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The Acton Institute
H ealth Care Without Harm is a Washington, DC-based environmental group that has taken more than its share of heat from the chemical industry over its campaigns against the use of mercury in medical equipment, the incineration of highly toxic medical waste, and the use of pesticides, cleaners, and disinfectants.
Late last year, a conservative religious public policy group attacked not only the organization, but also religious leaders that support the group’s campaign against the use of PVC, or vinyl plastic—the most widely used plastic in medical devices which Health Care Without Harm maintains is “harmful to patients, the environment, and public health.”
Rev. Gerald Zandstra, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship at the Acton Institute (www.acton.org), authored a far- ranging broadside, warning religious leaders to be on their guard against “being used by radical environmental, leftist organizations to whom they lend moral legitimacy” for their anti-corporate campaigns.
In an essay entitled “Religious Leaders and Social Activism: Prophets or Captives?” Rev. Zandstra, an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, maintains, “Religious leaders are always in danger of being ‘captured’ by someone with a cause” because they have become important players, often lending “moral legitimacy” to a particular campaign.
Rev. Zandstra and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty have been imparting their own “moral legitimacy” to corporations for more than a decade. In May 2003, Zandstra and Father Robert Sirico, the president of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Institute, spoke against environmental and human rights resolutions brought by a number of religious organizations at Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholders meeting.
At the meeting, Rev. Zandstra —who unapologetically acknowledges speaking against “captured” priests and nuns—claimed that the religious activists were trying to “set the ethical tone for Exxon Mobil because [they believe] you [the company] cannot do it for yourselves.” Religious activists believe, “Our nation [sic] business leaders must be soulless, heartless creatures who, if left to their own devices would merely rape and pillage.”
He also praised the company for its “excellent” record “in human rights” and its “excellent” record in the environment.
In another article, Rev. Zandstra pointed out that Protestant pastors responding to his survey overwhelmingly concurred with the statement, “Without close government supervision, corporations will abuse their power.” While admitting that the Enron and WorldCom scandals may have fueled suspicion of corporations, Zandstra believes that corporate leaders are falsely characterized as being predominantly concerned with profit-making, the bottom line, and adding to their personal portfolios.
So why is the Acton Institute waging war against religious social activists?
“I think the attack points to our success in working with the religious community,” Stacy Malkan, Communications Director for Health Care Without Harm said in a telephone interview. “We have been very successful mobilizing the religious community for our campaigns because they are deeply concerned with health care issues and the environment. Our religious partners would no doubt be insulted by charges that they are dupes of the organization and the cam- paign.”
Founded in 1990 by Father Sirico and Kris Alan Mauren, the Acton Institute has become an important player in public policy debates and helped lead the attack against socially responsible clergy. Father Sirico has advised President Bush on “charitable choice” and was an early supporter of “welfare reform”; he edited a book for the Vatican aimed at reordering the Catholic Church’s social justice teachings; and helped launch the Interfaith Council for Envir- onmental Stewardship (ICES), a coalition of right-wing religious leaders aiming to counteract liberal environmental groups.
Since its founding the Institute has been fed generously by a gaggle of right-wing foundations. Between 1991 and 2001, it received more than $2.5 million in grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundation, and John M. Olin Foundation, according to Media Transparency, a website that tracks “the money behind the media.”
In an op-ed in the Detroit News , Sirico spelled out his philosophy: “Unnecessary regulation” and forcing companies “to cede their corporate governance to national and supra-national authorities” forces “creative initiative” to be “replaced with passivity...rather than innovation.” In the end, this “results in less competition, loss of market share, higher consumer prices and increased unemployment.”
While Zandstra supports the involvement of religious leaders in social issues, he warns that they need to question the agenda of the organizations they work with. “If the ideas being proposed stem from sound theological commitments, then the religious spokesman stands on sure ground,” Rev. Zandstra writes. “If, however, the cause is basically secular, the religious leader can be seen as simply trying to inject religious language into a non- (even anti-) religious agenda.”
What are Rev. Zandstra’s problems with Health Care Without Harm, Building In Good Faith— one of the anti-PVC campaign partners—and the environmental health movement? They start “from a largely secular environmental philosophy and seek to import religious justification,” he writes. And, he argues, “this campaign to phase out vinyl building materials is just one piece of the greater anti-vinyl movement.”
The actual agenda of Health Care Without Harm is the elimination of PVC from health care facilities, in effect harming patients who need the materials, says Zandstra. “This is quite simply an ideological crusade based not on concerns for human beings, but rather on an irrational bias against all things ‘artificial’,” Rev. Zandstra charges.
“The tragic part is that many of these religious leaders intend to do good,” Zandstra writes. “Unaware of economic or scientific realities, they fail to calculate the ‘unintended consequences’ of the policies that they advocate. They risk being used by more sophisticated people on the hard left who wrap their agenda around religion. Religious leaders need to be more careful not to lend moral legitimacy to harmful economic and environmental policies that, if put into full effect, would have devastating consequences.”
The subtext of Zandstra’s agenda is less about environmental and health care realities and more related to protecting industry. In late October, an Acton Institute report entitled “Health Care Without Harm—or Harming Health Care?” was penned by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and a nationally syndicated columnist. Bandow maintained, “A long running campaign to rid hospitals and other health care facilities of medical vinyl products…has dangerously overstated the risks associated with vinyl use and diverted attention from much more serious health threats.”
Health Care Without Harm counters that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Toxicology Program have warned that DEHP, a toxic additive that leaches from vinyl medical devices, can be harmful to certain patients, including sick infants and pregnant women undergoing high risk procedures. “Why should the most vulnerable patients be exposed to potentially dangerous devices when non-vinyl plastic devices that don’t leach toxic additives are available?,” Stacy Malkan asks.
The HCWH website (www.no harm.org) maintains it is “an international coalition of 431 organizations in 52 countries working to transform the health care industry so it is no longer a source of harm to people and the environment.” According to Malkan, the organization has “a mainstream and common sense environmental agenda, which includes working with the Environmental Protection Agency on Hospitals for a Healthy Environment—a four-way partnership with the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association—which is aimed at having health care facilities agree to phase out the use of mercury and reduce wastes, and reduce persistent organic pollutants.”
“Health Care Without Harm is committed to bringing together a broad coalition of folks including health care providers, unions, religious leaders, and environmental activists,” says Stacy Malkan. “We are an issue-oriented organization and not the so-called usual suspects as the Acton Institute has charged.”
Shortly after the Acton Institute attacked Health Care Without Harm, Health Progress , the official journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (www.chausa.org), devoted a special section of its November/December issue to “Environmental Responsibility and the Ministry.”
Sr. Sharon Zayac, director of the Illinois-based Benincasa Ministries, wrote: “We will not be true providers of health care until we understand that our well-being is contingent upon clean air and water, healthy soils and food, toxin-free clothing and plastics and metals and building materials…. We have an obligation to speak out for the health of the entire household.
“And if the very buildings in which we gather the sick are not healthy, what service do we provide? We must take on the task of reducing or eliminating what we can and challenging the many industries who supply us to live up to their responsibilities as well.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.
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