Let’s Talk About Important Life Decisions and Putting Prevention First

Donna Hall

When the Supreme Court set standards for legal abortion in all 50 states 34 years ago, no one expected the marches on the mall and demonstrations on the courthouse steps to last this long.

But abortion still regularly makes the news—around votes on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures or for state ballot measures, mostly on proposals to ban certain aspects of the procedure. Then there's the obligatory Sunday morning talk show question to everyone running for office: where do you stand on abortion? Rudy Giuliani gets it every time: "Can a Republican who supports abortion make it through the primary?" It's as though abortion were the only important social issue we face.

But we all know that it isn't. What about other important life decisions we all make every day related to our reproductive health?

When the Supreme Court set standards for legal abortion in all 50 states 34 years ago, no one expected the marches on the mall and demonstrations on the courthouse steps to last this long.

But abortion still regularly makes the news—around votes on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures or for state ballot measures, mostly on proposals to ban certain aspects of the procedure. Then there's the obligatory Sunday morning talk show question to everyone running for office: where do you stand on abortion? Rudy Giuliani gets it every time: "Can a Republican who supports abortion make it through the primary?" It's as though abortion were the only important social issue we face.

But we all know that it isn't. What about other important life decisions we all make every day related to our reproductive health?

For starters, there's sex education, birth control and family planning, the cervical cancer vaccine, and emergency contraception. Movement on many of these issues is being stalled, some might even say hijacked, by the relentless focus on abortion.

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Is this what American voters want? We really didn't think so. And to prove this, last year the Women Donors Network along with the Communications Consortium Media Center (with generous funding from several foundations including The David and Lucile Packard Foundation) set out to understand what voters really think about some of the important issues I listed above.

In short, we wanted to know if it would be possible to broaden the national discussion to a larger agenda without stepping back from support for abortion rights.

We worked with Republican and Democratic pollsters, both liberal and conservative. We enlisted linguists, social workers, reproductive health leaders, religious leaders, think-tank specialists and many others to help us understand the values debate. Harris Interactive then coordinated on-line focus groups, focus and dial groups, and voter surveys.

Some areas showed no surprises and align with many of the polls conducted by leading reproductive health organizations: Americans value personal responsibility—taking charge of one's life and family and helping to make the world a better place. They want a responsible government to focus on safety, affordability and access to information and services. They affirm respect, protection, prevention and planning as values in this discussion. People believe that important life decisions can only be made responsibly if they have access to information and options.

So, you may be wondering: do our findings indicate a potential for the country to move past abortion politics?

For sure they do. We found that 81 percent of voters agree with this: "The current debate focuses on abortion, but there is a much broader discussion that needs to happen that includes issues such as birth control, emergency contraception, comprehensive sex education, stem cell research, end of life decisions and the HPV vaccine, that are just as important."

The same proportion, 81 percent agrees with this: "I may have one position on birth control, another on abortion and still a third on end-of-life. Others have their own opinion which may be different than mine. We should each appreciate and respect our individual opinions. Sometimes, we just must agree to disagree."

In the end, movement on these issues may be as simple as recognizing individuals' determination to have the freedom and opportunity to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. You can read up on all our findings by visiting our web site www.movingforward07.org.

Congress is finally starting to understand the dynamics. As you may know, the Prevention First Act was introduced in January in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid. It was introduced the next month in the House by Congresswomen Louise Slaughter and Diana DeGette. The focus is a larger agenda: family planning, sex education and other ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Let's hope America can now move forward on some of the other pressing reproductive health issues that people face each day.

Analysis Politics

Why It Matters If Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Talk About Race or Gender

Emily Crockett

Some progressives argue that Sanders’ laser-like focus on economic inequality is too narrow—not just because he doesn’t talk about other issues, but because the way he talks about his favorite issue only tells part of the story.

Bernie Sanders has been having a moment in the public eye, despite Beltway consensus that Sanders can’t possibly beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.

The self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont has seen his poll numbers jump since he announced his candidacy last month. Some observers are urging the media to take his candidacy more seriously because he has big, surprisingly mainstream ideas, and because he’s defeated long odds before.

Sanders is wildly popular on social media and widely loved by many progressives who see his unapologetic economic populism as a breath of fresh air.

But other progressives argue that Sanders’ laser-like focus on economic inequality is too narrow—not just because he talks about it to the exclusion of other issues, but because the way he talks about it only tells part of the story.

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They say he tends to pursue a one-size-fits-all populist message that ignores race and gender—and that even if his campaign’s only accomplishment is pushing Clinton to the left on specific issues, the way Sanders talks about those issues wastes opportunities to connect with key voters and better understand key policy problems.

And, critics say, this problem isn’t at all unique to Sanders; it’s a longstanding issue with the Democratic Party and American liberalism itself.

Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas called it “weird and unexpected” that Sanders would leave out any mention of immigration reform or the Black Lives Matter movement at the start of his campaign given how vocal Clinton has been on those issues, and how good Sanders—who took part in the 1963 March on Washington—has been on those issues historically.

Dara Lind argues at Vox that Sanders’ failure to discuss racial justice could dampen some of the progressive enthusiasm about his candidacy:

For other progressives—many of them black or Latino—economic inequality is important, but so is racial inequality. They’re extremely concerned about racial bias in policing, and about ending mass incarceration. They’re concerned about the treatment of unauthorized immigrants, and about protecting voting rights … And Bernie Sanders doesn’t speak to those concerns. He didn’t mention those issues in his campaign launch yesterday, or in his email announcement to his supporters last month, and they’re not on the issues page of his website.

Sanders’ campaign website doesn’t mention any gender or reproductive justice issues either.

Sanders, in his more detailed campaign launch speech, briefly mentioned equal pay for women, child poverty, nutrition assistance for pregnant women, and affordable child care. There’s no question from his record that he’s avidly pro-choice and supports women’s access to comprehensive health care. He is willing to speak out about women’s rights, and it’s likely he’ll have more to say about those issues as the campaign progresses.

But critics say there’s a difference between taking a position on an issue and making an issue out of a position, especially when it comes to connecting with voters.

“It’s the idea that speaking about racial inequality and gender inequality is an important thing to do, but you don’t have to do it first, and you don’t have to do it all the time,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a progressive messaging strategist. “If you don’t lead with it, then you don’t take it seriously.”

Clinton, dismissed by many on the left as “corporate,” has still put some race and gender issues front and center in her campaign. It’s worrisome, progressives say, if the so-called “left flank” isn’t pushing any harder for racial or gender justice issues than the “centrists.”

Sanders released a 12-point progressive economic agenda in December that doesn’t mention race once. It mentions gender once to discuss the pay gap but doesn’t discuss the much larger pay disparities that women of color experience, an issue Clinton is highlighting on the campaign trail.

“If [Sanders is] the candidate who’s speaking truth to power, but that’s the truth he chooses to speak, that doesn’t bode well for the outcomes of progressive policy,” Ludovic Blain, a progressive electoral activist, told Rewire.

It’s not just Sanders who won’t take ownership of these issues from the left, Blain said; he doesn’t hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) talk about race much, and he doesn’t hear her white progressive base noticing or complaining about the omission.

“Bernie Sanders is not a standalone person for me,” Blain said. “He comes from a long line of mostly, but not exclusively, white male liberals that white liberals are very excited about, and they all never talk about people of color or racial justice. They all make purely class-based appeals.”

Lind writes that Sanders focuses on purely economic issues because he’s just more passionate about economic justice than other issues, and because he thinks you can’t solve things like racial inequality without first addressing class inequality. It’s a position that was also easy for him to hold, and get elected on, in his mostly-white home state of Vermont.

It’s also a position that makes no sense historically, Shenker-Osorio said, given the way racial “dog-whistle politics” have consistently undermined calls for economic populism in the United States.

“You can’t talk about inequality, you can’t talk about the usurpation of control and the wielding of power by an elite minority, and not mention race. You just can’t,” she said. “Otherwise you’re not actually talking about it.”

Sanders seems to take a similar “class struggle first” view toward gender-based injustice. His Senate website reads, “Sen. Sanders supports women’s rights by challenging ongoing inequalities in our society.”

He also seems willing to put some of those ongoing inequalities ahead of women’s rights, at least in front of certain audiences. In a recent speech before members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), Sanders said:

I know that there are differences in this room on abortion, on gay marriage, on guns, whatever it may be. Fine, let’s have our differences. But when it comes to whether or not our kids can go to college, whether or not we’re going to make it easier for workers to join unions, whether or not we’re going to have a trade policy which creates jobs in this country or whether it creates jobs in China, whether or not college is affordable, whether or not all Americans are entitled to health care as a right, let us stand together and not be divided.

Sanders doesn’t acknowledge common arguments that guns are also a racial justice issue, or that you can’t separate women’s abortion rights from their health care or their economic security.

This isn’t a surprising omission for Sanders to make, given his audience.

It’s also not a surprising rhetorical move for a Democrat, observers say. Sanders’ far more centrist colleague, the likely future Senate minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has pointed to economic populism as a way for Democrats to specifically appeal to white working class voters.

Talking about economic populism while avoiding talk about race or gender is a strategy that some observers and advocates say is behind the times. It not only fails to engage the progressive base, they say, but it also fails to tell the full story of inequality.

“Even if you’re trying to address it from a ‘purely’ economic populist frame—whatever that means, and I don’t even actually know what that means—I don’t know how you get around issues of race and gender,” Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-executive director of the Make It Work campaign for family-centered work policies, told Rewire.

“There’s a disinfection of the message in order for it to be more palatable for a particular sector of white voters,” Lisa Garcia Bedolla, professor of education and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, told Rewire. “And to appeal to those voters you cannot talk about race or gender, and God forbid the two together.”

Bedolla said she is “cautiously optimistic” about Clinton, who is doing better than Bedolla expected on race and gender both in rhetoric and in hiring decisions. Bedolla, however, thinks that movements like Black Lives Matter have given Clinton “political cover” to say more than she normally would, that she’s following trends rather than being in the vanguard, and that her racial analysis of economic issues is still limited.

It’s a problem Democrats have had for decades, Bedolla said—from the racially biased New Deal, to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, to today’s risk-averse echo chamber of Democratic political consultants.

“It’s appealing to an ever-smaller proportion of the electorate, and one that is increasingly breaking for Republicans,” Blain said. “It seems like a strange way to try to win the elections of the past, not of today and the future.”

Women of color are the Democrats’ most reliable base, followed by men of color; white women vote Republican a bit less than white men, but a lot more than men or women of color. Women of color also face more barriers than white women to the reproductive and economic justice that would give them more power over their own future and their children’s future.

“It’s no coincidence that women, and women of color specifically, often occupy the most economically precarious jobs, and I think that anyone who wants to put themselves out there as a champion of economic justice needs to speak to that loud and clear,” Labaton said. “Telling this story as it really is is more likely to allow a broader set of people to see themselves in that story.”

“You’re basically not speaking to the people who make up the new American majority in a language that they’re motivated by,” Shenker-Osorio said.

That affects policy as well as rhetoric, Bedolla said, especially when it comes to the difference between a “women’s agenda” (often code for “white women’s agenda”) and a “women of color agenda.”

Take equal pay, for instance. It’s important, but helping a low-wage woman of color make the same $8 an hour as her male coworker is less helpful than securing her a living wage.

Sanders has been on the front lines of the “Fight for $15” living wage movement, and Clinton recently came out in support of the movement as well. A higher minimum wage would disproportionately help women of color because they make less as a group.

But critics say progressive politicians too often treat this kind of analysis like an afterthought, if they mention it at all. Sanders typically talks about worker organizing in broad terms without any reference to race or gender. Clinton talks about how most low-wage jobs are held by women of color, but she hasn’t been specific about actually calling for the $15 minimum wage that disadvantaged workers are demanding.

“We often require people of color voters to think a whole lot more about stuff than white voters,” Blain said. “People of color voters are supposed to essentially take out a policy manual and figure out the proportionate impacts of generic policies. Whereas for white voters, we just definitely don’t ever want to bring up race so that they don’t even have to think about it.”

“There is a long history of Democrats pushing for economic equality on the presumption that by doing so they would also help some communities of color,” Bedolla said.

It’s not that such policies won’t help at all, Bedolla said, but the solutions will be incomplete without getting specific about the root problems.

Take immigrants in her state of California: Obama favors more access to early childhood education programs, but mere “access” isn’t enough even in San Francisco, where Latinos are still the least likely to have early childhood education despite the city’s universal preschool program. And Latinos were also less likely to sign up their eligible children for state health benefits, partly due to fears about immigration status.

“The policy agenda that comes out of a misdiagnosis of the problem can’t actually solve the problem,” Bedolla said.

Campaigning isn’t the same as governing, of course, and it’s hard to say what kinds of policies either Clinton or Sanders would actually prioritize as president. But as much as campaigners pander and make promises they’re sure to break, Shenker-Osorio said, the things that candidates are willing to say on the campaign trail matter.

“Presidential campaigns are times when our nation suddenly actually pays attention to its governance,” Shenker-Osorio said. “So the stories that get told are about what matters in America, what we desire, what we’re seeking as public policy.”

Commentary Contraception

Colorado’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Works, and That’s Why Conservatives Want to Kill It

Amanda Marcotte

Republicans in Colorado are coming up with a plethora of reasons to object to funding an IUD program that has dramatically reduced teen pregnancy. But their real concern appears to be that the program is too good at preventing unintended pregnancy.

One of the most interesting political battles over reproductive health-care access is currently going down in Colorado. As has been extensively documented here at Rewire, an experimental program launched in the state in 2009 has resulted in a shocking 40 percent drop in the teen birth rate and a 35 percent drop in the teen abortion rate. Naturally, Colorado anti-choicers are trying to kill it.

This is about more than some budget struggle. Instead, it’s about the escalating battle over contraception access, both in Colorado and in this country as a whole. Make no mistake about it: The better women get at preventing unintended pregnancy, the uglier this fight is going to get. And intrauterine devices (IUDs), which have an extremely low failure rate, are increasingly at the center.

This week, the National Journal released a massive feature by Nora Caplan-Bricker about the battle over Colorado’s IUD fund. Three years ago, a private donation was made to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative and earmarked to give IUDs and other long-acting reversible contraception (LARCs) to low-income women. The program was a smashing success—not only lowering unintended pregnancy rates, but also saving the state an estimated $5.85 for every dollar spent on the program. Now, the private money for the fund has run out. Democrats, and one Republican named Don Coram, want the state to replenish it.

The arguments for doing so are rock-solid: The program has already saved the state piles of money, unintended pregnancy has all sorts of negative outcomes best avoided, and the demand for the subsidized IUDs is clearly there. But Republicans in the state are most likely going to kill the program anyway.

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What becomes clear, especially reading Caplan-Bricker’s piece, is that Republicans are using this battle to beta-test various arguments against any future attempts, on any level, to make it easier for women to get affordable long-term contraception. It’s a classic case of starting with the conclusion—in this case, that low-income women should not get IUDs—and arguing backwards.

This is a delicate operation for anti-choice Republicans, because they have to find a way to argue against contraception without appearing to do so, which could hurt them with voters in a swing state like Colorado. For months, they’ve been tossing out arguments to see which ones stick. The whole “IUD is abortion!” lie was an early contender, but it has a couple of problems with it, starting with the fact that it’s not true. It’s also hard to imagine the voters of Colorado being unduly impressed by politicians putting the fortunes of hypothetical fertilized eggs ahead of the desires of teen girls to avoid pregnancy.

Now, as Caplan-Bricker reports, Republicans are trying a new tack: Arguing that the program is a redundancy because Obamacare supposedly gives you all the free IUDs your heart desires. She writes:

When the debate finally commences in earnest, moral and religious arguments are scarcer than the initiative’s proponents had expected. Republican House members have settled on a more pragmatic line of attack: The funding, they argue, is unnecessary because the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover all forms of contraception—IUDs and implants included. “We don’t need to spend this money on the same program, which is available otherwise,” Rep. Janak Joshi, a Republican from socially conservative Colorado Springs, asserts. “We can use this money for some better use—maybe education, maybe roads, but not duplicating the same services which are available.”

Caplan-Bricker outlines all the reasons why this isn’t true, mostly that there are a lot of holes in the health-care distribution system this program plugs up. It’s obvious, though, that this redundancy argument isn’t being offered sincerely. It’s just a gambit to shut down the program before it becomes entrenched in Colorado—and certainly before it starts to spread to other states, causing unintended pregnancy rates to plummet across the country. The program’s success is the very reason that anti-choicers want to kill it.

While most Republicans stuck to the boring budgetary talking points in Caplan-Bricker’s piece, the real concern leaked out of state representative Kathleen Conti, who called IUDs the “Cadillac” of contraception and argued, very unpersuasively, that “I see firsthand the devastation that happens to” girls who have sex. In other words, her fear appears to be that IUDs work too well—that they’re Cadillacs, as it were—and that without the danger of unintended pregnancy, more girls might choose to have sex.

Common sense would dictate that a high failure rate would be a negative. But from the anti-choice perspective, it’s a good thing. The fact that contraception fails is used all the time as a way to threaten young people in hopes of scaring them away from sex, in anti-choice propaganda and in abstinence-only or abstinence-focused programs. So the IUD, which has a typical-use failure rate of less than 1 percent—compared to 9 percent for the pill and 18 percent for condoms—threatens to upend conservative narratives demanding abstinence across the board for unmarried people.

The same thing happened when the HPV vaccine came out. Prior to the vaccine, abstinence-only propagandists loved HPV, because nearly everyone who has sex gets it at some point, giving credence to the doom-awaits-all-you-fornicators messaging. The vaccine threatened that, and so anti-choicers subjected it to a scare campaign that has, sadly, worked. Many parents still refuse to vaccinate their girls for HPV for fear that it somehow causes risky sexual activity, even though research shows that vaccinated girls actually take fewer sexual risks.

The same thing has been shown, by the way, for birth control: Women who have access to it don’t have more sex. But so what if they did? Sex is a good thing, and we should be able to enjoy it as much as we want without having to incur unnecessary risks. This argument should not be lost in the mix.

As the situation in Colorado shows, conservatives are willing—eager, even—to keep the teen pregnancy rate sky high on the slim hope that doing so might scare someone, sometime out of having sex. At best, that suggests that their priorities are completely screwed up, because they would literally prefer to have widespread preventable public health issues than to admit that it’s fine if people want to have sex. At worst, it suggests that they want people to suffer unnecessary problems like STIs and unintended pregnancy, to punish them for engaging in sexual activity.

Either way, we are at a crossroads here. Most Americans may have mixed feelings about sex, but would be able to set that aside in the face of overwhelming evidence that a teen pregnancy prevention program works. If the Colorado program is allowed to continue, there is no doubt other states will follow.

So this isn’t just a local story. The fate of this little initiative in Colorado could determine the shape of reproductive health care for generations to come.