The Acton Institute


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. 

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.” 

Gerald Zandstra, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship
at the Acton Institute (, 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

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. 

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. 

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.” 

also praised the company for its “excellent” record “in
human rights” and its “excellent” record in the environment. 

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. 

why is the Acton Institute waging war against religious social activists?

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.” 

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. 

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.” 

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.” 

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.” 

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.” 

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. 

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.” 

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 ( 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.”  

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. 

HCWH website ( 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

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.” 

after the Acton Institute attacked Health Care Without Harm,


, the official journal of the Catholic Health Association
of the United States (, devoted a special section
of its November/December issue to “Environmental Responsibility
and the Ministry.” 

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.  

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.