A recent directive from John Podesta, chair of
President-Elect Obama’s transition team, informs transition team staffers of a
sweeping transparency policy that will make public all policy documents and
recommendations from meetings staffers conduct with outside organizations. Apparently, they mean it: dozens of
transition documents drafted for the transition team by advocacy groups ranging
from the American Association of Airport Executives to the Women Business Owner’s Platform for Growth are
now up on the change.gov website. Papers
on reproductive health are well-represented: visitors will find among the
documents a transition memo crafted by over 50 groups in the reproductive
health community. Advocates hadn’t
intended the document to go public, but now that it has, it’s apparent that the
public has an appetite for reproductive health policy minutia.
Advocates involved in crafting the document – "Advancing
Reproductive Health and Rights in a New Administration" – say it represented a
wholly collaborative effort by the reproductive health community to articulate
a concrete plan for progressive reproductive health policy during the Obama
administration, including many fixes for harmful Bush administration policy. None of the "asks" include anything not
previously seen by any regular Rewire reader: These range from
restoring funding to UNFPA to urging Congress to pass the Prevention First Act. The document
is clear and comprehensive on the gaps in access to women’s health care and how
to repair them. It acknowledges lesser-noticed restrictions of women’s
reproductive autonomy alongside those that are well-reported: for instance, it considers
an end to the practice of shackling women prisoners while they are giving birth
a crucial component of "supporting healthy pregnancies." It also calls for increased spending on
substance abuse treatment programs for pregnant and parenting women.
What advocates were less eager to share with the public is
the detailed roadmap included in the document for the changes in policy needed
to improve reproductive health for women both here and abroad. Several advocates cited concerns that the
administration would be criticized as doing the bidding of reproductive health community
if it made use of the specific legal reasoning outlined in the document.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the public likes being privvy to
policy documents like this one, apart from or in addition to getting
information about the women’s health agenda for the next administration. There are now over 100 comments on the
document on change.gov, debating sexuality education policy and reimbursements for
Certified Nurse Midwives, calling for free, over-the-counter access to
emergency contraception, and funding for self-esteem and empowerment programs
for teens, among many other threads.
Scattered comments decry the use of abortion as "birth control," and
others put the issue of abortion in religious terms, but the comments
overwhelmingly favor prevention and securing women’s access to abortion. As any reader of pro-sexual and reproductive
health online content can attest, even the best-reasoned pieces of writing can
be met with outcry from anti-choice commenters.
Impressively, in this instance, those who attempt to frame the issues of
reproductive health in religious or moral terms are respectfully refuted, and
commenters reframe the issue around women’s health and rights.
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A recent article by Peter Daou captures the burgeoning, and vocal, "online
commentariat" ready and willing to respond to policy proposals at a level of
sophistication largely unimagined by traditional communications strategies.
For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass
media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were
discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled
funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous
interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the
media’s constraints…Every piece of news and information is instantly processed
by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and
unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into
reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences,
speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a
previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and
And Daou highlights the role of the online commentariat in providing
"validation and legitimation" of agenda-setting work done by advocates.
Now that the transition document has gone public, a question arises: How can
reproductive health advocates more effectively enlist the power and support of
the public in making these issues a central concern for the next administration
and ensuring that the voices of the pro-choice majority of Americans are represented? Jessica Arons, Director of the Women’s Health
and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and one of the advocates
involved in drafting the document, says that the groups who contributed to the
document haven’t yet reconvened to consider any collective communications or
movement-building strategy around the document. "Our goal was to come
together to present a united front and outline what we hope the new
administration will do," says Arons. "Whether we will develop a collective
communications or movement-building strategy around the document
remains to be seen. In the meantime, some organizations have put forth
their own agendas publicly, and have made efforts to mobilize people
around items on those agendas."
In the mean time, perhaps interested members of the
reproductive health community should head to change.gov to make sure their
voices are reflected among the growing chorus of commenters weighing in on
reproductive health priorities for the next administration!
Reproductive advocacy groups have moved to counter negative images that will be displayed this week during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, while educating the public about anti-choice legislation that has eroded abortion care access nationwide.
Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, along with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), Trump’s choice for vice president, have supported a slew of anti-choice policies.
The National Institute for Reproductive Health is among the many groups bringing attention to the Republican Party’s anti-abortion platform. The New York City-based nonprofit organization this month erected six billboards near RNC headquarters and around downtown Cleveland hotels with the message, “If abortion is made illegal, how much time will a person serve?”
The institute’s campaign comes as Created Equal, an anti-abortion organization based in Columbus, Ohio, released its plans to use aerial advertising. The group’s plan was first reported by The Stream, a conservative Christian website.
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The site reported that the anti-choice banners would span 50 feet by 100 feet and seek to “pressure congressional Republicans into defunding Planned Parenthood.” Those plans were scrapped after the Federal Aviation Administration created a no-fly zone around both parties’ conventions.
Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said in an interview with Rewire that Created Equal’s stance and tactics on abortion show how “dramatically out of touch” its leaders compared to where most of the public stands on reproductive rights. Last year, a Gallup poll suggested half of Americans supported a person’s right to have an abortion, while 44 percent considered themselves “pro-life.”
“It’s important to raise awareness about what the RNC platform has historically endorsed and what they have continued to endorse,” Miller told Rewire.
Miller noted that more than a dozen women, like Purvi Patel of Indiana, have been arrested or convicted of alleged self-induced abortion since 2004. The billboards, she said, help convey what might happen if the Republican Party platform becomes law across the country.
Miller said the National Institute for Reproductive Health’s campaign had been in the works for several months before Created Equal announced its now-cancelled aerial advertising plans. Although the group was not aware of Created Equal’s plans, staff anticipated that intimidating messages seeking to shame and stigmatize people would be used during the GOP convention, Miller said.
The institute, in a statement about its billboard campaign, noted that many are unaware of “both the number of anti-choice laws that have passed and their real-life consequences.” The group unveiled an in-depth analysis looking at how the RNC platform “has consistently sought to make abortion both illegal and inaccessible” over the last 30 years.
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio last week began an online newspaper campaign that placed messages in the Cleveland Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Dayton Daily News, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio spokesman Gabriel Mann told Rewire.
The ads address actions carried out by Created Equal by asking,“When Did The Right To Life Become The Right To Terrorize Ohio Abortion Providers?”
“We’re looking to expose how bad [Created Equal has] been in these specific media markets in Ohio. Created Equal has targeted doctors outside their homes,” Mann said. “It’s been a very aggressive campaign.”
The NARAL ads direct readers to OhioAbortionFacts.org, an educational website created by NARAL; Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio; the human rights and reproductive justice group, New Voices Cleveland; and Preterm, the only abortion provider located within Cleveland city limits.
The website provides visitors with a chronological look at anti-abortion restrictions that have been passed in Ohio since the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
In 2015, for example, Ohio’s Republican-held legislature passed a law requiring all abortion facilities to have a transfer agreement with a non-public hospital within 30 miles of their location.
Like NARAL and the National Institute for Reproductive Health, Preterm has erected a communications campaign against the RNC platform. In Cleveland, that includes a billboard bearing the message, “End The Silence. End the Shame,” along a major highway near the airport, Miller said.
After the police killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, New Voices collaborated with the Repeal Hyde Art Project to erect billboard signage showing that reproductive justice includes the right to raise children who are protected from police brutality.
Abortion is not the only issue that has become the subject of billboard advertising at the GOP convention.
Kansas-based environmental and LGBTQ rights group Planting Peace erected a billboard depicting Donald Trump kissing his former challenger Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) just minutes from the RNC site, according to the Plain Dealer.
The billboard, which features the message, “Love Trumps Hate. End Homophobia,” calls for an “immediate change in the Republican Party platform with regard to our LGBT family and LGBT rights,” according to news reports.
CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of Americans in favor of abortion rights.
Advocates say that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's "Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act," purported to help address gaps in care, is regressive and strips rights away from those diagnosed with mental illness. This leaves those in the LGBTQ community—who already often have an adversarial relationship with the mental health sector—at particular risk.
The need for reform of the mental health-care system is well documented; those of us who have spent time trying to access often costly, out-of-reach treatment will attest to how time-consuming and expensive care can be—if you can get the necessary time off work to pursue that care. Advocates say, however, that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” (HR 2646), purported to help address gaps in care, is not the answer. Instead, they say, it is regressive and strips rights away from those diagnosed with mental illness. This leaves those in the LGBTQ community—who already often have an adversarial relationship with the mental health sector—at particular risk.
“We believe that this legislation will result in outdated, biased, and inappropriate treatment of people with a mental health diagnosis,” wrote the political action committee Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a March letter to House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) on behalf of more than 100 social justice organizations. “The current formulation of H.R. 2646 will function to eliminate basic civil and human rights protections for those with mental illness.”
Murphy and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) reintroduced HR 2646 earlier this month, continuing to call it “groundbreaking” legislation that “breaks down federal barriers to care, clarifies privacy standards for families and caregivers; reforms outdated programs; expands parity accountability; and invests in services for the most difficult to treat cases while driving evidence-based care.”
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Some of the stated goals of HR 2646 are important: Yes, more inpatient care beds are needed; yes, smoother transitions from inpatient to outpatient care would help many; yes, prisons house too many people with mental illness. However, many of its objectives, such as “alternatives to institutionalization” potentially allow outpatient care to be mandated by judges with no medical training and pushed for by “concerned” family members. Even the “focus on suicide prevention” can lead to forced hospitalization and disempowerment of the person the system or family member is supposedly trying to help.
All in all, advocates say, HR 2646—which passed out of committee earlier this month—marks a danger to the autonomy of those with mental illness.
Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, JD, director of the Trans/GNC Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force, explained that the bill would usurp the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), “making it easier for a mental health provider to give information about diagnosis and treatment … to any ‘caregiver’-family members, partners or spouses, children that may be caring for the person, and so forth.”
For the communities she serves, this is more than just a privacy violation: It could put clients at risk if family members use their diagnosis or treatment against them.
“When we consider the stigma around mental illness from an LGBT perspective, an intersectional perspective, 57 percent of trans people have experienced significant family rejection [and] 19 percent have experienced domestic violence as a result of their being trans,” said Rodríguez-Roldán, citing the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. “We can see here how the idea of ‘Let’s give access to the poor loved ones who want to help!’ is not that great an idea.”
“It’s really about taking away voice and choice and agency from people, which is a trend that’s very disturbing to me,” said Leah Harris, an organizer with the Campaign For Real Change in Mental Health Policy, also known as Real MH Change. “Mostly [H.R. 2646] is driven by families of these people, not the people themselves. It’s pitting families against people who are living this. There are a fair number of these family members that are well-meaning, but they’re pushing this very authoritarian [policy].”
Rodríguez-Roldán also pointed out that if a patient’s gender identity or sexual orientation is a contributing factor to their depression or suicide risk—because of discrimination, direct targeting, or fear of bigoted family, friends, or coworkers—then that identity or orientation would be pertinent to their diagnosis and possible need for treatment. Though Murphy’s office claims that psychotherapy notes are excluded from the increased access caregivers would be given under HR 2646, Rodríguez-Roldán isn’t buying it; she fears individuals could be inadvertently outed to their caregivers.
Rodríguez-Roldán echoed concern that while disability advocacy organizations largely oppose the bill, groups that represent either medical institutions or families of those with mental illnesses, or medical institutions—such as NAMI, Mental Health America, and the APA—seem to be driving this legislation.
“In disability rights, if the doc starts about talking about the plight and families of the people of the disabilities, it’s not going to go over well,” she said. “That’s basically what [HR 2646] does.”
Rodríguez-Roldán’s concerns extend beyond the potential harm of allowing families and caregivers easier access to individuals’ sensitive medical information; she also points out that the act itself is rooted in stigma. Rep. Murphy created the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Despite being a clinical psychologist for 30 years before joining Congress and being co-chair of the Mental Health Caucus, he continues to perpetuate the well-debunked myth that people with mental illness are violent. In fact, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness” and “people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
The act “is trying to prevent gun violence by ignoring gun control and going after the the rights of mentally ill people,” Rodríguez-Roldán noted.
In addition, advocates note, HR 2646 would make it easier to access assisted outpatient treatment, but would also give courts around the country the authority to mandate specific medications and treatments. In states where the courts already have that authority, Rodríguez-Roldán says, people of color are disproportionately mandated into treatment. When she has tried to point out these statistics to Murphy and his staff, she says, she has been shut down, being told that the disparity is due to a disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty.
Harris also expressed frustration at the hostility she and others have received attempting to take the lived experiences of those who would be affected by the bill to Murphy and his staff.
“I’ve talked to thousands of families … he’s actively opposed to talking to us,” she said. “Everyone has tried to engage with [Murphy and his staff]. I had one of the staffers in the room say, ‘You must have been misdiagnosed.’ I couldn’t have been that way,” meaning mentally ill. “It’s an ongoing struggle to maintain our mental and physical health, but they think we can’t get well.”
Multiple attempts to reach Murphy’s office by Rewire were unsuccessful.
LGBTQ people—transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people especially—are particularly susceptible to mistreatment in an institutional setting, where even the thoughts and experiences of patients with significant privilege are typically viewed with skepticism and disbelief. They’re also more likely to experience circumstances that already come with required hospitalization. This, as Rodríguez-Roldán explained, makes it even more vital that individuals not be made more susceptible to unnecessary treatment programs at the hands of judges or relatives with limited or no medical backgrounds.
“Forty-one percent of all trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives,” said Rodríguez-Roldán. “Once you have attempted suicide—assuming you’re caught—standard procedure is you’ll end up in the hospital for five days [or] a week [on] average.”
In turn, that leaves people open to potential abuse. Rodríguez-Roldán said there isn’t much data yet on exactly how mistreated transgender people are specific to psychiatry, but considering the discrimination and mistreatment in health care in general, it’s safe to assume mental health care would be additionally hostile. A full 50 percent of transgender people report having to teach their physicians about transgender care and 19 percent were refused care—a statistic that spikes even higher for transgender people of color.
“What happens to the people who are already being mistreated, who are already being misgendered, harassed, retraumatized? After you’ve had a suicide attempt, let’s treat you like garbage even more than we treat most people,” said Rodríguez-Roldán, pointing out that with HR 2646, “there would be even less legal recourse” for those who wanted to shape their own treatment. “Those who face abusive families, who don’t have support and so on—more likely when you’re queer—are going to face a heightened risk of losing their privacy.”
Or, for example, individuals may face the conflation of transgender or gender-nonconforming status with mental illness. Rodríguez-Roldán has experienced the conflation herself.
“I had one psychiatrist in Arlington insist, ‘You’re not bipolar; it’s just that you have unresolved issues from your transition,'” she said.
While her abusive household and other life factors certainly added to her depression—the first symptom people with Bipolar II typically suffer from—Rodríguez-Roldán knew she was transgender at age 15 and began the process of transitioning at age 17. Bipolar disorder, meanwhile, is most often diagnosed in a person’s early 20s, making the conflation rather obvious. She acknowledges the privilege of having good insurance and not being low-income, which meant she could choose a different doctor.
“It was also in an outpatient setting, so I was able to nod along, pay the copay, get out of there and never come back,” she said. “It was not inside a hospital where they can use that as an excuse to keep me.”
The fear of having freedom and other rights stripped away came up repeatedly in a Twitter chat last month led by the Task Force to spread the word about HR 2646. More than 350 people participated, sharing their experiences and asking people to oppose Murphy’s bill.
Alexander’s bill has more real reform embedded in its language, shifting the focus from empowering families and medical personnel to funding prevention and community-based support services and programs. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services would be tasked with evaluating existing programs for their effectiveness in handling co-current disorders (e.g., substance abuse and mental illness); reducing homelessness and incarceration of people with substance abuse and/or mental disorders; and providing recommendations on improving current community-based care.
Harris, with Real MH Change, considers Alexander’s bill an imperfect improvement over the Murphy legislation.
“Both of [the bills] have far too much emphasis on rolling back the clock, promoting institutionalization, and not enough of a preventive approach or a trauma-informed approach,” Harris said. “What they share in common is this trope of ‘comprehensive mental health reform.’ Of course the system is completely messed up. Comprehensive reform is needed, but for those of us who have lived through it, it’s not just ‘any change is good.'”
Harris and Rodríguez-Roldán both acknowledged that many of the HR 2646 co-sponsors and supporters in Congress have good intentions; those legislators are trusting Murphy’s professional background and are eager to make some kind of change. In doing so, the voices of those who are affected by the laws—those asking for more funding toward community-based and patient-centric care—are being sidelined.
“What is driving the change is going to influence what the change looks like. Right now, change is driven by fear and paternalism,” said Harris. “It’s not change at any cost.”