Regional Groups Find Allies in New Places

Wendy Norris

While ultra-conservatives attempt to derail health reform with intellectually dishonest charges of taxpayer-funded abortion, state and local pro-choice advocates seek more centrist issues to attract allies to the greater cause.

Reproductive health care advocates are modifying the old
adage "don’t get angry, get organized" by going local.

After weathering eight years of conservative attacks, the
pro-choice community held high hopes that the Obama Administration, bolstered
by democratic majorities in Congress, would signal an end to partisan bickering
over federal funding for comprehensive care and the tedious national obsession
with abortion.

With that optimism scattering to the four winds of
manufactured political controversy, the National Institute for Reproductive
Health is organizing the Urban Initiative for Reproductive Heath, four
regional urban summits to bring providers, policymakers, activists, funders and
legislators together to share effective program strategies and localized
incidence data.

"There is a limitless potential to create change for
women’s health at a local level," said NIRH president Kelli Conlin at a
Sept. 23 kick-off event in Denver. "What people here realize, much more
clearly than people out East or in Washington, is that not everything has to be
a knock-down, drag-out fight. You can get things done without burning down the

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Finding common ground
in unlikely places

The emphasis on seeking common ground was a dominant theme
in sessions on sexuality education, underserved populations and the
intersection of reproductive freedom and economic self-sufficiency.

Denver summit co-host Emilie Ailts of NARAL Pro-Choice
moderated the opening plenary session on how urbanization and
regional political shifts signal new demographic groups the pro-choice
community should be targeting for support. Though electoral demographics may
not be a subject that’s typically top of mind among reproductive health
advocates it’s an especially savvy tactic to identify issue reframing
opportunities with new audiences — another hot topic of conversation among

One of the more interesting examples of this new thinking
was shared by Jill Hanauer, founder of the progressive strategy firm Project
New West
, who noted the recent lessons of Montana, a traditional red state
and unlikely beacon in the progressive political fog. According to state
electoral results, George W. Bush carried the state by 20 percentage points in
the 2004 presidential election. A mere four years later, GOP candidate John
McCain won by just two points. To Hanauer, that stunning electoral gap should
spur pro-choice advocates to reconsider potential alliances. As she explained
in a data-laden presentation, typically conservative-minded people who affix
flag stickers to their cars and own firearms also care deeply about self-determination
and would make natural allies in the fight to protect reproductive choice.

Teresa Henry, a state representative from Missoula, Mont.,
has successfully carried several pieces of legislation on health care access
and sex education by following Hanauer’s advice to broaden the coalition.
Despite its reputation as a conservative hotbed, Henry describes the political
climate in Montana as hopeful.

"I think if we can personalize it it’s one of the ways
that we can reframe the issue," said Henry, a three-term representative
who is running for a state senate seat. She also noted that seizing on people’s
optimism about health care reform can help drive more productive conversations.

While it’s not surprising that conservatives have attempted
to derail the proposed public option to provide a federally-backed health
insurance program with an intellectually dishonest debate over taxpayer funds
supplementing abortion services, pro-choice activists are looking to more centrist
issues to attract allies to the greater cause.

Sexuality education:
the new front for finding common ground in the West

Bridging the gaps between inconsistent, impractical federal
mandates and public health policy at the local level has long been a challenge
for service providers and advocates, alike. That’s been especially true for
school-based youth programs.

Kalpana Krishnamurthy, field director for the Portland,
Ore.,-based Western States Center, is seeing some encouraging trends in
culturally-relevant sexuality education curricula that emphasizes values,
teaches healthy relationship skills and empowers parents — all improvements
that can help diminish both legitimate local concerns and overblown partisan

"When the information that their child brings home does
not reflects their values and culture, parents will resist," said
Krishnamurphy referring to recent community surveys that probed how to best
deliver sex education beyond a clinical framework. "If we want to start a
dialogue with parents, schools and sex ed programs need to understand the
critical role that parents play."

Getting schools and parents on board also provides
opportunities to broaden the public discussion to related social problems.

Widely held public perception that sexuality education is
limited to imparting pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted disease
information belies the intertwined issues of economic empowerment, education
and delayed childbearing.

Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez represents several west
side neighborhoods that collectively boast the city’s highest unintended
pregnancy rates. He refers to the problem as a perfect storm of education,
jobs, health care and immigration status disparity.

To make his point, Lopez refers to startling Colorado teen
fertility statistics: white, non-Hispanic girls between the ages 15-17 have a
pregnancy rate of 10.2 percent while for Latinas the figure soars to 69
percent. In any other context the latter would be considered a health epidemic
that would, in turn, unleash a torrent of public concern and funding for
prevention programs.

But the reality in Denver, like many other cities across the
nation, is a multi-million dollar budget deficit won’t permit the diversion of
dwindling capital to teen pregnancy prevention when it’s simply labeled a
social problem. Lopez argues that if communities considered reproductive health
issues as economic ones a very different set of public expectations would
emerge — political figures would become more likely to prioritize sex education
funding and the partisan social wedge would be considerably weakened.

That perspective was shared by many at the summit, including
Gretchen Gagel McComb, president of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado,
an endowed fund that underwrites self-sufficiency programs and policy research.

"One of the things that we’re trying to work with other
like-minded women’s organizations is how we reframe the discussion about
reproductive health because it always devolves to abortion," said McComb.

Finding agreement between the polarized views on sex
education between those that advocate abstinence-only and others that support a
more comprehensive view is at the center of McComb’s efforts to broaden the
community conversation about the lack of reproductive health care access and
its effects on the widening economic gap for women with children.

But flipping that switch isn’t easy.

The call for
pragmatism meets reality

Shifting away from ineffective faith-based, abstinence-only
sex education programs as the primary federally-funded option for youth
pregnancy prevention has been mired in power struggles inside the Oval Office
and on Capitol Hill.

But those close to the White House’s Office of Public
Engagement are confident negotiations to promote science-based comprehensive
sex education will win out.

"Here’s where we need to give credit to the White
House," said William Smith of SEICUS, one of the national
organizational participants in the summit. "They are trying hard to bring
together disparate voices to try and figure out how to lower the temperature on
the abortion debate."

Smith notes that the White House-backed Ryan-DeLauro bill,
a common ground approach to reduce abortions that has been met with skepticism
by advocates on both sides of the issue, and the overarching health care reform
debate have advanced the value of comprehensive reproductive health care into
the public fore.

Even when that debate turns prurient, as it did when Sen.
Jon Kyl (R-AZ) quipped Friday that he doesn’t believe health insurance
policies should be larded up with maternity care
coverage causing Sen.
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to shoot back: "I think your mother probably

Despite the senatorial made-for-TV fireworks, Smith is
optimistic that prevention bills are the key to avoiding ideological hackles.
Though he doesn’t discount that the process of community dialogue is and will
continue to be arduous.

"In the federalist system of government that we’ve got,
how do you meet the people where they are and bring them to the point you want
them to be?," asks Smith. "That’s the trajectory in which we have to

The Urban
Initiative for Reproductive Health
will hold its next session in Atlanta,
Ga., on Sept. 30-Oct. 2, followed by Chicago, Ill., (Oct. 21-23) and Los
Angeles, Calif., (Oct. 29-30). Presentations will be posted on the summit Web
site to encourage cross-regional dialogue on common issues.


News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.


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