Yes We Can Shift Ground on Reproductive Health

Jessica Arons and Shira Saperstein

It is long past time for our country to move beyond the tired culture wars to find real solutions. Yet anti-abortion groups keep supporting failed abstinence-only programs and trump up concern over FOCA.

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted
beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us
for so long, no longer apply," said President Barack Obama in his
inaugural speech. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of
reproductive rights.

It is long past time for our country to move beyond the tired
culture wars to find real solutions to improve people’s lives. Yet many
anti-abortion groups are nevertheless sounding the alarm that Congress
will soon pass and President Obama sign the Freedom of Choice Act,
undoing all their efforts to restrict and eradicate abortion.

This is a false alarm. There are no current plans in Congress to
vote on FOCA. But no matter. Leaders of the anti-abortion movement will
still try to use it to foment fear that Obama is "the most pro-abortion
president in history" and claim a victory when the bill doesn’t move

These cynics have benefited from the culture wars and are resistant
to working toward meaningful solutions. The fight over social issues
such as abortion raises money and increases their visibility, helping
them to maintain political relevance at a time when their influence is
waning. And the culture wars provide an opportune distraction from
taking on real, progressive reform on health care, the economy, and the

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So these leaders continue their attempts to manipulate well-meaning
Americans who feel moral consternation about abortion. They ignore the
historic opportunity for healing and unity that comes with the
inauguration of our first African-American president–a man who has
pledged to find areas of common ground and work toward shared goals and

Reproductive rights advocates are eager to see President Obama take
action to undo the damage of the past eight years–to overturn the
notorious global gag rule, restore funding to the United Nations
Population Fund, reverse Bush’s Department of Health and Human
Services’ midnight "provider conscience" regulation, end
abstinence-only funding, and renew support for family planning
services. We also want to ensure that all women–including low-income
women–have access to legal and safe abortion services. But abortion,
though certainly important, is only one of many issues on which work
needs to be done.

Now, just after Roe v. Wade‘s 36th anniversary, President Obama has
an opportunity to outline a new, holistic approach to reproductive
rights and health that works not only to provide people with the
ability to determine whether or when to have children, but also to help
them become parents and parent with dignity, have healthy pregnancies,
and have safe and healthy families and relationships.

There were numerous reports last year highlighting the dire state of
reproductive health and rights in this country and the need for a new
approach to these issues:

  • The teen pregnancy rate is increasing after several years
    of decline, and one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted
  • Progress on reducing infant mortality has
    stalled, and the United States is now tied with Poland and Slovakia for
    29th place worldwide.
  • More than 50,000 people per year are
    newly infected with HIV, and AIDS is the number one killer of
    African-American women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Maternal mortality continues to be a persistent and tragic problem
around the world. More than 530,000 women die in childbirth each year,
more than 99 percent of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Women in
Sierra Leone have a one in eight chance of dying in childbirth, while
in Ireland, which has the lowest rate in the world, the rate is 1 in
48,000. The U.S. rate is 1 in 4,800, which places us 41st on a list of
171 countries.

Unintended pregnancy, high rates of STIs, including HIV/AIDS, and
infant and maternal mortality are all largely preventable with
relatively low-cost interventions. Universal access to comprehensive
sexuality education, family planning, STI prevention services, and
emergency obstetrical care would go a long way toward addressing these
problems–and their high cost to women and their families.

Instead of attacking funding for Planned Parenthood and preventing
it from delivering basic heath care services to poor women, social
conservatives could work with progressives to achieve affordable,
quality health care for all. Instead of lobbying to maintain support
for failed abstinence-only programs, they could join our efforts to
ensure that every American child is adequately educated to work in the
new economy. And instead of fighting over FOCA, we could work together
to ensure that every woman can prevent pregnancy when that is her
desire, maintain healthy wanted pregnancies, and obtain the economic
and social supports necessary to provide children with love and

Reproductive health and rights are essential, not peripheral, to
building healthy families and communities. And they need not be an
obstacle to the political change that President Obama has promised. At
this historic moment, let us not be distracted and divided by outdated
culture wars. Let us pursue our areas of agreement on the measures
necessary to protect women’s health, dignity, and lives with sincerity
and good faith. It is time for this critical work to begin.

This post was originally published at the Center for American Progress.

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