Congress and the Family

If you have noticed lately that the US Congress has been paying a great deal of attention to family issues, it isn’t just because of better media coverage. Today the headlines are just as likely to tell of Congressional debate over single parenthood, adoption and abortion, homosexual rights and parental consent for medical services as they are to tell of interstate commerce, national security and international trade. The debate over family values has truly “gone national.”


This is no minor change in the way the United States does business. No longer is Washington interested only in what politicians once referred to as “the great matters of state.” Government, specifically our national government, is interested in the daily matters of the home.



To understand how dramatic a change this is, we need to look back only one political generation to the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As an international hero of the first rank, Ike was hounded by advocates of a massive US-led population control campaign to take a public stand on what optimum family size should be. Eisenhower, accustomed to fighting wars where the enemy was a little better defined, replied that he could think of no issue less appropriate for the intervention of the federal government.

Today, a handful of decades later, the US Senate has just confirmed to the post of US Surgeon General a woman, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who not only believes that such intervention is appropriate, but that it should be directed at pre-teenagers and channeled through the nation’s school system. As she said, comparing sex education to driver’s education, “We’ve taught [our kids] what to do in the front seat of the car, but not what to do in the back seat.”

Most Americans have a sense that this is not the kind of national government Thomas Jefferson or James Madison envisioned. It is probably not the kind of government Harry Truman envisioned either.

But an even more profound shift in outlook is at work here. From the beginning, the American system of government, reflecting its roots in English common law, looked to the local instruments of government, and to precedent, to establish rules for the community. Moreover, extensive areas of rule-making were reserved (not always with a happy result) to church authorities performing various duties of civil government.

In the United States, with respect to family law, this heritage has meant that the states and local jurisdictions have had the primary responsibility to make laws regarding, for example, marriage and divorce, adoption and foster care, abortion, the legal rights of minors, the criminality of sodomy and other forms of illicit sexual practice, and obscenity and pornography. The federal role has traditionally been limited to those areas where these issues have intersected with commerce among the states or criminal activity involving interstate travel.

The most obvious example of the change in this tradition is, of course, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which obliterated the substantive role of the states in abortion law and established not only a federal standard, but a constitutional standard that virtually nullified local prerogatives. Similar, if less dramatic, changes have taken place in other areas of family law, and more are in the offing. In 1986, the Supreme Court came within a single vote (5–4) in Bowers v. Hardwick of establishing a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy. Congress has established rules for the nation’s family planning clinics that guarantee teenagers, and even younger children, confidentiality against their own parents when government-funded agencies provide them with birth control pills and literature encouraging them to be sexually active.

One of the final thresholds, where the federal government had until now shown some restraint, was crossed when Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced legislation to establish a national commission on divorce reform. There is now Virtually no area of family law in which the hands of Congress and the other branches of the federal government are not deeply involved.

This situation is likely to intensify before it abates. It is a worrisome development to pro-family advocates, not just because the federal government so often makes the wrong choices on these issues, but because the removal of local authority inherently reduces self-rule and the ability of individual citizens to establish communities that reflect their values. A generation ago, one state—Nevada—was a haven for couples who wanted to change marriage partners like the Pony Express riders used to change horses; now unilateral, no-fault divorce is the practical rule in every state in the union.


Several factors—and several issues—are coalescing now to tempt Washington to weaken family law further. First is the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), the benign-sounding piece of legislation introduced by abortion advocates in the Congress to eliminate every vestige of state authority to regulate the conditions under which abortions are performed. Proponents of the bill state that its impact would be limited to codifying the policies laid down in Roe v. Wade. But on issue after issue, advocates of FOCA have acknowledged that this statute would bar even those laws that have withstood constitutional challenge under Roe, including limits on third-trimester abortions, requirements that doctors only perform abortions, informed consent laws, parental notification requirements and limits on abortions in publicly funded hospitals.

Representative Barney Frank (DMass.), a homosexual and key champion of abortion in the Congress, was asked last May in the House Judiciary Committee, as it considered FOCA, if it was not inconsistent for the Committee to say that the bill merely “seconded” Court rulings in favor of abortion from 1973–1988 when, in fact, the bill overturned a ruling, Doe v. Poelker, that said cities did not have to provide abortions in their public hospitals. “Just a little bit,” he replied, to laughter in the hearing room, “but not enough to bother me.”

The Judiciary Committee subsequently approved FOCA, rejecting amendments that would have protected parents’ rights and blocked public funding of abortions, positions that, polls say, enjoy broad public support. Since then, FOCA has been stalled in the House over internal disagreements among abortion proponents, many of whom do not want the full House even to have the chance to vote on the popular abortion restrictions. Still, it is ominous that the Congress has come so close to adopting a measure that will move further in the direction of dehumanizing the unborn, legally disarming the family as possessor of a unique set of rights, and reducing the states to mere administrative bureaus of an all-powerful national legislature.


While FOCA is unlikely to pass the 1993 session of Congress, an even more contentious debate looms over the inclusion of mandatory abortion funding in national health insurance. The Clinton Administration is set to release its national health plan this fall, and the consistent word from inside the Administration has been that abortion on request will be included in the basic health benefit package mandated by federal law. Pamela Maraldo, the new President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has called the abortion health reform issue a “defining moment for reproductive rights in America, because we are talking about having abortion as a basic benefit for every American woman.”

The “basic benefit” issue is not one that pro-life and pro-family advocates can afford to lose. Congressis always reluctant to repeal anything it has bestowed upon the nation as a “benefit,” and health reform, if passed, will develop a powerful constituency among the 35–37 million Americans who presently lack coverage of any kind. On a deeper level, abortion has traditionally meant the antithesis of medical practice, condemned by theHippocratic Oath and accurately viewed as requiring no particular use of the “healing art.” Inclusion of abortion in a ground breaking national scheme will mark the institutionalization of abortion as medicine on an unprecedented scale. For this reason, and rightly, right to life groups are throwing full resources into the battle against a national “abortion benefit.” This will be the key pro-life battle of the next 12 months.


Besides the health care debate where the Family Research Council has instituted an Ethics and Health Care Policy project under the leadership of Scott Daniels, Ph.D., Congress is as busy as ever debating a variety of demands from homosexual activists for new rights and new funding. Despite intense pressure from the media which is generally favorable to the homosexual agenda, Congress has thus far shown great reluctance to pass civil legislation in response to homosexual demands.

The premier debate thus far has taken place over President Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on open homosexuality within the Armed Forces. That proposal, first aired in January but considerably watered down by the time it was released by the Pentagon in July, met strong resistance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their outgoing chairman, General Colin Powell. Powell was joined by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, who, as this article was written, had succeeded in persuading the full Senate to reject the Clinton proposal in all its forms and to enact findings that homosexuality presents “unacceptable risks” to the morale and unit effectiveness of the Armed Forces.

Homosexuals who make no disclosure of their proclivity and who obey the Uniform Code of Military Justice which bans sodomy, will be able, as heretofore, to serve in the US military. That fact underscores what was really at stake in the debate over the Clinton policy and the other demands of homosexual activists who contributed over $3 million to the President’s 1992 campaign—not the right to serve, but the right to commit homosexual acts. The Family Research Council joined with other organizations to produce policy analyses which quantified the likely impact of lifting the ban on the health of US soldiers, on defense readiness, and, above all, on public role modeling for the nation’s youth.

That final aspect of role modeling is a major key to the debates currently taking place in Congress and across the entire country over such issues as the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of homosexual troop leaders, “domestic partnership” legislation, special civil rights laws governing sexual orientation, and federally-funded arts that advocate homosexuality. No one can make a serious argument that homosexuals, as a group, suffer discrimination that impairs their ability to work or earn income. In fact, marketing studies have consistently shown that household and per capita income for homosexuals is dramatically higher than the norm for working families. Moreover, invasive law enforcement procedures against individuals engaged in consensual sodomy is virtually non-existent.

What does exist in the United States is a core resistance, in families and in the church, to a positive portrayal of a sinful and self-destructive lifestyle. Thus, it was no surprise that, at the beginning of the latest round of homosexual activism, a purportedly scientific study was released by the US Department of Health and Human Services that placed the blame for a high rate of suicide among homosexuals on religious beliefs that condemn the practice and hurt adolescent homosexuals’ self-esteem. Though this study was repudiated by then Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, media reports continue to focus on religious “intolerance” as the source of the deep hurts and conflicts many homosexuals feel over their urges.

Nonetheless, for now the Congress does not seem to be buying the activists’ demands and arguments. In addition to codifying the military ban on the practice, Congress recently voted 251–177 to overturn the District of Columbia’s domestic partner statute that would have allowed homosexuals and cohabiting heterosexual couples to obtain public benefits on the same term as legally married spouses.

In this rare instance, Congress employed federal power to protect traditional values against local encroachment. More commonly today, states and locales are defending traditional values against federal encroachment.

It will take a revolution of faith and family to resist that encroachment, to recognize that we cannot come once more into the tabernacle of the home or give sleep to our eyes until in this nation of ours we “find out a place for the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob” (Psalm 132:3–5 KJ).

Charles A. Donovan currently serves as Executive Staff Director for the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C. based research, policy and lobbying organization. As staff director, Mr. Donovan supervises and directs the day-to-day operations of FRC which is dedicated to ensuring that the interests of the family are considered and respected in the formation of public policy. He is also active in the formation of nationwide strategies and as a writer for FRC’s publications.

Mr. Donovan has extensive experience as an editor/commentator. He is co-author with Robert G. Marshall of Blessed Are the Barren: A Social History of Planned Parenthood (Ignatius Press, October 1991). He has appeared on ABC’s “Nightline,” CNN, USIA’s Worldnet, CBN, the USA Radio Network and numerous other programs, and his writings have appeared in USA Today, San Diego Union, The Cincinnati Enquirer, the journal First Things, among others.

As a nationally known speaker, Mr. Donovan ha addressed audiences across the United States and abroad. He presented a paper before the International Congress on the Family, Brighton, England in 1990, and served as a participant in a conference on family break-up at Rockford, IL, in 1989. That same year Mr. Donovan addressed the National Legislators Conference in Chicago sponsored by American United for life. He has testified before Congress and the Conservative Democratic Forum in the US House of Representatives.

Prior to joining FRC in February 1989, Mr. Donovan served as Deputy Director of Presidential Correspondence at the White House beginning in 1983, writing policy statements, presidential messages and proclamations. He joined the Office of Presidential Correspondence as a writer/editor in April 1981.

From 1978 through 1981, Mr. Donovan was Legislative Director in the Washington office of the National Right to Life Committee, developing strategy and heading the lobbying program for the national committee.

Mr. Donovan has worked as a contributor to the sports pages of several publications and as an assistant in clean water research at the Taft Research Center of the US Environmental Protection Agency in his native Cincinnati.

He is a 1974 graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in English. He and his wife, Margaret, have three children and reside in Arlington, Virginia.