Commentary Contraception

Using the War on Contraception as an Opportunity

Amanda Marcotte

Reviewing the panel on the war on contraception at Netroots Nation: what it means, and how the lessons learned can be paid forward. Does the war on contraception provide pro-choicers an opportunity to defend all reproductive rights?

At this year’s Netroots Nation in Minneapolis, I was fortunate enough to be on two panels, one on right wing extremism and one, put together by Advocates for Youth, on the war on contraception. Jos at Feministing blogged the war on contraception panel, where Sarah Audelo from Advocates, Kaili Joy Gray from Daily Kos and I had a conversation on the escalating attacks on contraception access from the religious right.  I’m happy to note that the crowd that showed up to the panel was sizeable and diverse and with much more of male presence than you usually have for panels covering reproductive rights at generalized political conferences like Netroots Nation. 

I went into the panel expecting the audience to have a large base of knowledge about the war on contraception as it currently stands, because the attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding received extensive media coverage, and because just this week, North Carolina became the third state in the country to pass legislation cutting out family planning funding, provoking a battle with the federal government.  And while people were definitely cognizant of the war over Planned Parenthood, I found there were many feminist-minded folks out there who were surprised to learn about the breadth and the historical length of these attacks. For instance, many people I spoke with after the panel had no real knowledge of the trend of pharmacy refusals, where women come to the doctor with a prescription for birth control, medication to treat STIs, or even medication to staunch uterine bleeding, and find themselves refused their medications by a pharmacist who has religious objections to women engaging in sex for non-procreative purposes.

A number of people also were intrigued by my characterization of abstinence-only education as part of the war on contraception, but I think once you point this out, it seems obvious.  After all, the “education” aspect of abstinence-only was basically false and misleading anti-contraception propaganda that often serves to discourage the use of contraception when the students invariably behave like the human beings they are and have sex. 

One of my conclusions on the panel was that, as depressing as the war on contraception can be, it can also be viewed as an opportunity.   One of the ongoing problems for pro-choicers is that the anti-choicers have a tendency to facetiously claim that they don’t object to women’s rights or to sexual liberation, but that they believe that an embryo or a fetus is a full human being and that abortion is “murder.”  Most of the public tends to accept this claim at face value, and the debate between pro- and anti-choice is seen in the mainstream media as unbridgeable divide between people who focus on women’s rights and people who focus on “fetal rights.”  But as I noted on the panel, the notion that anti-choicers fight against contraception rights exposes that all the blather about “life” is just that, blather.  If anything, contraception actually saves lives, particularly when it comes to condoms protecting against the transmission of HIV.  And so, as the war on contraception escalates, pro-choicers can highlight the distance between anti-choice claims to be “pro-life” and their actual demands, which are focused on sex and gender.

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The number of people I spoke to who had no idea how long the war on contraception has been going on, or how serious it is, speaks to how much of an opportunity we have for education.  Let’s face it; people who are motivated to take in a panel on reproductive rights at a lefty political conference know a lot more about politics and current events than the general population.  If many of them don’t know how overt anti-choicers are when it comes to their hostility towards sexual rights, then the public at large definitely doesn’t know.  Which means that shifting opinions on the anti-choice movement is likely more a matter of education than ideology.  If we can get the information out about how the anti-choice movement fights the birth control pill right along abortion, we can guess the people who learn this will be quick to draw the right conclusion, which is that the anti-choice movement is dangerously radical and anti-woman. 

Of course, this is only an opportunity if we treat it like one.  My concern is that the response to the anti-choice movement’s bolder attacks on contraception will not be to use this to highlight the anti-sex, anti-woman ideology underlying the opposition to abortion, but instead, pro-choicers will simply de-prioritize defending abortion rights in order to protect contraception.  This concern was brought up on the panel, and right now, things aren’t looking so hot.  For instance, while it was immediately effective to respond to attacks on Planned Parenthood by circulating fact sheets that showed that 97 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are not abortion, the strategy carried the unfortunate implication that there was something shameful about the other 3 percent of services.  Indeed, when Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards went on The Rachel Maddow Show to talk about  the de-funding attempt, she dodged Maddow’s direct questions about abortion and managed never to even say the word, focusing entirely on contraception.

This is exactly the wrong framing.  The better framing is to say, “These attacks on contraception come as no surprise.  The anti-choice movement has always been about attacking women’s rights, and the fetus thing is mostly a P.R. strategy to conceal their motivations.”  It’s true that anti-choicers are linking contraception to abortion in order to attack contraception, but we can turn that strategy on its head.  If they’re going to link contraception and abortion, then pro-choicers should embrace that.  And we should use the fact that contraception is widely accepted and even popular to help change the framing of abortion. 

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

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Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.