Dubious Diversity at America Mag

As part of its effort “to include more voices of women in our pages and a greater variety of voices from the Catholic world,” the Jesuit magazine America has hired lawyer Helen Alvaré as a columnist.

Expanding the number of women’s voices is always a laudable goal, especially in the world of opinion writing, where women are woefully underrepresented. And while America dutifully lays out Alvaré’s bona fides as “chair of the Catholic Women’s Forum, as a consultor for the Pontifical Council of the Laity, an advisor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and as an ABC news consultant,” they seem to have omitted her most significant professional experience: as the USCCB’s mouthpiece on abortion.

The Catholic bishops promoted Alvaré to spokesperson of its Committee on Pro-Life Activities in 1990 as part of a controversial multi-million dollar PR campaign to put a new face on their foundering anti-abortion efforts. It seems that Catholics, and the public in general, didn’t take kindly to a bunch of celibate men lecturing them about the evils of abortion. The PR campaign itself was a bust. There was a backlash about the bishops spending $5 million when churches around the country were closing and it was cancelled after a short run.

But the appointment of a telegenic young female lawyer to soft-sell the bishops’ opposition to abortion was a stroke of genius. Cardinal Timothy Dolan told the New York Times that “hiring an ‘attractive, articulate, intelligent’ laywoman to speak against abortion” was “the best thing we ever did.”

Alvaré was the spokesperson for the pro-life committee from 1990 until 2000, where she frequently testified before Congress on behalf of the bishops’ efforts to limit access to abortion. She was also a leading proponent of efforts to delegitimize U.S. family planning funding, and contraception use in general, by making unsubstantiated claims such as “when you give money to groups that not only promote contraception but also promote abortion in an integrated way, you actually drive abortion rates up, not down.”

Since 2000, Alvaré has taught law and brought her own brand of cherry-picked data tendentiously linked to the supposed dangers of abortion and contraception wrapped up as concern for women’s health and well-being to the Robert George/Witherspoon Institute/National Organization for Marriage/Institute on Religion and Democracy axis of conservative Catholic intellectuals who amplify the Catholic bishops’ efforts against gay marriage and reproductive health care under the “Religious Freedom” rubric.

As with her role at the bishops’ conference, Alvaré’s biggest value to the right-wing Catholic roadshow is her very existence as a woman who gleefully opposes abortion and contraception. As my colleague Sarah Posner has reported, she’s one of the most outspoken proponents of the supposed dangers of the “contraceptive mentality”—Pope John Paul II’s (also unsubstantiated) contention that birth control is emotionally damaging to women and marriage and leads to a general coarsening of the culture and an increase in abortions. It’s the ultimate in reverse engineering—the Catholic Church doesn’t think women should be having sex outside of marriage or sex for pleasure, so it has to find a way to attack the mechanism that makes non-procreative sex possible.

Alvaré is also one of the more hysterical opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which she claims is part of a wide-ranging plot to foist birth control on unsuspecting women to create a culture of licentiousness. The mandate is evidence of what she terms “sexualityism,” or promotion of the believe that “sex should not only be free of the slightest reflection on its link with procreation, but also free of commitment, or even the real possibility of a relationship between the man and the woman involved.”

Granted, as an official Jesuit publication America is on a short leash. Just ask former editor Father Thomas Reese, who was sacked by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for allowing the publication of essays that presented the moral argument for allowing condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS and questioned the use of communion to discipline pro-choice Catholic politicians. But the Catholic bishops don’t suffer from a lack of outlets for their views, so it’s not clear why the editors of America thought their shadow spokesperson needs a platform, especially for outlandish ideas that are insulting to women, lack empirical validity, and are far from the mainstream of Catholic practice and opinion on family planning.