The Abortion Reduction Agenda: What Smells?

Melanie Zurek and Courtney B. Jackson

To use abortion rates as a valid indicator of success at preventing unintended pregnancy, we must first ensure the accessibility of abortion.

Working to reduce abortions, as a strategy
to find common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice communities,
has recently garnered much attention and debate. Will Saletan’s New York Times op-ed, This
is the way culture wars end
and Jodi Jacobson’s recent piece, Looking for Common
Ground on Abortion? You’re Standing On It
recently took up the proposition.
Proponents of this strategy, including Saletan, suggest that abortion reduction makes political
sense because it can bring together two historically polarized camps: those who
oppose abortion outright, and pro-choice advocates who (rightly) consider
abortion largely to result from the need to better prevent unintended
pregnancy. According to the abortion reduction proponents, public and
political support for contraception, comprehensive sex education and
other measures can be expanded if we work toward an ultimate goal of fewer abortions.  

Critics of the abortion reduction
paradigm (at least within the pro-choice community, including Jacobson), point out shortcomings
of this approach: the persistent focus on the fetus and abortion instead
of women and women’s health and autonomy, the anti-contraception agenda
of many in the anti-abortion community, and the fact that not all abortions
are the consequence of a failure to prevent unintended pregnancy but
instead result from unforeseeable, unpreventable circumstances often
relating to the pregnant woman’s health.  Also of concern to
critics of this approach is the promulgation of stigma inherent in a
strategy organized around abortion as the common enemy.  

Saletan proposes that abortion rates be adopted as a measure of our success
promoting contraception.  And, indeed, abortion reduction as a guiding principle for
women’s reproductive health policy has real world implications: if our goal is to reduce abortions, then a lower abortion rate should
be the measure.  So what smells? 

As researchers and advocates
we commend the attention to reproductive health, but wonder how we should
approach the proposed measure of lower abortion rates. Jacobson presents
a compelling argument for better sexuality education and ensuring access
to contraception as a way to ultimately reduce abortions. We wholeheartedly
support Jacobson’s call for improved access to prevention and share
her vision that this will ultimately result in a decline in abortion
rates, but before we see that decline we may very well see an increase
in abortion rates in this country, and that should hardly be regarded
as a failure. Here are a few reasons why. 

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First, we are limited in our
understanding of what current abortion rates mean.  Does a low
abortion rate mean that women aren’t having unintended pregnancies?
Or is it because they can’t – or are too afraid or ashamed to – get
the abortion they would choose otherwise?  Common sense would suggest
that the current multitude of anti-abortion laws might indeed be preventing
some women from having abortions – this is, after all, their intent.
Examining state differences in abortion rates also provides some insight
into what "low" and "high" abortion rates might mean. 
In 2005, New York had the highest abortion rate (38.2 abortions/100,000
women 15-44) and Wyoming the lowest (.7).  What does this mean?
Do Wyomingites use contraception more consistently and effectively? Or, do they have difficulty
accessing abortion because there are only two providers in the entire
state (compared to New York’s 261)? It is impossible to view Wyoming’s
low rate as success without concern that women who need abortion care
can’t access it. 

Aiming for a reduction in abortion
also begs the question of what qualifies as a "good" abortion rate. 
What is our targeted goal?  30/100,000?  20? 10? 0? How will
we know that we have achieved a goal that reflects both success in preventing
unintended pregnancies but also access to a service that women die trying
to obtain?  

To use the abortion rate as a valid
indicator of success at preventing unintended pregnancy, we must first
ensure the accessibility of abortion.  We must remove onerous laws
and increase the availability of accessible services, and accept that
in doing so the abortion rate may first go up.  Whatever approach
is ultimately taken, ensuring women can access the care they need is
the only meaningful starting place. 

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, 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.