News Sexual Health

In ‘Gay Blood Drive,’ Gay Men Across Country Set to Protest FDA Blood Donation Rules

Martha Kempner

Friday, gay men plan to show up at 53 sites across the country to donate blood, knowing their offer will be rejected. The “Gay Blood Drive” aims to protest a federal ban that bars men who have sex with men from donating blood.

Friday, gay men plan to show up at 53 sites across the country to donate blood, knowing their offer will be rejected. The “Gay Blood Drive” aims to protest a federal ban that bars men who have sex with men from donating blood.

The ban was put into place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1977 and is implemented on an honor system. Potential donors fill out a questionnaire asking about certain health conditions and behaviors. People who identify as men who have sex with men are rejected as donors, as are individuals who say they have used intravenous drugs, worked as prostitutes, or traveled to countries with high risks of malaria or Mad Cow Disease.

Advocates argue that while including men who have sex with men in the ban may have made sense at one point, especially at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, advances in testing blood make such a widespread restriction unnecessary.The lead organizer of the blood drive, Ryan James Yezak, who is making a documentary film about discrimination based on sexual orientation, explained to CNN, “This ban is medically unwarranted, and this drive is the only way we can motion for change. The gay community shouldn’t be written off as diseased.”

Many medical professionals agree that the rule is outdated. Dr. Emily Blodget, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southern California, told USA Today, “Now we’ve seen, with the testing that we have today, that the blood pool has shown to be very safe without having to go through this regulation. To be honest [HIV infection] could happen with anyone now. We need to be just as concerned with heterosexuals as homosexuals.”

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The American Medical Association voted last month to oppose the ban. The group believes that the rules should reflect individual risks in donors, not simply their sexual behavior, since a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship with another man for over 20 years is likely to be at much less risk for having HIV than, for instance, a heterosexual woman who has had over a dozen partners in the last year.

One of the local protests taking place Friday was organized by Project Primary Health Care in Des Moines. The group plans to park a recreational vehicle outside of LiveServe Blood Center in the city and provide rapid HIV tests to anyone who wishes to donate blood. Gay men who test negative will be given their results to take to the blood center and then told to fill out the questionnaire honestly. The organizers hope that the stark reality of rejecting perfectly healthy blood will call attention to how outdated this rule is.

LiveServe is sympathetic to the protestors but says its hands are tied. Beth Phillips, a spokesperson for the blood bank, said in a statement, “LifeServe Blood Center is not and has never been concerned with the sexual orientation of our blood donors and believes all donors and potential donors should be treated with fairness, equality and respect, and that accurate donor history and medically supported donor deferral criteria are critical to the continued safety of blood transfusion. However, FDA requirements are mandatory for licensed blood collection facilities so there is no latitude to change this deferral until the FDA revises its regulation.”

The American Red Cross, which runs numerous blood collection facilities across the country, released a statement asking protesters to stay out of its offices so they don’t burden Red Cross staff.

FDA spokesperson Morgan Liscinsky said in an email to USA Today that the agency is open to the possibility of change: “FDA remains willing to consider new approaches to donor screening and testing. If those approaches can assure that blood recipients are not placed at an increased risk of HIV or other transfusion transmitted diseases, FDA will consider a change to its current policy.”

Liscinsky did, however, defend the current rule, pointing out in her email that although men who have sex with men represented only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, in 2010 they accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections.

Investigations LGBTQ

Brewing Hatred: Coors Beer Company Markets to Women, Latinos, LGBTQ Communities as Coors Family Attacks Their Rights

Zoe Greenberg & Brie Shea

As women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to target these groups. But the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations.

In a Coors beer ad released in 2011, two men dance suggestively behind the familiar script of the Coors Light logo. One of them, wearing a pink button-down shirt, holds his beer can aloft with one hand and his dancing partner’s thigh with the other. A small blue box near the bottom corner boasts that Coors was named by the Human Rights Campaign as one of the best places to work for LGBT Equality. In the center of the page, above the dancing men, Coors boldly proclaims: “Out Is Refreshing.”

Coors Light is the second most popular beer in the United States, bringing in more than $2.3 billion of the $101.5 billion beer market in 2014, according to the market research firm IRI. The Coors family is one of America’s oldest and largest beer dynasties, and the brewing companies that still bear their name—MillerCoors and Molson Coors—rake in billions each year. (Coors merged with Molson, a popular Canadian brewing company, in 2005, and the two companies created a joint venture called MillerCoors in 2008.) Molson Coors had $4.15 billion in net sales in 2014 alone.

To maintain that success, Coors has recently developed product lines and ad campaigns designed to cater to three key increasingly profitable markets—women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos. As these groups gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to transform beer, once a blue-collar, bro-identified product, into a multicultural cash cow.

But a new Rewire investigation shows that although the Coors marketing messages and company policies have changed, the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant groups, financing efforts that are directly hostile to the diverse customer base the Coors companies are trying to win over.

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Coors Foundational Giving 2009-2014

Conservative groups to which the Coors foundations have contributed at least $50,000 between 2009 and 2014.

Blue denotes anti-immigrant organizations

Red denotes anti-choice organizations

Green denotes anti-LGBT and anti-choice organizations

Orange denotes anti-immigrant and anti-choice organizations

* Individual contributions from Jeffrey Coors and John Coors, not family foundations

Organization Total

Independence Institute

$2,768,403

American Enterprise Institute

$900,000

Heritage Foundation

$800,000

Institute for Justice

$540,000

Pacific Legal Foundation

$510,000

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

$380,000

Cato Institute

$375,000

Donors Trust

$372,000

Philanthropy Roundtable

$360,000

Mountain States Legal Foundation

$355,000

Ethics and Public Policy Center

$335,000

Leadership Institute

$335,000

Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies

$270,000

ALEC

$240,000

Institute for American Values

$200,000

Independent Women’s Forum

$190,000

State Policy Network

$185,000

Landmark Legal Foundation

$170,000

Reason Foundation

$150,000

Texas Public Policy Foundation

$150,000

Barry Goldwater Institute

$160,000

Property & Environment Research Center

$140,000

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

$130,000

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CO)

$120,000

Southeastern Legal Foundation

$110,000

Americans for Prosperity Foundation

$100,000

James Madison Institute

$100,000

Media Research Center

$100,000

Competitive Enterprise Institute

$90,000

Young America’s Foundation

$90,000

American Studies Center

$80,000

Prometheus Institute

$80,000

Institute for Energy Research

$75,000

Heartland Institute

$70,000

Center for American Values

$65,000

National Center for Public Policy Research

$60,000

Cascade Policy Institute

$55,000

National Catholic Bioethics Center

$55,000

Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives

$50,000

Women Speak Out PAC (SBA List)

* $50,000

Center for Equal Opportunity

$50,000

Foundation for Government Accountability

$50,000

Independent Institute

$50,000

National Center for Policy Analysis

$50,000

The Coors family foundations have contributed at least $12.5 million to conservative organizations in the past six years alone, making the Coors one of the most formidable right-wing donor families on the national stage today.

Much of the family’s money is channeled through two private foundations: the Adolph Coors Foundation (founded in 1975) and the Castle Rock Foundation, which merged with the Adolph Coors Foundation in 2011. The foundations gave approximately $36.8 million total in grants in the past six years, meaning their conservative spending made up at least a third of their overall giving.

According to Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the public messaging from the Coors companies is in clear conflict with the private giving of the Coors family members.

“If the company is truly investing in women and minorities, which is going to cost the company money as an investment strategy, and the [Adolph Coors] Foundation is investing in things that appear counter to supporting women and minorities, then that’s a conflict,” she told Rewire. “You can’t invest in women and minorities on the one hand, and do anything that appears to be divesting from women and minorities on the other hand.”

The Coors beer companies and the Coors family say there is no conflict—because they operate separately. The family foundation’s website reads, “The Adolph Coors Foundation is a family foundation and not connected in any way to the brewery.”

And a spokesperson for Molson Coors echoed that message in an email to Rewire.

“We respect the rights of the family members or their foundations to choose their own political affiliations and activities,” the spokesperson said. “However, their contributions are their own and are not connected to the activities of the company. The culture at Molson Coors is based on respect, integrity and diversity.”

Rewire did not receive a response to our questions from MillerCoors, the other major Coors brewery. The Adolph Coors Foundation declined to comment.

Despite this asserted independence, public records show that Coors family members—including those who control the family’s charitable foundations—retain substantial ownership and control of the for-profit companies that carry their name.

Marcel Kahan, a professor of corporate law at NYU Law School, reviewed the most recent Molson Coors proxy filing for Rewire. He estimated that Coors family members and their entities own about 27 million of the total shares outstanding, or approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total votes in the company.

“They clearly are the most powerful single shareholders here,” he told Rewire. “They have significant influence because they are the directors, and they are the largest shareholders.”

In addition to owning large chunks of the Coors companies, Coors family members are involved in both the company and the foundation at leadership levels.

While some family members work at the companies, and others serve on the foundation, Peter H. Coors and William Coors hold senior positions at both. Peter H. Coors is the chairman of the MillerCoors Board, the vice-chairman of the Molson Coors Board, and the president and chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation, according to 2014 tax filings. (A spokesperson for Molson Coors told Rewire that although Peter H. Coors fills these roles on the Adolph Coors Foundation board, John Jackson, a Colorado native and former consultant, actually leads the foundation. Tax filings list Jackson as the executive director/secretary of the foundation.) William Coors sits on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation and is a director emeritus of Molson Coors, a position through which he provides consulting and advisory services, according to a 2015 proxy filing.

Four other Coors family members are on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation, including Jeffrey Coors, CEO of Graphic Packaging Company, a major supplier of packaging for Molson Coors and MillerCoors.

At least three Coors family members—Christi Coors-Ficeli, Peter J. Coors, and David Coors—are currently employed by the brewing companies. All three are the children of Peter H. Coors (the chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation) and the siblings of Melissa Coors Osborn, another family foundation member.

These ties undermine the claims that the company and the family are unconnected, said McElhaney, of the Haas Business School.

“There’s no question that optically, the family is very inter-linked with the actual company itself, particularly because it’s a family-owned company,” she said.

A Model Corporate Citizen

Just as the nation’s political parties have been forced to reckon with America’s shifting demographics, the nation’s major beer companies now have to appeal to the same groups if they want to stay profitable.

We and our US joint venture with SABMiller—MillerCoors—have increased our marketing to both women and minorities in recent years because they represent key consumer groups that will help drive the future growth of the beer industry,” Molson Coors spokesperson Colin Wheeler said in an email.

The increasing buying power of Latinos, women, and the LGBTQ community offers potentially major windfalls for beer companies. With nearly 33 million people of legal drinking age, and an estimated $1.5 trillion in buying power in the United States, Latinos represent a market that has until recently been underserved by mainstream brewers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos are a relatively young and growing population; by 2045, they will make up 25 percent of the population of legal drinkers in the country. The preferred adult beverage of the Latino population is beer, as noted in a recent report from the research firm Technomic.

In 2014, the U.S. LGBTQ community’s buying power was an estimated $884 billion and rising, according to Witeck Communications.

Women also have growing purchasing power, controlling $5 to $15 trillion in annual consumer spending in the United States, as reported by Nielsen. But as a group, they currently make up only one-fifth of the beer drinking population around the world.

In light of these numbers, Coors and its competitors have devoted themselves to a straightforward, and exceptionally profitable, goal: Get women, Latinos, and gay people to drink more beer.

The goal has spurred new marketing strategies by the major players in the beer industry. In 2008, one such competitor, Anheuser-Busch, introduced Budweiser Chelada, a version of the “michelada,” a popular Mexican drink that combines beer, tomato juice, lime, and spices. A press release promised, “The beers also pair well with traditional Latino dishes such as ceviche, chicken enchiladas and tamales.”

Coors Ad

The goal of selling more beer to Latinos has spurred new marketing strategies from major players in the industry. (McCann Copenhagen, Noche Latina, Bud Light)

Molson Coors also launched its own special beer lines targeting these new demographics.

In 2011, Molson Coors released a beer in the UK specifically for women, called Animée (French for “lively”). Based on almost three years of research about what women want, the beer was sparkling, pink, and advertised as “bloat resistant.”

Melissa Cole, a beer critic for the Guardian, wrote at the time: “Despite having some pretty pictures of hops on the bottle, if anyone can identify anything even approaching a normal beer flavour in any of these drinks I’ll eat my hat.” The brand was taken off the market 12 months after it was released.

Although that particular strategy failed, the company was undeterred from its fundamental goal of getting more women to drink Coors beer.

“Animée was only one part of our plan to attract more female drinkers to beer, and attracting female drinkers remains a priority to get the category back into growth,” a spokesperson told Marketing Week when the brand was pulled.

Coors’ attempts to win Latino consumers have met with more success. In 2014, MillerCoors released the Coors Light Summer Brew, a citrus-flavored beer specifically targeting Latino drinkers. Coors also started including bilingual packaging on Miller Lite and Coors Light brands and running Spanish-language beer ads.

The company’s efforts have gone well past marketing, to encompass a range of real-world corporate policies and efforts directed at these three key groups. 

Coors extended benefits to same-sex couples long before equal marriage was legal, and supports trans employees wishing to transition, both with medical care and paid time off. MillerCoors is a corporate partner of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, sponsors Pride parades around the country, and was the first national sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, according to its website. Earlier this year MillerCoors chairman Peter H. Coors backed out of an event hosted by an anti-gay organization.

In recognition of the company’s work, the Human Rights Campaign has awarded MillerCoors a “100” rating in their Corporate Equality Index ten years in a row. EDGE Media, a network of LGBTQ publications, called Coors a “model corporate citizen.”

The Coors companies have donated thousands of dollars to Latino community groups, including the Coors Hispanic Employment Network, a nonprofit based in Golden, Colorado that works to “support Hispanics in career development and employment opportunities.” Another program, called “Coors Lite Líderes,” provides grants, networking events, and online resources “to help up-and-coming Latino leaders to go further.” Each year the organization awards a $25,000 grant to a leader and his or her project, which must benefit the Latino community.

The Coors companies have introduced gender-inclusive workplace policies, as well.

In 2009, Molson Coors launched the Violet Initiative, a task force led by senior women in the company to increase the number of women ready to move into leadership positions and to make Molson Coors a desirable place for top-level women in the industry.

According to an annual report, the company introduced “flexible work arrangements” in 2010 to encourage work-life balance. MillerCoors has its own program to cultivate female leaders, including an annual Women’s Development and Networking Summit for women across the beer industry.

In a video, MillerCoors lays out its gender-related goals for the next five years. In 2014, 28 percent of managers were women, it explains; by 2020, the company hopes to have 34 percent of managers be women.

“This is a got-to-do if we’re going to be successful as a corporation now,” Scott Whitley, the president of the company, says in the video. “I think with the strong pipeline of talent we have among our female employees, we have a great opportunity. We’ve got to make sure we’re removing the obstacles and the challenges that might get in the way of people realizing their aspirations.”

“Learn to Speak English”

At the same time as the Coors companies are prioritizing outreach to women and Latinos, the Coors family is funding some of the most influential anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations in the country.

The family’s support for right-wing causes is longstanding.

In 1973, Joseph Coors helped establish the Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s most famous right-wing think tanks, which has taken credit for many of George W. Bush’s policies. Around the same time, the Coors family helped establish and fund the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that used anti-gay organizing to build political power for the Christian right.

And the family’s politics were squarely reflected in company policies.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a broad coalition of unions, members of the gay and lesbian community, and immigrant rights activists boycotted the company because of its low wages and discriminatory hiring. Consumers, activists, and the press summarized these practices in a single menacing symbol: the Coors polygraph test.

“Prior to my employment, I was required to submit to a polygraph (lie detector) test,” David Sickler, an organizer of a 1977 brewers strike, said in a sworn affidavit. “Have you had sex with one or more persons?” Sickler recalled being asked. “What kind of sex?”

“I felt degraded, humiliated, and angry at this unwarranted invasion of my privacy,” Sickler said.

Other employees remembered similar questions. “What is your sex preference?” one recalled. “Have you ever done anything with your wife that could be considered immoral?” “Did you have relations with your wife last night?”

Many of the questions danced around one fundamental concern: “Are you a homosexual?”

The polygraph tests, which were used to screen job applicants in a company that had more than 10,000 workers by the time the practice stopped, were deployed to intimidate non-white applicants as well.

In a sworn affidavit from 1977, Frank Abeyta spoke about the multiple polygraph tests he was forced to take as a prospective employee because, he suspected, the company could not believe he had no criminal record as a Chicano man.

“I feel that this whole month of harassment was unnecessary and I was subjected to it because I am a Chicano and they were trying to discourage me from seeking employment with their Company,” he said.

The polygraph tests helped fuel the boycotts. While they raged, the Coors family foundations continued to support religious-right groups like the Institute for American Values, an organization dedicated to the values of heterosexual marriage, thrift, and anti-gambling; the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell’s conservative Christian organization; and Intercessors for America, a Christian fundamentalist group that focuses on prayer and fasting to end abortion and the “gay agenda,” among other things.

The AFL-CIO boycott ended in the late 1980s, after the company agreed to remove some obstacles to union organizing, but the family’s conservative spending continued, along with generalized pushback from other groups. Throughout the 2000s, the Castle Rock Foundation continued to support political positions that were increasingly opposed to the companies’ public relations messages and internal policies.

According to Allyson Brantley, a PhD student at Yale writing her dissertation on the Coors boycott, the first significant public break between the political stance of the company and the family came in 2004, when Peter H. Coors, then 58, ran for Colorado Senate. As a candidate, Coors opposed abortion without exception, defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and supported Bush’s war in Iraq.

Brantley says that the senate run represents a turning point, because for the first time, the company sought to distance itself publicly from members of the Coors family.

“The company was very explicit about how they were unconnected from Peter Coors and his senate run,” Brantley told Rewire. “Although, the family was always involved in the money of the company and also the operations of it. It was hard to know where one ended and one began.”

Another turning point came in 2009, when the Adolph Coors Foundation appears to have shed any reticence caused by the controversies of prior decades, and began once again to aggressively fund national conservative organizations, according to Rewire’s analysis of tax filings and other public documents.

Since then, the family has become one of the major funders behind some of the right’s marquee battles in the culture wars, including the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $380,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that masterminded many of the challenges to the Affordable Care Act. That represents around 2 percent of the overall giving to the Becket Fund—one of the nation’s largest right-wing nonprofit groups—during that time, according to Rewire‘s research.

The Becket Fund’s most famous client is Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts supplies store that brought its objections to insurance coverage for contraception to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and won. The Becket Fund has also represented other religiously affiliated nonprofits, such as Wheaton College, in an effort to eliminate insurance coverage for birth control for employees of religious institutions.

The Coors family, though, did not have just one horse in the anti-birth control race. Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also contributed $335,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a neoconservative group dedicated to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” The center filed an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case as well, arguing that for-profit corporations can exercise religious freedom, and therefore deny their employees access to birth control.

Molson Coors told Rewire that although the company’s health-care benefits vary by country, most employees have health care that provides birth control benefits and covers abortion.

The Coors family has also contributed thousands to right-wing women’s groups that seek, among other things, to eliminate legal abortion. In 2014, Jeffrey Coors and John Coors each gave $25,000 to Women Speak Out PAC, the super PAC arm of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List. The group’s stated goal is to “reduce and ultimately end abortion.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also gave $190,000 to the Independent Women’s Forum, which the New York Times editorial board described as “a right-wing public policy group that provides pseudofeminist support for extreme positions that are in fact dangerous to women.” The IWF sent a spokesperson to testify against gun control laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, claiming “guns make women safer”; opposed the Violence Against Women Act, arguing that it has been a source of “waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer resources”; and defended Rush Limbaugh when he called a college student a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her support of the birth control benefit.

In addition to funding anti-choice political groups, between 2009 and 2014, the Adolph Coors Foundation contributed nearly $120,000 to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), many located in the Coors’ home state of Colorado. CPCs are anti-choice facilities that try to persuade women not to get abortions, often by claiming that abortion causes breast cancer or sterility (it doesn’t). CPCs tend to use deceptive advertising to trick women into thinking they may be able to get an abortion if they make an appointment.

And, as much as Coors marketing spokespeople tout the benefits of bilingual advertising and scholarships for Hispanic students, the Coors family has a very different idea about how to spend the profits reaped from such careful multicultural advertising.

Between 2010 and 2011, the Castle Rock Foundation contributed $50,000 to the Center for Equal Opportunity, a small conservative think tank fiercely opposed to bilingual education. In testimony before the House Judiciary committee, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity said that to achieve assimilation, there are “ten basic principles” to which all Americans must subscribe. They included “learn to speak English”; “don’t have children out of wedlock”; “don’t demand anything because of your race, ethnicity, or sex”; and “don’t hold historical grudges.”

From 2009 to 2014, the Coors family foundations also contributed $800,000 to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank founded by Joseph Coors, which in recent years has become increasingly hostile to immigration. In 2013, a Heritage senior policy analyst named Dr. Jason Richwine wrote a study that argued against amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Dr. Richwine was subsequently fired when reporters discovered that he had written a dissertation arguing that Hispanic immigrants had I.Q.s that were “substantially lower than that of the white native population,” something he said should be taken into account when drafting immigration policy.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $60,000 to the National Center for Public Policy Research, another conservative think tank devoted to a white vision of America. In 2012, the group announced the creation of a “Voter Identification Task Force,” to push forward voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters. And between 2009 and 2014, the Coors gave $510,000 to the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has fought against bilingual education and state tuition rates for undocumented students in California.

“California taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the post-secondary education of adult illegal aliens,” the Pacific Legal Foundation wrote in an amicus brief.

The individual family members also have a long track record of contributing to anti-choice politicians, according to federal election commission records. Between 2008 and 2015, they gave at least $57,000 to Mike Coffman, a Colorado congressman who opposes abortion including in cases of rape or incest, and between 2005 and 2015, they gave $50,700 to Scott Tipton, another anti-choice Colorado congressman.

Though the family hasn’t publicly stated which Republican they’ll be supporting in the election season, Peter H. Coors gave $5,000 to the Right to Rise PAC, connected to Jeb Bush, in February. Last month, Bush told the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

To be sure, not all of the family’s spending has a political bent: Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors foundations gave approximately $19 million to various community organizations, schools, and nonprofits.

But when it comes to supporting groups that undercut the inclusive stance of the Coors companies, the Coors family seems to maintain a position that was most clearly articulated by Peter H. Coors in 2004, when he was asked about Coors’ pro-LGBTQ practices.

That’s “just good business, separate from politics,” he said.

Sharona Coutts contributed to this report. Follow her on twitter: @sharonacoutts

CORRECTION: Due to a copy-editing error, a version of this piece incorrectly noted the location of Newtown. The piece has been updated to correct this.

Q & A Abortion

Texas Abortion Provider Launches Program to ‘Shift’ Abortion Stigma: A Q&A With Amy Hagstrom Miller and Amanda Williams

Andrea Grimes

Amy Hagstrom Miller and Amanda Williams at ChoiceWorks speak about their vision for their new nonprofit Shift, why they’ve chosen to launch in Texas, and what the end of abortion stigma might look like in red states.

I drive by what used to be Whole Woman’s Health’s flagship abortion clinic here in Austin all the time. Every time I pass by, I think of how it never really felt like a doctor’s office inside. Warm, purple walls. Inspirational quotes painted inside counseling and exam rooms. A recovery room filled with cushy recliners. More like a retreat, or maybe a sanctuary.

But there’s been a “For Rent” sign outside for months, ever since HB 2, the 2013 omnibus anti-abortion law, forced it and dozens of other providers to shutter last year.

I hated seeing that “For Rent” sign. And now I’m pleased to report that it’s gone. Instead, Austin Whole Woman’s Health has been reincarnated as an organizing and co-working space called ChoiceWorks, the operational headquarters of a new nonprofit from Whole Woman’s Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller: Shift.

Shift, according to Hagstrom Miller, is a group “working to strategically shift the stigma around abortion in our culture,” and “committed to fostering open and honest conversations, lifting up all communities, and advocating for reproductive freedom.”

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I sat down with Hagstrom Miller and Shift Program Manager Amanda Williams at ChoiceWorks to talk more about their vision for Shift, why they’ve chosen to launch in Texas, and what the end of abortion stigma might look like in red states.

Rewire: Big question first: What is Shift? How’s it related to Whole Woman’s Health?

AHM: Whole Woman’s Health has always been involved in the advocacy and education realm, with a really strong commitment to having open and honest conversations about abortion in the context of the wider range of reproductive rights and justice issues and a human rights framework. People don’t just experience abortion as a medical procedure. And they don’t just experience it as a civil right, either. In the direct service realm, the conversation about abortion has some ambiguity around it. So how do we get that nuance into the public policy and culture change sphere?

I noticed years and years ago that the only people talking about abortion in public were the people who were against it. We would have people in our clinics who would say, “Not only did I have a great abortion experience, but this is the best health-care experience I’ve ever had. But it’s at an abortion clinic.” And they would articulate: “I feel so empowered, I made the right choice, I feel affirmed.” So they have this great, empowering experience and they walk out the door and there’s just silence on the issue. Nobody’s talking about abortion as though it’s a good in our society, or as though good women would have an abortion. I had this banner outside Whole Woman’s Health for years that said, “Good women have abortions.” People flipped out.

Inside our clinics, we talk to people and say, you know, there’s no one right way to have an abortion. People say, “Hey, can I see my fetus?” And we’re like, sure. They say, “I wanna baptize it.” Sure. Let’s do it. Let’s figure it out.

And so Shift is trying to take that sort of experience we have in the service out into the public sphere where it’s really needed.

Rewire: Why a nonprofit? Why now?

AHM: We’ve always had a 501(c)(3) ever since we opened—that was an abortion fund, before a lot of abortion funds existed. But then a couple of years ago, in the middle of the 2013 legislative session, we started to have people really interested in how to help my voice and Whole Woman’s voice remain on the scene.

The voice that we’re bringing is very unique: We’re speaking on behalf of providers, talking about how real people experience abortion as a medical service but also as a cultural experience. How can our voice remain in that conversation around reproductive rights? It’s very different than the researcher voice or the patient storytelling stuff that Advocates for Youth or Sea Change is doing, and it’s different from the family planning folks who sometimes avoid talking about abortion.

From that idea grew a much stronger foundation than our previous 501(c)(3) work. We had support from multiple donors saying, “We’d like to see you do crisis mitigation,” “We want your clinics to be able to be open,” and “We want to see providers be able to continue to be a voice and continue to influence policy stuff.” Like: If there’s an amendment about to be introduced by the Democrats, let’s make sure it actually helps. Or, let’s sit with [legislators] and say: This is what an ambulatory surgical center does, this is what the regulation already is.

We see ourselves in a place to be able to have a 501(c)(3) with much more funding and structure to be able to do longstanding culture change work and movement building. Informing some of the policies. Helping us figure out what proactive policy would look like.

Rewire: Do you have any hopes on that front, or work you’ve done so far in that direction?

AHM: I always fantasize: What would it look like if abortion care were treated as legitimate in women’s health care, just like miscarriage management or delivery? There would be no question that abortion is covered by insurance or Medicaid. We’d have standards of care that aren’t targeted in a negative way, but in positive ways. There wouldn’t be stigma, so that you could talk about it openly and honestly. We could reframe the notion that there’s only one kind of woman who has an abortion, or that abortion isn’t a normal part of a medical history. That’s our goal: To say everything is normal, everything is funded, everything is talked about.

If that’s our goal, how would we get there from here? Obviously being involved in abortion funding work, and the economic justice work of All Above All and other campaigns, but also really trying to figure out ways that we can be of service to progressives, to talk about abortion better.

Some of our programs are inviting people to come into the clinic—this, where we’re talking, is one of those clinics. We have a safe space where we kind of re-enact a day in the life of a clinic for not just the media, but our allies. We’ll walk through, literally from the phone call all the way through the paperwork, ultrasound, and counseling, so people can see how regulations actually affect the service, experientially. But then we could also have this interaction where people can, in a safe place, say, “But what is that you’re seeing in the ultrasound? What happens in the ultrasound? Can I see the instruments?” And they’ll say things like, “Oh my goodness, there aren’t any sharp instruments,” or “Can I see the fetal tissue?” or whatever. A safe place where we can do education about what actually happens.

Amanda Williams: Just earlier, I walked a visiting organization through the space and I showed them the equipment, and one of the women was like “Aaaaah!” The way we just have it there for them, I’m like, you can touch it! My vocabulary’s a little rusty on what everything is, but I walked them through as much as I could. She was quiet and I was like, “So what do y’all think?” And she was like, “This is awesome.” They loved it. She’d never had an abortion, but they talk about it all the time. They work on these issues. I’m like, y’all were doing abortion work, but you had no clue. There’s that disconnect.

AHM: One of the things I love to do, with staff, we do this thing I call “downriver.” Which teaches the staff how the jobs fit together and why they’re all important. Staff members get up on to the table. They play a patient. So when a guy gets on the table and puts his feet in the stirrups, it’s profound. I turn on the suction machine so people can hear what it sounds like. Even though they’re not having an abortion, there’s some stuff that people go through. Sometimes they get a little triggered, and that vulnerable, emotional place is where we want to teach people. This is what we’re doing here. That’s the fun part. I see us being able to do some education for people in the field who are providers who may not get the same kind of education about their jobs that Whole Woman’s provides to the people who work for us. But also have it be a place where literal destigmatization happens. Like, “Can I touch the machine?”

AW: And talking about that. Like, your ignorance about the procedure is a product of stigma. You can actually see that connection. That’s what’s powerful for me. Those shocked faces. This is stigma!

AHM: And this is my whole life’s work of turning lemons into lemonade. I have, as it turns out, a bunch of suction machines I don’t know what to do with. So if they can become used for show and tell? Awesome. I have all these nitrous oxide mixers. Are we going to throw them away? Or I can use them. So that’s part of this space. It’s part of a reclaiming.

Being able to do these “Abortion 101” workshops are, in my mind, the beginnings of what I would call kind of an “Abortion University,” which would train not only progressive people, but people in the field who aren’t doctors. So the counselors, the advocates, the administrators. Like, who teaches you, as a liberal arts grad, how to run a clinic and host a health department inspector? How are we training people in the field to handle the dynamics of working in red states and working with TRAP laws? Figuring out regulatory compliance, things like that.

We can also practice handling the things that people may have uncomfortable issues about. For example, how can I help somebody prepare for a question about 20-week bans they’re going to get as a progressive? How can I help them learn how to pivot, or help them learn to talk from a level of expertise, while also acknowledging that moral complexity?

We see ourselves as facilitating these open and honest conversations and not being afraid to talk about any of the difficult stuff, because we see it all the time around abortion as providers. Because the people we serve are pretty articulate about the hang-ups they have. They come from the broader culture and they go back into the culture. It’s not a mystery. We’re not messaging for people we don’t see. The people are right in front of us! So in some ways I feel there isn’t an affiliation really between Shift and Whole Woman’s Health, except for our clinics are kind of a lab for us. They’re where we learn what people want to talk about and how they want to have things framed. And then we can be able to talk about the issues with the kind of complexity that has people start to feel like their voices are being heard and their stories are being respected.

Rewire: What are some specific programs or policies that Shift is working on?

AHM: We’ve been funded for doing some hotline work where we can collaborate and bring advocates, patients, and providers together in a statewide way. So that we can coordinate. And do something about the fact that so many people think abortion is illegal. Doing like some billboards or some web campaigns that say, “Do you need an abortion? We can help you.” You’re triaging people, helping them get to the abortion fund, helping them get to a clinic that’s open. And knowing there’s going to be people who call us who’ve tried to self-induce. Or who have a question like, “Is there a place where I can go in my community where they won’t hurt me, or judge me?”

So we placed two billboards on Highway 83 (the main thoroughfare in the Rio Grande Valley), in McAllen, Texas. They say, “If you need an abortion, we can help you and you’re not alone” in Spanish. And they have the Shift logo and a link to SafeAbortion.org. We have to do billboards in lots of places. Our goal would be to do them in West Texas, right? And facilitate a hotline, but also radio, or on a bus, or different ways to reach a population of people who really have no idea.

We’ve been funded for bigger things, but we’ve also done some crisis mitigation stuff in the Rio Grande Valley, and a mural for the clinic there.

There’s a spirit of entrepreneurial innovation in our clinic services delivery, and we can kind of bring that to this nonprofit advocacy organization. In that spirit: We try stuff. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but we keep trying stuff.

Rewire: Are there existing organizations or groups that are doing work you find informative or inspirational?

AHM: There are a few of us, independent abortion providers, who’ve worked in the clinic and in the advocacy realm both. Primarily they’re women-led, women-owned sort of organizations that come from this framework of “I do direct service work and I have a clinic, but I do it because I’m trying to make the world a better place for women.”

I think of my friend Tammi Kromenaker in North Dakota. I think of my friend Renee Chelian in Detroit. I think of Preterm, a clinic in Ohio. Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. People who are doing this kind of praxis, where they’re speaking about life as a provider in the public realm and the advocacy realm. Part of what I’d like to do is I want to figure out a way to support and train providers to go out into the world and have a place where we work through “Why am I hiding in the shadows?” Or, “Am I participating in the stigma on some levels?” And can we facilitate some conversations about the “bad provider”?

AW: Because right now we kind of just ignore them.

AHM: The bad provider thing is rough. How can we talk about that? Whenever I see the word “access,” I don’t want access to abortion, I want access to quality abortion. I host little debates within the field: Is any abortion a good abortion? I don’t think so. I want us to have those ethical debates.

In my mind there are some clinics that haven’t kept up with holistic approaches, whose providers understand women don’t just experience abortion as a medical procedure, and they also may not have kept up with modern medicine. Is there a way we can go into the community and keep access but also raise the standard of care? It’s not that people are doing harm, but abortion in my mind is specialty medicine, and it involves an approach that’s holistic. You should have fundraising for women, counseling programs, and other reproductive health-care options for people as part of your service. So some folks who are just in the medical model, emptying the uterus safely, are kind of old-school. We can go in and help them retire gracefully and take what started in the 1970s forward into the next generation.

That’s a big part of what we do at Whole Women’s Health. But how do we talk about that?

That’s where Shift comes in. Because we need to. We don’t want the byproduct of these regulations to be that there’s only giant providers who can raise money to build ambulatory surgical clinics and that’s all we have. That’s what happens when you have high regulation on abortion care. You have people who, in order to comply with the law, have to be giant. You can look at other “industries” and you can totally see that. They’re doing away with the mom-and-pop businesses in the same way. Barnes and Noble. Walgreens.

I think we could do some storytelling about clinics like the Feminist Women’s Health Clinic in Atlanta, or of Emma Goldman in Iowa City or Tammi’s clinic in North Dakota. That could be part of what we try to do to talk about what good abortion [care] looks like, without talking about “bad providers.” [Ed. note: See Rewire reporting exposing unethical providers here.]

Rewire: Who are you telling those clinic stories to? Or telling them for?

AW: I often think that a big piece of our movement-building work is reaching people who don’t even talk about abortion at all. How do we incorporate them into the conversation? How do we reach them where they are? This everyday person who might have an idea of what abortion is but will be easily persuaded into believing abortion is wrong, because that’s the narrative that’s currently out there. So I see Shift being key in taking control of that narrative and taking back that storytelling power. Whether that’s in our community work or in the media: reaching everyday people and incorporating them into this movement in a way that no one in Texas is doing. That’s something I see us being very capable of doing. And when you talked about organizations that influence us, I love the work that the Sea Change Program has done, although I think we would be very different. The work they do with the book clubs and stuff—I love their research. I think we can use that.

AHM: They have the research, and they’re very much in line with the content, but the service provision is something they don’t have.

AW: We can bring that into the conversation in a way that no one else can. Reaching everyday people is something that campaigns or organizations have tried to do, in a way, but they always end up reaching the same kind of people. So I hope that we can shift that and finally make waves in that area. That’s going to take a lot of collaboration. That’s going to take a lot of community work and a lot of education, frankly. Because I think our audience is going to be different than what’s traditionally the audience in this movement. Especially when so many groups are so focused on policy. How can we participate in that, but break away from it?

AHM: And Shift, there’s a lot of things we can do with that. Shifting Texas. Shifting stigma. Shifting whatever kinds of things we need to work on. Because abortion encompasses a lot of it, but I think there’s other stigmatized reproductive health issues, and it’s all really intertwined. Because it’s about power, and it’s about putting us in our place. And we know that. But abortion becomes this lightning rod for a lot of it. And it’s by design. It’s good for the other side to keep the lightning rod on abortion, because then they don’t have to talk about the other stuff.

People have often said to me, especially the last two years, “You should work in the political sphere!” I’m just like, first of all, no way. Second of all, I see that disconnect so strongly. Even yesterday with our coalition partners, we got in this heated argument, we’re talking about policy about our strategies reaching Latinas in the Rio Grande Valley or whatever, and I’m like, you know the vast majority of my patients aren’t Democrats. Republicans have abortions every day inside my clinics. Let’s talk to them. What seed could we plant there? When 95 percent of Texans identify as Christian? And 70,000 of them every year have abortions. Woah! That’s something to work with. And they’re here! These clients have figured out how to reckon with “I’m a Christian Republican but I am the kind of person who had an abortion.” They may not talk about it after they walk out of our door, but all of those things are true. So what invitation can we make for them to see themselves differently? Or see pro-choice differently?

Rewire: Maybe those patients could tell you, or coalition partners, something really valuable about messaging that’s not currently working.

AHM: Oh, they do, all the time.

Rewire: Because as you say, there are 70,000 Texans getting abortions here every year. We know that.

AHM: They’re sitting right here! They’re sitting here, almost all of them, like literally almost all of them, with another person with them. People say, “People just need to tell their abortion stories,” and I’m like, no they fucking don’t. I mean, I love when they do. But we can’t make shifting the movement that person’s burden. That’s not her fucking job. She doesn’t owe that to us. So I get super animated about this, “Oh we just need to have more patients tell their stories,” you know? No we don’t! We have providers that don’t talk about what they do. For good reason, and there’s a risk there. So what if we start with the loved one who called and made the appointment? What if we start with the person who’s here, who says, “I’ve helped someone get an abortion. I’ve loved someone who got an abortion.” That’s not so scary to say. Because no one’s asking you to name who it is. No one’s asking you if you caused the abortion.

I envision pregnancy histories that are taken on men, that ask men their pregnancy history as part of their health history. Like, down the road, I would love that. “How many pregnancies have you had?” Because I want a frame where we can talk about how men benefit from abortion. We’re not there yet. It drives me nuts, but it drives me nuts for a reason I’m trying to shift. Nobody thinks they’re going to need an abortion until they do, so nobody pays attention to the law until they need an abortion. So some of that, changing who we’re talking to.

AW: And making space for difference. A lot of times when we talk about storytelling, we’re all waiting for the abortion moment in the story. But really people want to talk about their lives. We need to be listening for not the abortion itself, but their lives. Really, the highlight should be on the person’s life and their journey and not just the abortion. That’s where we strive to be this, sort of, platform of the difference.

AHM: Amanda hit the nail on the head. Journalists always ask me this all the time: “So how come your movement isn’t being successful and those gay people have had all the success?” And this is at the root of it right here: It’s that your abortion doesn’t define who you are. It’s not who you are as a person. It’s not your identity. Where, being gay is who you are. Abortion is like, something you did. That’s why I don’t like this whole coming-out thing about abortion. Because it’s not an identity.

Rewire: There are, though, people on the anti-choice side who wear their abortion, specifically their abortion regret, as their entire identity. Texas state Rep. Molly White comes to mind.

AHM: Right. But I think there’s something for us to work on there. This is a new thing I’m trying to develop. I want Shift to incubate this stuff. Should we have a campaign where white men talk about how they benefitted from abortion? It sort of makes you throw up in your mouth a little bit, but maybe actually people listen to them. Would that work? I don’t know. Like, “I got to go to law school because my girlfriend in college had an abortion.” Like, holy shit! Because it’s true. What would happen if that happened? These are the things I think about all the time in the Shift context. What if we told this story? Would it work? Would it not? What if we have a woman talking about her abortion who’s breastfeeding? Woah! Would that be good or would that backfire? We should try it. In a small pilot.

I’m guessing we’ll probably make some pro-choice people uncomfortable.

Rewire: So what is your role as the provider at the table?

AHM: For a while I was the only provider funded for this state advocacy work in any of the states. I believed, so strongly that I could barely keep my mouth shut, that if we work on culture change and movement building and policy work, and we leave clinics still doing bad abortions in the state, it’s never going to work! I feel really strongly about this. So if we as a movement can’t talk about that? Our goals on the culture change and policy? It’s never gonna work. It’s never gonna work because you’ll have those photographs, whether they’re of Gosnell or Steve Brigham, and anti-choicers [are] going to use those clinics as examples of every abortion. And the abortion provider doesn’t have any sympathy in the public.

So this is where I see: Oh, we’ve got to tell a more nuanced story about why we do this work. What is this work? It’s not just uterus-emptying. But we’ve got to be able to talk about the service. And our avoidance of it? People see it. They see it so clearly. I want to, behind the scenes at first, work on our stuff. So that we don’t leave what my friend Charlotte Taft calls the “crumbs at the picnic.” We have a picnic and we don’t clean up and anti-choicers grab every little crumb. Abortion, money! Ooh, “late-term” abortion! Fetal pain! Oh, sex-selection! I could make a list of all the things that all of us are terrified of being asked about. That’s totally by design.

And when we say “Oh, abortion is only part of what we do,” or “Oh, we believe in prevention first,” how can we as a movement say those things proudly, but not say them in a way that stigmatizes?

AW: Real talk. Real talk about abortion. That’s our tagline.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.