Can We Advance Reproductive Justice in the Obama Era?

Loretta Ross

Reproductive justice is built on the foundation of human rights. The framework of "reproductive justice" requires that the most vulnerable populations be kept in the center of our lens, not at the margins.

I’m not a policy wonk. I
am very ill suited to talk frequently to legislators to ask them to
do the very jobs they were elected to do and for which they already
get paid. From that admittedly jaded perspective, I’m not anyone’s
first choice to do lobbying or "education" of elected officials. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s
important for reproductive justice activists to have a serious discussion
— immediately — about public policies, reproductive justice and President
Obama’s Administration. 

Reproductive justice is built
on the foundation of human rights. The framework of "reproductive
justice" requires that the most vulnerable populations be kept in
the center of our lens, not at the margins. This means that we may have
to work hard and quickly to create a public policy platform worthy of
and capable of doing justice to the reproductive justice framework. 

The shape of things 

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Although the reasons may be
obvious why the reproductive justice community must be engaged and clear
about what we want, I’d like to state a few points to get them organized
in my head: 

1. This may be the best opportunity
to advance a reproductive justice agenda in my lifetime (okay, I’m
over 50 so my urgency may be simply age-related). 

2. We have developed strong
values in the reproductive justice movement that keep the most vulnerable
among us at the top of our concerns: girls, poor women, young women,
incarcerated women, lgbtq folks, substance-abusing women, immigrant
women, disabled women, teen mothers. 

3. We have great collaborations
among the leading groups promoting reproductive justice at the grassroots. 

4. We have an exciting framework
that has transformed the pro-choice movement by raising critical intersectional
issues on race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation, ability and
immigration in a way that is being heard and embraced beyond women of

5. We have allies in the Obama
Administration who are strong, have serious integrity and care as strongly
as we do about the vulnerable populations and issues we prioritize. 

6. We have determined opposition
from those opposed to human rights – not just for women of color,
but those who also oppose bringing the United States to human rights
conversations in a constructive way, either domestically or internationally. 

7. We have well-financed anti-woman,
anti-gay forces in communities of color that will try to thwart any
reproductive justice agenda. 

8. And we have a small economic
crisis on our hands. 

Having said all of that, I
believe we need to have a discussion about how we can take advantage
of this historic moment to advance a reproductive justice agenda that
will benefit women, men and families of color to advance and protect
their full human rights. 

How do we get what we want? 

I believe we need to organize
an agenda around three important and convergent conversations: 

First, we need to discuss what
we believe. As reproductive justice activists evolving into a powerful
movement, we need to seek agreement on our non-negotiables. 

Will we sacrifice poor women
during policy discussions on abortion, failing to insist on the repeal
of the Hyde Amendment because "conventional wisdom" says "taxpayers
don’t want to pay for abortions for poor women?" 

Will we sacrifice lesbians
and trans folks if they do not fit poster-child images of who needs
to be covered under regulations of assisted reproductive technologies?
Will we fight for the sexual and mothering rights of women who are incarcerated
even while our society dismisses their needs as people who have few
human rights? Will we insist that women who are disabled have the same
sexual rights as women who are not disabled? Will we demand that the
sexual rights of young people are respected? 

Exactly who will we sacrifice
on the altar of expedience? Who will make that call? 

Second, we need to discuss
what we want. This means that we not only want access to public policy
tables, but in fact, to change the fundamental nature of what’s served
at those tables. Too often, women are forced to compromise on our human
rights, or told to wait for a more propitious time to ask for what we
need and deserve. Do we want public policies that appear to work, but
don’t really meet our needs? 

For example, in the 1980s,
I worked to help pass the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. I protested
when the Washington Beltway "experts" said we could not ask for
paid leave because the opponents would not accept that. I knew that
without paid leave, many women would not be able to take advantage of
the FMLA. In fact, many more women would be excluded than covered because
few of us can afford an unpaid leave without ending up homeless. I was
told that we could come back and amend the bill later to include paid
leave. I’m still waiting for that day to come sixteen years later. 

This is an example of what
can happen when we are not clear and united in demanding what we want.
We are vulnerable to classic divide-and-conquer strategies by both our
allies and our opponents. It is often believed that any bill is better
than no bill. It is also believed that opportunities to re-launch new
fights to fix flawed legislation will easily occur. I do not agree. 

I believe that it’s better
to draw our lines in the sand and hold those lines! If we can’t produce
public policies that benefit the people we most care about, then we
should never put ourselves in the position of explaining why we didn’t
win the fight for them or, even worse, why we abandoned them for an
easier victory. 

Third, we need to discuss how
to get what we want. Women of color have fought to get a seat at policy
tables for the past century. Often they have affected the discussions
and outcomes. They have done so by not confusing access with influence,
or influence with power. 

A seat at the table does not
guarantee the power to ensure that the priorities of women of color
are shared by others at the table. A photo-op may look impressive in
an organizational report, but unless we truly can bring quality and
intersectional results home to our communities, why should they believe
we are much different from those who have disappointed them in the past? 

For this reason, I believe
we have to be extremely strategic about bringing the grassroots folks
we represent to the policy debates. The central question for me is not
whether any organization (even my own, SisterSong, as much as I’d
like to meet President Obama!) gets a representative seat in policy
discussions. The more urgent question is whether we will continue to
invest in our base building strategies so that when we get to the table
we have the organized power of our constituencies at our back. 

Too often, we are told that
shortcuts are possible and necessary because community organizing and
mobilizing is slow, painstaking and nebulous work, especially when we
don’t have the backing of the corporate media or other levers of power,
such as adequate funding. It may be tempting for our donors to urge
us to engage in public policy debates, but not provide us with adequate
resources to do base building and public policy work at the same time. 

This has happened before to
women of color organizations in which the policy work became the tail
wagging the dog and resources to do community organizing are devalued
over the more quantifiable and visible policy work. The potential outcome
of such a division could be women of color representatives in Washington
without a constituency that can be mobilized to bring our power to bear
to support our allies and oppose our foes. 

Keeping our vision front
and center

Discussions of this sort truly
reveal the transformative power of the reproductive justice framework
for me. 

At present, we have few platforms
or policy vehicles capable of carrying our intersectional analysis and
serving the people we prioritize. Not only is most legislation of the
"single issue" variety, but the negotiations for even these limited
bills usually end up lopping off the very people who most need the laws. 

Can we envision violence against
women legislation that protects women raped in prisons and ensures they
have humane birth control, birthing and abortion services? 

Can we picture an economic
recovery that destigmatizes welfare and welcomes immigrants (legal or
undocumented) to receive vital supports from the society they hold up
with their labor? 

With whom in power do we have
these critical discussions who won’t dismiss us for asking for the

I don’t know the answers
to these questions, but I’m sure of this: only a carefully thought-out
approach will enable us to present our beliefs, wants and strategies
to President Obama’s Administration. I do not expect that he will
be able to give us everything we want and deserve. I am sure, however,
that we certainly won’t get it if we don’t ask. 

And that means drawing some
lines in the sand and holding our president accountable. People like
us who believed his message of hope and change were the ones who helped
him get that seat of power. But he can’t deliver our dreams to us
without mobilizing our power.

This post first appeared on On The Issues.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.