, and especially on this, the issue of reducing the number of abortions. It's very important that if they are formulating their policies and the programs that they will get behind, that they are considering the kinds of programs that have proven to work. And so I initiated the meeting, and then I asked a couple of other folks to join us, one of them being representatives from pregnancy resource centers. Now I would like to highlight, we were not looking for money. We were probably one of the few people going to the White House now that are not looking for a handout.

MARTIN: I don't think anybody thought you were looking for money. I don't remember that coming up. And I do want to say that these meetings are traditionally considered off the record. So, you know, we would love for you to tell us everything that was said in the meeting, but I don't expect you to. But I did want to ask what message you wanted to get across, what message you think you got across. And were you - did you feel that you got a listening ear?

Ms. WRIGHT: We mainly wanted to make sure that they're aware of the kinds of programs and policies that are effective in reducing the number of abortions. And so we did present information on the kinds of programs, for example, that pregnancy centers provide and the kind of results that they have. So it's important that we have objective measurable goals in order to determine if the policies are effective. It's great to put out a desire - we want to reduce the number of abortions - but how are we going - first going to do it? But then second, how are we going to measure that? An important way of measuring it is, has the number of abortions gone down? So we wanted to present some policies that have proven to result in the number of abortions being - going down, decreasing.

MARTIN: I'm just going say - Kevin, let's bring you in. Wendy, I'd love for you to stay with us. Kevin, what do you make of the meeting? How important was this?

Mr. ECKSTROM: It's not exactly Nixon going to China, but I think it is significant, you know. I will give Wendy a lot of credit here for going, you know, to the White House. I don't imagine that they agree on pretty much anything, or most everything. And I also will give credit to the Faith-Based Office for taking the meeting. You know, it would be very easy to say, well, we'll talk about that down the line. But what I think is significant about this on the White House's side is that they're saying, okay. Let's talk. You know, we're not going to agree on the right to abortion, necessarily.

We're not going to agree on gay marriage or a number of other things. But if we're both really serious about reducing abortions and making better fathers, let's talk about that. And it's not that they called the conservatives' bluff, but they said okay, you know, we're serious. We're going to do this. And it'll be interesting to watch and see whether or not this is a one-time thing or if there's something else that actually comes out of it.

MARTIN: Wendy, how have other members of the evangelical community react to the meeting? I'm thinking about the fact that when Pastor Rick Warren was invited to give the opening prayer at the inauguration, the Obama administration was criticized for inviting him, but some people criticized him for participating. They said that you should not give any sanction, if you want to call it that, to someone who profoundly disagrees with us on this core issue. Did anybody criticize you for seeking this meeting?

Ms. WRIGHT: I haven't heard or seen any criticism from the conservative side. I know that there is some on the liberal side who are very upset that the Obama White House met with us. But from our folks, no. I think they're a bit intrigued, a bit surprised - again, because we initiated the meeting. And - but I think it is important that we have an open dialogue, but it's especially important that as policies are being formulated that they consider all aspects, not - and that's why it's important to be hearing from all voices. If they're only hearing from one side, they're going to think that that's the proper way to go. And I think for too long now, this White House has not been hearing from or listening to, whichever it may be, from our side. And that's why…

MARTIN: They've only been in for 60 days - 64 days.

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, but they were campaigning for two years before that. So…

MARTIN: But to that point, Kevin, let me ask you this. Wendy indicated that there are some people on the pro-choice side who did not agree with this meeting. I think the argument that they would make is that elections have consequences, and that their side won, as it were, and therefore their point of view should prevail.

Mr. ECKSTROM: Well, right. I mean, this is, like Wendy was saying, this is the same thing that we saw with the Rick Warren invite, you know, where how inclusive and how diverse is the left, really? You know, in the whole scheme of things, you know, are they willing to, you know, invite folks that they don't agree with? Are they willing to share the stage? Or is it, you know, the I-won kind of attitude? And I think President Obama has been fairly clear that…

MARTIN: The only point I would make on that is President George W. Bush would say he was still the president of all Americans, even though he didn't, for example, reach out to pro-choice groups. He didn't reach out to the NAACP until six years into his term. Do you know what I mean? I mean, that's the only - I think the argument that the left would make.

Mr. ECKSTROM: Right, right. And, you know, I think Obama has a point here. You know, we can look back and try to settle scores, or we can just go ahead and look forward. And I think that's what they're trying to do. You know…

MARTIN: What about Wendy's point? Do you think this will be an ongoing dialogue?

Mr. ECKSTROM: I think it should be. If they're smart, they'll make it an ongoing dialogue. A one-time thing is nice, but it doesn't really mean very much.

MARTIN: Wendy, can you talk to us a little bit about some of the policies that you think could be agreed upon by people with different perspectives on the core question of abortion, but which - where people could find agreement in terms of reducing the number of abortions - some of the things that perhaps you talked about at the meeting?

Ms. WRIGHT: Yes, well there are two phrases that have been used: reducing the number of abortions and reducing the need for abortions. Well, no woman wants an abortion. She has a need, and she thinks the abortion will solve that problem. So what we really need to look at is what are those needs? What is it that she needs help with? Does she need housing? Does she need career support?

And providing her needs can help her to make the choice of giving life to her child, which then will result in fewer abortions. So it's important that we look at what are the true needs of women and helping to - helping her with those needs rather than just say, she needs an abortion, end of problem - which is not the end of the problem it's all just the beginning of many more problems.

MARTIN: Can you give us any more specifics?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, pregnancy resource centers are doing a tremendous job all around the country. There's probably three times more pregnancy resource centers in the United States than there are abortion clinics, all staffed by volunteers, a few directors. They raise their own support, don't get government funding. And they are having a one-on-one relationships with women, which is so critical in charity work.

MARTIN: And so it's your suggestion that there perhaps ought to be more support for these kinds of entities by the government, government support for these kinds of entities.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yes - most important, that they're not being penalized. There have been efforts in - state legislation has been introduced and even talk on Capitol Hill of penalizing pregnancy resource centers. Frankly, they are competition for abortion clinics. So one thing that we hope that comes out of this meeting is an understanding that these pregnancy resource centers are providing what the women need, and to not promote any policies or programs that would harm them.

MARTIN: The only point I wanted to ask you about is there are those who would argue that some of these resource centers operate by intimidating women and frightening them about abortion. And the other point that some would make is that part of the reason that these pregnancy resource centers outnumber clinics is that people harass abortion clinics to the point where they make it very difficult for them to operate, whereas the other side is not engaging in this conduct directed at pregnancy resource centers. Would you address that?

Ms. WRIGHT: Sure. Anyone here who thinks that pregnancy resource centers intimidate women, I would encourage them to go themselves to a pregnancy resource center and find out for yourself. Don't just listen to the accusations from those who are threatened by pregnancy centers. When I say threatened, those that - if a woman chooses not to have an abortion, the abortion clinics don't make any money. So they have an incentive for trying to shut down or demonize pregnancy centers.

MARTIN: Well, then, would it be appropriate, then, to have some guidelines for the kind of information that's offered? Would you accept that?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, but first you need to look at what are they offering? So - I encourage you to go to a pregnancy resource center. There are a number of them in the local area.

MARTIN: There's one down the street, actually, from this office.

Ms. WRIGHT: Right. Yes. (unintelligible). Yeah. I think it would be very important for people to not just listen to the attacks from the abortion lobby, but find out for themselves.

MARTIN: Well, then, would that then call for some sort of objective evaluation process in exchange for that kind of support from the government? What do you think?

Ms. WRIGHT: An objective way to determine is let's talk with the women who sought the help of pregnancy resource centers, and I think you'll find from many of them that they found the kind of help that they really needed.

MARTIN: Kevin, what about that? Is that something that the White House is considering?

Mr. ECKSTROM: Yeah. The Faith-Based Office, as it's been revamped, has been - you know, they have four priorities: you know, poverty alleviation, the Fatherhood Initiative, making better fathers, abortion reduction and then also interfaith dialogue.

So I think they are, you know, open to any number of ideas. I don't get the sense from talking to the folks over there that they have gotten that specific, that they know exactly what they're going to do.

But, you know, I think it sends an interesting sign that they're at least willing to hear from folks like Wendy Wright.

MARTIN: The other question I have here, and this is always a question that -you know, politics is the means by which government happens. So I don't mean this in any diminishing way, but there are those who would say: Do you think that this is politically motivated in the sense that the administration wishes to have the support of conservative evangelicals? or is this driven by other factors, values, instinct, the president's own sort of personal conviction about the way these issues ought to be addressed in society?

Mr. ECKSTROM: Yes.

MARTIN: I know I'm asking for your opinion, so I'm interested…

Mr. ECKSTROM: Yes and yes. I mean, I think - nothing happens at the White House - from who gets invited to dinner to, you know, what the first kids wear to school - everything's a political decision.

I mean, you know, politics is a factor of everything. That being said, I do think that this White House is genuinely interested in finding some kind of common ground.

You know, it would be very easy - it would actually be easier to sort of continue the status quo, continue the culture wars, you know, retrench into your different corners. But that's not going to get anyone anywhere. And so I think that they actually are interested in making some progress here.

MARTIN: Wendy, very briefly, do you think they're genuinely interested? I know it's only been one meeting.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yes. I was encouraged by this meeting. I think it was very cordial, open, honest. And so I hope that we will be able to have further meetings.

MARTIN: And I hope we'll be able to have further meetings with you. Wendy Wright is the president of Concerned Women for America. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Kevin Eckstrom. He's the editor of Religion News Service. I thank you both so much.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Mr. ECKSTROM: Thank you.

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