“A Profound Disagreement:” Clinton Breaks the Political Sound Barrier

Jodi Jacobson

In a day to go down in history, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke the political sound barrier regard the word "abortion" and may well have forever changed the course of US policy.

Yesterday was a day to go down in history.

It was the day that Hillary Clinton broke the political sound barrier.

It was the day that someone, finally, after many years of dissembling by so many, stood up to the perpetual hot air balloon that is Congressman Chris Smith and revealed that he has no more power in the face of facts than did the fabled Emperor with no clothes.

It was the day Clinton spoke the truth and thereby shattered the myth that has existed for so long that we could talk about family planning, reproductive health, women’s rights, women’s health or even human rights, and not say the word “abortion.” It was a day in which the issue of safe abortion services as a fundamental component of women’s health and rights was put back on the US foreign policy table.

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To Smith’s question as to whether the Obama Administration would be seeking to “overturn pro-life laws” in Africa and Latin America, Clinton replied firmly and without apology:

We have a very fundamental disagreement and it is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so anywhere in the world, and so are we.

We [the Obama Administration] happen[s] to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.

Clinton’s statement was certainly the most courageous a Secretary of State–or any Administration official–has ever made on reproductive rights and one of the most courageous statements made by a Secretary of State of any kind, on any issue, ever, because it was made in the face of over 20 years of political silence on the issue. And it was made about an issue made increasingly taboo by the very stigma and silence that people like Smith have worked so hard to perpetuate.

For longer than I personally can remember, a highly vocal but small
minority of far right wingers have used McCarthy-esque tactics to silence an entire conversation about women, women’s rights,
and their health, to marginalize the issue of safe abortion, and to use misinformation about abortion to smear the basic services that would reduce the unintended pregnancies that lead so many women to seek an abortion in the first place. The very bloviation practiced by the far right wing and the complicity in the media that failed to examine their claims and campaigns made them seem more powerful–in fact made them more powerful–than they really were in any sense of numbers. And they twisted the very concept of “pro-life” to mean anything but saving the lives of women.

Smith, the leader of the bully pack on this issue has throughout his career used the abortion issue as a wedge whenever he could, to limit access to family planning services and to limit access to life-saving prevention services under US global AIDS policy.

And during that time, in the face of the far right juggernaut-that-was-not, the reproductive health community was increasingly silent about abortion in international policy. Some even sought to play down the inclusion of access to safe abortion as a primary aspect of reproductive health care and women’s rights as part of a political strategy, even when consistent losses in funding for services not including abortion showed that playing down this issue was not going to bring us any closer to universal access to basic family planning services. This further empowered people like Smith, as did the failure by AIDS advocates to stand up to his bullying tactics on prevention of sexual transmission of HIV and AIDS. Remember the Wizard of Oz was only “all-powerful” until someone finally drew back the curtain.

Yesterday, Clinton swung it wide open, and made the exclusion of abortion as an issue a moot point, hopefully for all time. This leads us well beyond the lifting of the global gag rule because it makes possible a conversation about the various restrictions within US policy that restrict women’s rights to access safe abortion services and it puts back on the table how those restrictions actually increase, rather than reduce the number of abortions worldwide.

In taking on the bully in the schoolyard, Clinton revealed once again that a bully is only as powerful as we allow him to be.

She spoke truth to power. And in doing so, she gave voice to those who have none in this debate. Each year, more than 600,000 women, according to what can only be described as conservative estimates, die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Each year, more than 75,000 of those deaths, according to those same conservative estimates, are caused by complications of unsafe abortion. Each year, countless children are left without mothers due to maternal mortality. Each year, women seek desperately to avoid a pregnancy they can not afford and have been left without basic services. Each year an increasing number of women become infected by HIV through unprotected sex that could be prevented by effective programming.

Secretary Clinton spoke for all of them and more.

Now, and going forward, thanks to Secretary Clinton, the real conversation can be had, and the real work to secure the rights of women and families to determine their own fate can be carried out.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, and hopefully for years to come as Secretary of State, Clinton is and will be a heroine to women throughout the world and a path-breaking leader in an Administration that continues to make history.

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