The Next, Pro-Choice Cabinet?

Kay Steiger

The attention of the politically obsessed has now turned to speculation about who might be tapped to fill key leadership positions in President-Elect Obama's Cabinet. Will we finally have pro-choice appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services?

Now that election excitement has died down, the attention of the politically obsessed
has turned to speculation about who might be tapped to fill key leadership positions in President-Elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet. For the sexual and reproductive health community, the past
eight years has made it clear that we have to worry about much than just who fills
the secretary position at the Health and Human Services.

First, it’s important to remember
exactly how bad the Bush years were for the sexual and reproductive
health community. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health
and Human Services during Bush’s first term, advocated
including "unborn children" in the state health insurance program.
After Thompson departed, Bush appointed anti-choice
Michael Leavitt

to replace him, who recently proposed regulations that would "protect"
doctors and nurses from providing abortion services and prescribing hormonal contraception. Let’s not forget that Bush also temporarily
Orr, of anti-birth control Family Research Council fame, to head up
administering the nation’s family planning program and before her Eric Keroack,
someone with a history of opposing birth control, to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human
Services. Keroack resigned a few months later after Medicaid filed a lawsuit against him. Andrew von Eschenbach,
Bush’s pick for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, opposed the over-the-sale approval of emergency

Bush’s shredding of women’s
health and rights extended beyond HHS. He signed the federal Partial-Birth Abortion
Ban into law and appointed two judges that voted to uphold the legislation as constitutional.
His attorney general, John Ashcroft subpoenaed
thousands of women’s medical records

in its pursuit of upholding the ban. But Bush’s influence over sexual
and reproductive health wasn’t just restricted to domestic policy.
In addition to his war on birth control and other forms of contraception
at home, Bush instituted a policy that prevented clinics abroad to discuss
abortion with their patients or even accept pro-choice funding. This
later became known as the Global
Gag Rule

Given Bush’s record, the Obama administration needs not only to undo eight
years of damage in addition to taking bold strides on women’s health

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The Next Cabinet

Although we’re just days
from Obama’s election, many are already speculating about who might
fill the president-elect’s positions on the highest levels. A few
who have been suggested for the Health and Human Services secretary
position: former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, National Democratic
Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. This
is potentially an important cabinet position if Obama is able to pass some kind of health care reform package, as the HHS secretary would be responsible for overseeing its implementation.
All speculated candidates are pro-choice; Daschle and Sebelius have
both been leaders in the health care reform movement.  

Daschle is clearly the favored
choice, since he has made several policy
his position as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In a book released this year called Critical: What We Can Do About
the Health-Care Crisis
, Daschle proposed a Federal
Health Board, an independent body for overseeing health care regulation,
similar to how the Federal Reserve is situated to oversee economic regulation. 

Implementing policy that affects
women isn’t just confined to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Since the secretary of state is also responsible for implementing many
foreign aid packages that affect women’s health, the position becomes
vital to the advancement of sexual and reproductive health. Two of those Obama is said
to be considering are Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Sen. Chuck Hagel. Both
are Republicans that have earned a zero percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice
America. Democrats that Obama is likely considering are Sen. John Kerry
and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who both ran on pro-choice platforms
during their presidential campaigns. Kerry seems to be a leading candidate to fill the position.  

Those considered for attorney
general are former Clinton Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Artur
Davis, a socially conservative and anti-choice Southern Democrat, and
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who has been congratulated by NARAL for protecting
access to birth control in Arizona.  

Beth Fredrick, Executive Vice
President for the International Women’s Health Coalition, noted that
while politicos speculate about individuals that might fill important
positions, it is important to think about these various departments
as working together. "[Discussions about who might fill cabinet positions]
have been stratified between international and domestic appointments,"
Frederick said. "Department of State is seen as one category of important
appointments for the international side and the Department of Health
and the Department of Justice are seen as important for the domestic
issues. Ideally we’d like to see candidates in both departments have
the same kind of qualifications, similarly we’d like to see it cut across
health and human rights."  

But it’s not just departments
that should think about working together. Frederick notes that there
is an "opportunity between synergy for cabinet appointments and other
appointments like World Bank and officials at the United Nations." Much of the work of State Department is tied to the
work of international non-governmental organizations like the IMF and
the World Bank, as well as an internationalist community like the United

Frederick also notes that in
a shrinking budget, she fears that funding for programs
affecting women might be cut, and heads of programs or departments will
be forced to make difficult choices about how to spend that money. She’d
like to see reproductive and sexual health prioritized as these economic
strains push more Americans onto government
programs. "We need to invest our money wisely," she said. One way
to do that is to ensure women have access to birth control and other
preventative services. 

What is important is to remember
how much damage appointees — and not just cabinet members, but also
lower level officials that might be called upon to administer specific
programs — can do if they don’t have respect for women’s health
and sexuality. They can also do incredible good if they can manage the
departments well. Obama’s choices will resonate with women around the world for years to come.

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