Building A Better Frame: Reproductive Rights In the Media

Amie Newman

We have an opportunity to re-focus the reproductive rights and health public and media discourse this campaign season - let's take it.

I had the pleasure of putting together and moderating a panel at this year’s Netroots Nation Convention in Austin, TX. It was, in many ways, the panel I’ve been envisioning in my mind for most of the last ten years I’ve spent working professionally on reproductive health and rights issues.

For most professional advocates and activists working in the sexual and reproductive health arena, after learning all you can initially about the core issues, you turn your attention rather naturally to the ways in which these issues have been and continue to be discussed in the public and political arenas.  That is, after you understand exactly what’s at stake you want to communicate in the most effective ways in order to sway public opinion, educate and ultimately affect policy change. But, as most good progressives now know, it takes more than passion to do these things – and when it’s reproductive and sexual health on the table – emotion and passion run high.

It is no doubt positive that advocates for progressive reproductive and sexual health policies are passionate and emotionally invested in this work. Certainly the anti-choice advocacy organizations express intense emotion and passion in their own messages. But what has happened to the terms of this "debate" when, rather than discussing access to care, education for young people, preventative care and tools, women’s health needs, sexual autonomy, economic justice, and more – all in the context of reproductive and sexual health – we get caught up in the hamster wheel of the "anti vs. pro-choice" spiral?

Our panel at Netroots Nation, Breaking the Frame: Revitalizing and Redefining Reproductive Rights Media Coverage, aimed to address just that question.  As I told the audience in my opening remarks, the truth is, the tired pro vs. anti-choice framework that both anti and pro-choice organizations use and which the mainstream media parrots incessantly does not work – it does not work because we can’t use it to counteract so much of the anti-choice, far right’s agenda. It doesn’t work because it does not allow us to reveal what that agenda really is. What is that agenda? And what does a truly inclusive picture of repro rights reporting and public discourse look and sound like?

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Our goal for the session was to walk away from the discussion having at least partially deconstructed the extremist, anti-choice messaging and agenda and, with the help of the expert panelists, figure out what our messaging could and should look like when we all work together – professional advocates, bloggers and the mainstream media.

At Rewire, as most of you know, we like to think of ourselves as "champions of information". The ways in which we work to counter the anti-choice agenda, the "reckless rhetoric" is by working with professional advocates, bloggers and the mainstream media to give readers the information they need to empower themselves and to help advocate for those who are so often rendered invisible by this frame –  to give those who are rendered invisible by the overly simplified pro vs. anti-choice frame a voice –  young people, immigrant women, indigenous women, low-income women, women in prison, birthing women. Our goal is also to impact the mainstream media’s coverage of these issues so that the truth is out there – truths like the fact that a majority of Americans support widespread access to contraception, that most American parents would like to see accurate sexuality education in public schools, and that most Americans support access to legal abortion over illegal abortion.

When Barack Obama commented, to a Christian Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in reference to questions about "partial birth abortion" that "mental distress" should not necessarily be considered a health exemption in reference to the Federal Abortion Ban, he used this inflexible frame to respond. Instead, as Jill Filipovic noted in her post on Rewire, he could have used this new, more inclusive frame to re-focus the discussion.  Obama had the opportunity to respond, "If you want to talk about reducing abortion – which is what I think you’re getting at in your question – let me tell you – I, along with my fellow Democrats, work to increase access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education support initiatives that support our families such as federal family leave policies, subsidized day care and early education…" As Jill notes, he had a chance to say "Education, health care and contraception access are the most effective ways to decrease the need for abortion. My administration will take a comprehensive, truly life-affirming view: We will support women, men and children at all stages of life, and we will give Americans as many options as possible to make the best decisions for themselves and their families."

Our messages should allow for a broader discussion so that public discourse on reproductive rights doesn’t boil down to an exploration of how distressed a woman needs to be in order to  be allowed access to a procedure that only a minute percentage of women need access to, or how repulsive said procedure sounds to the Supreme Court Justices of our country.

Our messages should allow for a simple response when a presidential candidate is taken to task for daring to expose that he believes young children should be able to identify their body parts with correct terminology and receive information about safe touching. 

So while some in the media would like for us to think that this fight is about being pro-choice vs. anti-choice, we know that this fight is about so much more. The extremist agendas of many of the anti-choice leading organizations do not resonate with many Americans and yet seem to rise to the top of public and political discourse as definitively "pro-life" positions.

It is incumbent upon us, as progressive media producers and readers, that we shift the discussion towards this fact. It’s worth repeating: the extremist anti-choice agenda is not representative of the belief systems of most Americans.

How do we know?

Even Carly Fiorina, top advisor to John McCain, would like to see insurance coverage equity for contraception on par with coverage of Viagra for men,  and the overwhelmingly angry response to the leaked proposed regulations put forth by the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow health care providers to block access to contraception by calling it abortion show this to be true.

We know this because expert advocacy and research organizations like Advocates for Youth, The Guttmacher Institute, MergerWatch, CCMC and others have done the research and analyzed the results. Watch our panels at the bottom of this post and you’ll get an overview of what Americans of a wide swath of ages, ethnicities, income levels, ability, sexual orientations and more, believe. 

As one of our panelists noted, "…public opinion is on our side. Now we need to challenge conventional wisdom." 

We have an opportunity with panels like this one, with a powerful progressive media including sites like ours, to figure out how best, working all together, to break this frame and create a new one with the ultimate of goals in mind: to ensure that all women, men and children are afforded the respect, justice and equity they deserve.

If you couldn’t make it to Netroots Nation this year, take a minute to listen to what our expert panelists had to say about reproductive health, framing and the progressive media:

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.