Commentary Abortion

Melinda Gates, and Why We Must Talk About Abortion in Feminist and Progressive Circles

Erin Matson

Gates and others have long claimed that conversations about abortion are "toxic" not just to feminism and the equality movement, but political progress in general. To that I say hooey.

While they don’t bother putting her name on the Forbes list, by virtue of marriage Melinda Gates is the richest woman in the world. She proudly considers herself an advocate for family planning and women’s health. “I am focused on one thing,” she wrote in a recent blog post, “the opportunity to make a difference in tens of millions of women’s lives by giving them access to the information and resources they need to plan their families.”

But, there’s a catch: She doesn’t want to talk about abortion, and the Gates Foundation won’t fund it.

“Around the world there is a deep, broad, and powerful consensus: we should provide all women the information and tools to time and space their pregnancies in a safe and healthy way that works for them,” Gates writes. She goes on to express dismay that journalists wish to talk to her about what she calls the “abortion debate,” writing that she “struggle[s] with the issue” and chastising others for “conflating [abortion] with the consensus on so many of the things we need to do to keep women healthy.”

The stakes are high, she claims. “The only way” to provide “tens of millions” of women “the contraceptives that they want” is to be “clear, focused, and committed.” In other words, Gates holds a view of maternal health and women’s empowerment so expansive and huge that a pregnant woman in desperate need of abortion won’t fit.

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Her thinking is, to put it mildly, flawed.

Perhaps you have heard of Hobby Lobby or encountered photographs of the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church? There is no consensus on providing all women access to contraception. Further still, the foes of abortion routinely argue that birth control is abortion. Most of all, it’s ludicrous to position yourself as an advocate for reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health if you are willing to ignore women endangered by an unsafe abortion or unsustainable pregnancy.

But what I’d like to explore further is an underlying premise within a Gatesian view of reproductive rights and the women’s movement: That a commitment to abortion rights holds progress for women back.

She is not alone. Conversations about abortion are often assumed “toxic” not just to feminism and the equality movement, but political progress in general. If only, the thinking goes, those who believe in abortion rights and access to family planning could keep their mouths shut at strategic times (like during elections, attempts to get a bill passed, or let’s face it, pretty much any time), other progressive goals could be achieved (never mind the fact that the right opposes them, too) and we wouldn’t attract the attention of those who seek to restrict reproductive rights.

Hooey!

The anti-choice movement includes folks who believe they are on a mission from God, including some organizations that are actively working to infiltrate the government. The anti-choice movement benefits from millions upon millions of funding from the Koch brothers, works hand-in-glove with Republican leadership, and is regularly tolerated as part of an invoked greater good by the Democratic Party in the form of candidates and policy at the national, state, and local levels. (In contradiction to its own platform, mind you: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”)

The anti-choice movement will not slink away quietly if abortion rights advocates keep their mouths shut.

My Dialogue With an Advocate From the Other Side

Recently, I was surprised to see agreement from an unexpected quarter to one of my more passionate tweets on this subject:

Writer and freelance journalist Bret Mavrich, who identifies strongly as “pro-life,” agreed with my statement. After some back-and-forth, he agreed to do a telephone interview with me, and I found the exchange to be remarkable.

When we spoke, Mavrich expressed concern about others who agree with his point of view on reproductive rights while, as he put it, “demonizing and dehumanizing the people who disagree with them.” He told Rewire he thinks respectful dialogue should occur between those of opposing viewpoints on the abortion issue, and that toxic language used by some of his fellow anti-choicers is part of the problem.

“My wife does ministry with post-abortive women. … When we talk with real people, real women that have had an abortion and hear their stories, it is impossible to label them in a blanket way, [like] murderer or baby-killer,” he said. “What you emerge with is a sympathy for women in their circumstances, even if you think abortion is a great evil or wrong.”

In explaining this further, he made an inaccurate claim that “a very high percentage of women who do have abortions feel emotional and psychological trauma,” but I don’t doubt that a self-selected group of women who seek “pro-life” counseling after an abortion may tend to display and even hold strongly negative feelings about their decision.

Still, Mavrich’s willingness to speak frankly, openly, and respectfully with an abortion rights activist writing for an explicitly pro-choice publication is refreshing. It is just one example of the kind of person-to-person conversations taking place every day that reveal the abortion debate is not and need not be considered inherently toxic.

In the course of our conversation, Mavrich expressed his opinion that both sides have a tendency to write off the other side’s views and dismiss entirely the people holding them. “If it’s true that we’re killing babies, this is really huge, and if it’s true that we’re shutting down and oppressing women [as reflected in the language used by the left] … if it’s true that women are being oppressed, then it needs to stop,” he said. “We need a space where we can be passionate but not shred each other because [that] is a profound waste of time and pushes us further apart.”

On that point, I wholeheartedly agree. We need more conversation about reproductive rights and justice, not less.

The Indivisibility of the Feminist Cause From Reproductive Rights

Dividing people on the basis of sexuality and reproductive capacity is a central part of how sexism operates. It’s positively jejune to see violence against women, or discrimination against women in the workplace, as wholly independent from views of women by matter of biological destiny as sexual objects to serve men, and caregivers to tend the hearth and home. It was no coincidence or freakish gaffe when Phyllis Schlafly recently claimed that paying women the same as men would make it harder for women to find husbands; she was, very strategically, trying to implant doubt among women that they can be “hot” and call for equality at work at the same time.

Not all women may become pregnant, but it’s true that the specter of pregnancy, caregiving, and presumed heterosexual availability supports discrimination against them. So if we really want constitutional equality, equality in pay and parity in leadership, and an end to violence against women, we do need to acknowledge that the various and far more numerous goals of empowering women will truly work only when women are able to exercise meaningful control over their own lives—including, and especially, their reproductive lives.

But what about those women’s organizations that purposefully avoid taking positions on reproductive rights? One such organization is the New Agenda. Its president, Amy Siskind, told Rewire that the issue simply doesn’t come up in the group’s work, especially in its work with companies and universities to promote networking and professional success for millennial women.

Separate from the organization, Siskind also spoke to Rewire as an individual, explaining that she had gone from supporting Hillary Clinton in 2008 to the John McCain/Sarah Palin ticket. “I honestly believed that the [Republican] mindset was to be not neutral but libertarian on social issues,” she said. “I thought we could put those issues away and start to vote based on other issues. … I’ve been shocked [since] then,” she said, noting that she was caught “totally by surprise” in 2011 by a record-breaking push to enact abortion restrictions.

This is not to say that the New Agenda is bad; if the group wants to bring people of diverse mindsets on choice to support women in other arenas, good for them. But from an explicitly political point of view—which is much bigger than one organization, much less all of them—the only way to hold people accountable to respecting women’s fundamental human rights is to talk about women’s fundamental human rights. A strategy of silence has no track record of proving itself believable.

The abortion debate doesn’t poison political discourse. It is not to blame for stalled progress on other initiatives that would improve women’s lives. In fact, other women’s rights causes would likely benefit a great deal from culture change that affirms the value of abortion—in women’s lives, as a commitment to equality, as a matter of public health.

Melinda Gates and others like her may have a lot of money, but we have a lot of voices. There is no need for reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates to mute ourselves for the greater good. Really, what good would that be?

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.

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.

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.

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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 Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

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“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.