Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, a leading opponent of abortion, has been meeting with abortion rights groups to look for common ground to reduce the number of abortions.
Those conversations are continuing through phone calls and emails with “more than one” such organization, according to the conservative Christian group based in Colorado Springs.
Reaching out across political divisions is exceptional both for Focus on the Family, and for anyone in the current political climate.
The discussions have been in person and informal, said Gary Schneeberger, vice president for communications for Focus on the Family. “They’re not an agenda’ed meeting….It’s a chance for us to say who we are, what we are about and for other folks to do the same. We think that will bear fruit down the road,” he said.
Daly raised the possibility of such conversations in February, on his radio show, “Focus on the Family with Jim Daly,” which reaches nearly three million listeners across the country every week.
His reasoning? He’ll do anything to save babies.
Daly asked his listeners, “How do we sit down with people who may disagree with us, so that we can eliminate 10,000, 20,000, 300,000 of the 1.2 million babies lost every year?”
Daly was referring to reducing the 1.2 million abortions that occur annually in the United States.
Daly’s eyebrow-raising invitation was a surprising turnaround from the days of his predecessor, James Dobson, although Focus said it hasn’t caused much of an uproar among Dobson’s followers.
Schneeberger noted that some activists say they want abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.” Focus on the Family doesn’t agree about making abortions safe or legal, he said, but it does want to see fewer of them.
“So we’re going put those issues aside and focus on ‘rare,’” he said.
Schneeberger did not make Daly available to talk about the discussions. Nor would he say with whom Focus officials have met, or whether they have agreed on anything.
Colorado Public News contacted 10 well-known groups that either support abortion rights or are religious groups with more flexible positions, and was told that not one had heard from Focus in the Family in the six months since Daly made his offer to talk.
“We are aware that they were interested,” says Emilie Ailts, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice Colorado. “But there’s been no progress on that.”
There’s been no progress at Planned Parenthood in Denver either. Spokeswoman Monica McCafferty says that Planned Parenthood is “… open to conversations.”
Other groups that denied having discussions with Focus on the Family were the National Organization for Women, United Church of Christ, Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, American Baptist Church USA, Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.
When Colorado Public News reported this result to Focus on the Family, spokesperson Devon Williams e-mailed: “…this is a delicate situation and one we want to protect with the highest level of confidence and respect.”
Michael Cromarti, an evangelical scholar with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., is not surprised that neither side is talking. “If they make too much publicity about it, it will look like one group is using the other for their own needs.”
But Cromarti added that if the two sides are indeed coming to some agreement, it’s better than the division Americans are seeing on Capitol Hill. “The very idea that they’re saying ‘Look, we’ll be glad to talk with anybody’ is a different tack. As opposed to saying, ‘Everybody out there who disagrees with us is our enemy and we don’t want to talk to you.’”
University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket says Daly’s open attitude is a gamble for him because “…he exposes himself to possibly losing some long-standing supporters because of this sort of outreach. On the other hand, he might gain some new people who appreciate that he’s willing to have an open mind and approach some common ground in debate.”
One possible area of cooperation might be preventing unwanted pregnancies. Planned Parenthood has been reviled by pro-life groups for conducting legal abortions, but much of its on-the-ground work is dispensing birth control – thus preventing a significant number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
Focus on the Family advocates abstinence before marriage, but does not condemn birth control between married couples, leaving that decision up to the husband and wife. Says Schneeberger: “Certainly, we would be open to dialogue on the subject of birth control.”
Schneeberger says Focus on the Family will not budge on Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion — even if the people on the other side of the table have the opposite agenda.
“We will never, as a pro-family, pro-life organization, abandon our position that overturning ‘Roe’ is best for the country. But in the meantime, we recognize that it isn’t close to happening,” Schneeberger said.
At Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, tour groups gather around a map on the wall that is dotted with tacks. Each tack represents a pregnancy center that has received a grant through Focus on the Family’s “Option Ultrasound” program.
Here pregnant women will see the image of the fetus before they make their decision on abortion. The organization website estimates that more than 100,000 babies have been saved from abortion.
In the lobby at Focus on the Family, the front page of the newspaper “The Colorado Springs Independent,” features a smiling Jim Daly emblazoned with the headline, “The Daly Show.” The theme of the article is Daly’s fresh look at Focus on the Family and his willingness to reach out to abortion rights groups.
Recently, Daly made a surprising statement on another thorny topic — gay marriage. In a recent article in the Christian online publication, “World Magazine,” he acknowledged that 65 to70 percent of young people favor same-sex marriage.
“We’ve probably lost that,” Daly told the magazine.
Still, Schneeberger said, “We’ll continue to defend marriage (between a man and a woman) as much as we can.”
In the “World” article, Daly even praised President Obama for having one wife with whom he’s raising his two children — a dig at certain conservative politicians who’ve been married multiple times.
Meanwhile, Focus on the Family’s political action arm, CitizenLink.com, is short of funds, like many organizations during the recession. Its website brings up this message: “CitizenLink’s gift income is down dramatically. In the next 30 days, I need to raise $2.3 million to help close the gap, or our ability to act on your behalf will be severely, and perhaps irreparably, hurt.”
That’s $2.3 million out of a $5.8 million budget for the year ending Sept. 30.