Hand in Hand

Suzanne Petroni

It’s crucial to align domestic and international family planning and reproductive health movements in order to save women’s lives.

Those of us who care about women's health and rights have long lamented the diminishing U.S. government support for reproductive health–both for those in this country and for the millions around the world whose lives depend on our assistance. But maybe there is a way that we can help turn things around: by joining together the now-separate efforts of the international and domestic reproductive rights fields, as well as with our allies in other progressive causes.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a complex history, here's a quick review of how domestic and international efforts diverged.

Family planning first landed on the official United States policy agenda in the 1960s. The initial aims of these early policies were, admittedly, not entirely altruistic: Eugenics and a desire to stem immigration played a role. But U.S. support was also focused on humanitarian concerns such as alleviating food crises and extreme poverty, and bolstering environmental and national security. Improving the status of women was a minor interest at first, but one that took on increasing prominence over the years.

Support in those early days was broadly bipartisan, with Republicans such as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush among the most ardent proponents. Within just a few years, the U.S. became the world's most significant sponsor of voluntary family planning, both at home and abroad. Today, according to USAID, it supplies 35 to 40 percent of donor-provided contraceptives to the developing world.Hand in Hand

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But in a backlash to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, both domestic and international family-planning assistance became politicized by right-wing forces. The Helms amendment, passed in 1973, prohibited U.S. foreign assistance from being used for abortion services. Three years later, the Hyde amendment cut off Medicaid funds from being used for abortions in the U.S. And in 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan instituted the global gag rule.

As U.S. feminists kept fighting domestically to preserve women's hard-fought right to abortion, supporters of global women's reproductive rights focused more on issues of birth control and family planning. And the two movements found themselves working in separate spheres, with distinct funding streams and unique political allies.

Yet for years, the same conservative forces in the U.S. who have worked to eliminate abortion services, promote abstinence-only programs in schools and exempt doctors and pharmacists from their obligation to provide reproductive health care have also been the ones pushing to export such philosophy abroad. Indeed, policies such as the global gag rule are often first tried abroad–where few U.S. citizens notice their operation–and then attempts are made to import them back to this country.

In his latest budget request, President Bush recommended cutting international reproductive health assistance to a paltry $325 million–the same level at which his father left it in 1992. He has consistently attempted to flatline domestic Title X family-planning funds, while increasing taxpayer dollars for domestic and international abstinence-only programs. The president has also blocked some $200 million appropriated by Congress for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency that provides the poorest women in over 150 countries with family planning, maternal and child health services and HIV prevention assistance.

The list of family-planning roadblocks thrown up by the Bush administration goes on and on: egregiously inappropriate appointments to critical government positions, the denigration of condoms, blatant disregard of scientific evidence. And we have not been able to overcome these obstacles, partly because the domestic and global movements have been moving on parallel tracks rather than in tandem. As a result, we have weakened and dispersed our base, complicated our messages and further dissipated the scarce resources available to do our work.

But we can still do right by the world's women by working together with those with whom we share common cause. Here are some excellent examples of current efforts to work collaboratively:

  • The Sierra Club has undertaken a Global Population and Environment campaign to increase access to family planning and comprehensive sex education, advance women's and girls' basic rights, and raise awareness of wasteful resource consumption at home and abroad.
  • Ipas, an international reproductive-rights organization, partnered with U.S.-based SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to map sexual and reproductive rights across the U.S., thus linking reproductive choice with the right to choose life partners.
  • NARAL Pro-Choice America's work to guarantee every woman reproductive choice now includes women outside U.S. borders as well as within.
  • The Feminist Majority Foundation has seen student engagement and activism swell as it has incorporated global issues into its campus outreach programs.
  • Women Won't Wait, a coalition of women's-rights, health, development, human-rights and HIV/AIDS organizations from the global North and South, has come together around the two pandemics threatening the lives of women throughout the world: HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.

By recognizing our common goals and joining forces, we can take back the agenda. We have no reason to continue segregating our efforts and working in separate silos; we have hundreds of millions of reasons to work together to defeat the dangerous fundamentalist opposition to women's health and rights. Can we give it a try?

For the full special report on global reproductive rights, see the Winter 2008 issue of Ms. magazine, now available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.