Jim Wallis Rejects 1996 Pro-Life Declaration

Sojourners president and Obama advisor Jim Wallis has injected himself prominently into health care reform advocacy. But his position on whether abortion should be covered in a reform bill has generated confusion: is he as extreme as line-in-the-sand anti-choicers, who would reject any health care bill that didn’t remove any remote chance of federal dollars tangentially funding abortion, and who want to require women to privately purchase a rider? Is he actually pro-choice? And what about his pro-life advocacy in the past?

I asked Wallis for his response to some of these questions, including the criticism that he won’t say whether he is pro-choice. His answer perhaps reflects the time he’s been spending around politicians. I’ll parse that answer in a minute, but first I’ll note that in his statement to RD, Wallis claims that he does not recall signing the 1996 pro-life declaration, “The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern,” also signed by David Gushee, the evangelical scholar. Gushee told me earlier this year that the statement still reflects his views, but at the time I did not get a response from Wallis. Yesterday, Wallis said through his spokesperson, “The statement from 13 years ago is not an accurate reflection of my views, nor do I even remember it.” (Both Wallis individually and Sojourners were listed as signatories.)

Disavowing the 1996 statement might be in line with the rest of Wallis’ response, which didn’t really answer the question of whether he’s pro-life or pro-choice. He said, “I believe the best response to abortion is not to criminalize what, I believe, is often a tragic and desperate choice; but rather to find effective and proven solutions to reduce abortion. This is the common ground possible between pro-life and pro-choice views.” 

Here’s the background on how all this came about: earlier this month, AlterNet’s Adele Stan, reacting to Wallis’ “Faith Declaration for Health Care Reform,” argued that Wallis was, despite his protestations to the contrary, aiming to derail health care reform by insisting on no federal funding for abortion. Frances Kissling made the same argument in Salon, noting that after a conference call with religious activists on health care reform, Wallis stated that Obama’s commitment to no federal funding of abortion “‘means we can now work together to make sure that they are consistently and diligently applied to any final healthcare legislation.’ For Wallis, that means that ‘no person should be forced to pay for someone else’s abortion and that public funds cannot be used to pay for elective abortions.’”

Then Wallis took heat from the other side, which had been giving him heat for a while. Keith Pavlischek, writing in the conservative Catholic publication First Things (which had published the 1996 declaration that Wallis now disavows) had initially praised Wallis’ firm stand against abortion funding in health care reform back in March. But in July, Pavlischek accused Wallis of being insufficiently hard core on no federal funding for abortion.

After Stan’s piece appeared, Ryan Rodrick Beiler, writing for the Sojourners blog, scolded critics on the left and right as equally extremist in demanding that Wallis be clear about where he stands, and argued that Wallis’ “common ground” position was the eminently reasonable one. That led Pavlischek to ask, “is Jim Wallis pro-choice?” Our Dan Schultz asked the same thing, as did Mark Silk over at Spiritual Politics.

That’s what led me to ask Wallis to answer that question. And he doesn’t really say. But his answer about “tragic and desperate” choices evokes not a pro-choice position but, indeed, a variety of common groundism that women need moral help in making the “right” choices. That’s the difference between the “common ground” and a feminist position on reducing the need for abortion. Reproductive health activists have advocated for years for reducing unintended pregnancies (and have provided the services to make that a reality) and for supporting economically struggling women who choose to carry pregnancies to term (as opposed to making those supports available to make it more likely that women would make the “right” choice). Maybe that’s the tone Wallis thinks he needs to strike to bring pro-lifers along on common ground, or maybe that’s how he really feels.

On the health care question, though, it’s clear that Wallis has already made his mark. The views of religious pro-choice activists, who wanted coverage for abortion services in health care reform, have now been downgraded to agreeing to the Hyde restrictions in order to get health care passed. So when Wallis says, “we should agree that [abortion] must not be allowed to derail the crucial need for comprehensive health care reform,” it’s like he’s the Olympia Snowe of the abortion piece of health care reform. His position is hailed as “centrist” and “reasonable,” but he commands a disproportionate amount of power to draw others to it.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email