South Carolina has consistently ranked in the top 10 for HIV/AIDS infection rates in the US. On Monday the White House Office of National AIDS Policy will hold a townhall in Charleston. Also watch our video report.
If you have had your head above water, you likely have noticed that South Carolina has been in the news a lot lately. First there was our governor’s Brazilian waxing-poetic, followed by a state partisan’s hurling of insults at Mrs. Obama, and then there was of course The Outburst, by Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) which will live in infamy both locally and nationally.
No, the news has not been good for South Carolina. But, regrettably, things here may be even worse than you imagine. South Carolina, like a number of states in the Southeastern region, is being devastated by a silent enemy that hasn’t attracted a lot of media attention lately: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers South Carolina one of the top-ten HIV “hot spots” in the nation. We have the eighth highest AIDS rate in the U.S., yet apparently neither we nor our region have made it onto many policymakers’ radar screens.
Linda Brown, of the South Carolina Deptarment of Health Division of HIV/STDs, Bambi Gaddist from the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council and Deadra Lawson Smith of Project Faith discuss the HIV/AIDS situation in South Carolina ahead of Monday’s townhall meeting on the subject with the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy.
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On Monday, Oct 26th representatives from the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) will be in our capital for a town hall meeting, and we are very grateful to them for coming to South
Carolina. State health professionals, community-based organizations and
HIV/AIDS advocates will have the opportunity not only to voice concerns, but also to make their recommendations about what the federal government can do to help states such as South Carolina — those that are southern, primarily rural, economically depressed, and revenue-poor – get on top of this public health problem. Many of us are hoping that members of South Carolina’s own Congressional delegation will be tuned in, if not attending themselves.
Also, now is the critical time of year when a House-Senate conference committee will zero-in on the federal budget’s Labor, Health & Human Services and Education appropriations for next fiscal year. A move is afoot within the House and Senate to resuscitate the failed Abstinence-Only Beast that sits like a troll in a very Grimm tale, waiting and willing to eat our young (or anyone else) to sustain itself. That any member of South Carolina’s own Congressional delegation would vote to pour millions more of tax payers’ dollars into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — rather than investing in HIV-prevention in South Carolina — is unfathomable. It also would indicate a serious lack of understanding on the part of our Congressional representatives about the seriousness of HIV in our state.
HIV s no less than a public health crisis in South Carolina. We have few public or rivate resources to dedicate to preventing the spread of HIV. This is not the ime for ambivalence in Washington, nor is it a time when we can allow urselves to be victimized by Congressional compromises or backroom deal-making — and HIV-prevention should not be overshadowed by Congressional representatives’ personal or ideological ties to the abstinence-only gluttons back home. Reinvesting in abstinence-only funding streams not only would divert needed funds from HIV-prevention at home, but also would cause further obstruction of medically accurate sexual health education in our schools and communities. South Carolinians have suffered too much from this already.
In fact, some of the responsibility for the growth of our HIV epidemic could arguably be laid at the feet of those who have worked vigorously to censor public health information. To House Majority Whip and Congressman James Clyburn (SC-Sixth), to Congressman John Spratt (SC-Fifth), and to U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham we would say:
You are our state’s best hope. You have supported federal funding for treatment of South Carolinians, who are infected with HIV/AIDS, via Ryan White renewals, and all South Carolinians should be thankful to each of you for your support, which has been and will continue to be vital. However, only a small portion of federal funding to date has been dedicated to HIV prevention, and we must have more funding to put more boots-on-the-ground to prevent HIV here at home.
HIV-prevention work is inherently labor-intensive in the South. Southern, rural communities are hardest hit and hardest to reach. Also, we need more prevention-soldiers to fan out among historically black colleges and universities, to protect many of our “best and brightest” so that they do not become infected with HIV. (Almost one-third of new HIV cases in South Carolina are transmitted heterosexually.)
A major, federally funded, multi-year public health campaign is needed to educate people about how to prevent HIV infection. A federal mandate for comprehensive health education in our schools is needed, including mandatory education about sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. There are evaluated, evidence-based programs that tell us what to do; we simply need the funding to implement them with fidelity.
Last year, when House Majority Whip Clyburn announced the passage of H.R. 5501, the Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008, he stated:
Helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases around the world is a moral responsibility of the United States government and one which this New Direction Congress takes very seriously.
It is time for an equally ambitious and dedicated investment at home.
Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.
The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.
Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.
DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.
Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishingits policy goals.
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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue.When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”
Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.
“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.
Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”
“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.
While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.
“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”
Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.
Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”
Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.
Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.
Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”
Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.
Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”
She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.
“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”
The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.
Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active”chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.
Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.
As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.
Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.
Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.
Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.
If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”
Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.
“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.
She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.
Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.
“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.
Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”
“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”
That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.
“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”
Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.
“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”
To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”
“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”
“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”
“Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services," Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement.
Carol Everett, the founder and CEO of the group and a prominent anti-choice activist and speaker, told the AP her organization’s contract with the state “is about filling gaps, not about ideology.”
“I did not see quality health care offered to women in rural areas,” Everett said.
Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement that it was “inappropriate” for the state to award a contract to an organization for services that it has never performed.
“The Heidi Group is an anti-abortion organization, it is not a healthcare provider,” Busby said.
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State lawmakers in 2011 sought to exclude Planned Parenthood from the Texas Women’s Health Program, which was jointly funded through federal and state dollars. Texas launched a state-funded version in 2013, and this year lawmakers announced the Healthy Texas Women program.
Bubsy said the contract to the Heidi Group was “especially troubling” in light of claims made by Everett in response to a recent policy requiring abortion providers to cremate or bury fetal remains. Everett has argued that methods of disposal of fetal remains could contaminate the water supply.
“There’s several health concerns. What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply,” Everett told an Austin Fox News affiliate.
“The state has no business contracting with an entity, or an individual, that perpetuates such absurd, inaccurate claims,” Busby said. “Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services.”
According to a previous iteration of the Heidi Group’s website, the organization worked to help “girls and women in unplanned pregnancies make positive, life-affirming choices.”
Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson Bryan Black told the Texas Tribune that the Heidi Group had “changed its focus.”
The Heidi Group “will now be providing women’s health and family planning services required by Healthy Texas Women, including birth control, STI screening and treatment, plus cancer screenings to women across Texas,” Black said in an email to the Tribune.
Its current site reads: “The Heidi Group exists to ensure that all Texas women have access to quality health care by coordinating services in a statewide network of full-service medical providers.”
Everett told the American-Statesman the organization will distribute the state funds to 25 clinics and physicians across the state, but she has yet to disclose which clinics or physicians will receive the funds or what its selection process will entail.
She also disputed the criticism that her opposition to abortion would affect how her organization would distribute the state funds.
“As a woman, I am never going to tell another woman what to tell to do,” Everett said. “Our goal is to find out what she wants to do. We want her to have fully informed decision on what she wants to do.”
“I want to find health care for that woman who can’t afford it. She is the one in my thoughts,” she continued.
The address listed on the Heidi Group’s award is the same as an anti-choice clinic, commonly referred to as a crisis pregnancy center, in San Antonio, theTexas Observer reported.
Life Choices Medical Clinic offers services including pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and well-woman exams. However, the clinic does not provide abortion referrals or any contraception, birth control, or family planning services.
The organization’s mission is to “save the lives of unborn children, minister to women and men facing decisions involving pregnancy and sexual health, and touch each life with the love of Christ.”