Commentary Abortion

Beyond ‘Choice’: Youth-Focused Reproductive Rights and Justice Organization Renames Itself URGE

Erin Matson

What does it mean to be pro-choice? For an increasing number of activists, advocates, and advocacy organizations, it includes wanting to be identified with an agenda more comprehensive than supporting a woman's right to choose abortion—as in, dropping the "choice" label entirely.

What does it mean to be pro-choice? For an increasing number of activists, advocates, and advocacy organizations, it includes wanting to be identified with an agenda more comprehensive than supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion—as in, dropping the “choice” label entirely.

The latest to make a change is Choice USA, a youth-focused reproductive rights and justice organization that today announced it has changed its name to URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “For years we have been hearing from our membership that our name and our brand were not capturing the cutting-edge work that they were doing on campus,” URGE Executive Director Kierra Johnson wrote in an email to Rewire. “The name didn’t limit the work we did, but it did limit who we attracted to the organization.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve been around this block. Planned Parenthood announced in 2013 that it would stop using “pro-choice” after commissioning research that showed nearly a quarter of voters don’t identify with either the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label and that 40 percent say their personal view on abortion “depends on the situation.” In conjunction, it launched a “Not In Her Shoes” campaign that emphasized empathizing with women’s specific situations and leaving decisions to the individual. Around the same time, the National Women’s Law Center launched a “This is Personal” campaign targeting young women with messages that “reproductive health decisions are personal.”

These language conversations are not a distraction. Language is not just about words, but also tactics and strategy, and it’s an important time to assess all of them. After all, abortion rights and family planning are losing huge. As laid out by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo, we can expect radical new consequences stemming from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision granting a private business the right to assert religious beliefs that trump generally applicable laws. At the state level, legislatures continue working diligently to make abortion more difficult to obtain.

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But restrictions upon abortion and family planning are part of and must be considered within a much broader picture. Last year, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for the Department of Justice to tackle an epidemic of voter suppression laws in states dominated by conservative legislatures, which disproportionately affect young people, people of color, and women. Pew Research reported in January that income inequality, by one measure, hasn’t been this high since 1928. This is not race and gender neutral: During the past 25 allegedly enlightened years, the wealth gap has nearly tripled between white families and African-American families. This spring Senate Republicans again blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of legislation designed to address the gender wage gap. Violence against women is the global norm. In a shameful display of inhumanity earlier this month, protesters in California blocked and heckled three buses containing migrants who entered the country without documentation. President Obama is under pressure to water down a soon-expected executive order against LGBT employment discrimination for federal contractors with gaping, Hobby Lobby-style religious exemptions.

We could, and should, continue at length, but the point is this: “Choice” does not happen in a vacuum. Deeply entrenched and tangibly experienced discriminations on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as less acknowledged but very present discriminations in areas including ability and gender identity, mean that not everyone has a “choice” to control whether and when to parent. Abortion funding restrictions deprive many women, especially low-income women, young women, and women of color, of the practical means to choose an abortion. What’s more, ending reproductive oppression is much larger than expanding access to abortion and family planning. It must include all of these things as well as support for parenting, adoption, breastfeeding, pregnancy, sexual health, and tackling those interlocking oppressions staining the human experience.

What I am saying is not new, nor was it developed by me. An explicitly reproductive justice-oriented framework was developed by women of color leaders such as SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross with the intent of addressing lived experiences and needs not adequately addressed by an emphasis on “choice.” As explained in a piece on Rewire authored by Ross, Marlene G. Fried, Rickie Solinger, Toni M. Bond Leonard, and Jessica Danforth, “Locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it.”

Women are not the same or even fundamentally similar, and it’s a dead end to advocate for them as if they were. In the specific instance of confronting an unplanned or otherwise unsustainable pregnancy, a woman with white privilege, a credit card, and a New York City area code does not have the same options as a woman of color living in the South without the same access to financial and other resources. “Choice” does not mean the same thing for all women. It’s not just about ending a pregnancy: It’s also about continuing a pregnancy. For many women, a reproductive justice movement answers the need for a comprehensive focus that values improving a person’s ability to raise healthy children in safe communities as equally important to improving access to abortion, family planning, and health care more broadly.

While respecting the importance of acknowledging the individual circumstances faced by women in light of the interlocking oppressions they may or may not experience is critical, a reproductive justice approach is not the same as dropping the word choice and placing emphasis on the personal, as done by Planned Parenthood. Reproductive justice is not a plea for empathy for what individual women may be going through, but rather an approach that involves acknowledging and dismantling exclusions, hierarchies, and stigmas that perpetuate discrimination and inequitable outcomes for people, their families, and their communities. In other words, reproductive justice is radical.

In her email to Rewire, Johnson made it clear that the new name URGE fits within the broader reproductive justice work the organization had already been pursuing on campus:

While abortion rights are an interest to many young, self-identified progressives, it is not the number one reason that they are seeking an organizing home. They want to be part of a community that values their experience and contribution. They want to talk about strategies to bring down the barriers they experience and are experienced by their families and communities. They want to create a unique vision and have access to the skills, resources and connections to begin experimenting with putting it into place.

I also noticed that while the word “choice” is disappearing from the organization’s name, “gender” is being inserted (as the “G” in URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity). Using the term gender instead of women is in keeping with an ongoing strategy that encourages men to step up in the struggle, an important and worthy goal. Last year, URGE began a “bro-choice” campaign designed to, as Johnson told Rewire in a previous Q&A, “substantively and authentically [incorporate] men of color, low-income men, young men, gay men, transgender men, and, yes, straight white men” in the organization’s work toward gender justice.

But it also sends an important signal: that transgender people are welcome. A long-held controversy within the women’s movement over the inclusion of transgender people continues today, with Twitter serving as one important forum for that discussion. In her piece for The Nation on “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” Michelle Goldberg presented Twitter-based advocacy for renaming a pro-choice fundraiser titled “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” to exclude biology-specific language so that transgender people would be encouraged to feel more explicitly included as “revolution-eats-its-own-irony,” or in other words, toxicity. But it wasn’t funny, or toxic. It was a conversation that we as advocates need to keep having with open hearts and thoughtful ears. This is but one of many examples of how far the broader reproductive rights, health, and justice movement has to go with transgender inclusion.

In her email to Rewire, Johnson also offered an interesting, sex-positive reflection on the incorporation of “gender” into her organization’s name:

Gender and sexuality (and our assumptions, expectations, fears, and aspirations of them) are at the core of the fight for sexual health, reproductive rights and gender equity. But as a general rule, our movement doesn’t talk about gender unless we mean women and we don’t talk about sex unless we are referring to how to prevent the unwanted consequences of it. Our hope is that URGE will continue to evolve into a place where we can talk about both and discuss how our experience and understanding of gender and sexuality is political and impacts policy change. Our goal is to share a vision of a world that celebrates human sexuality while we also work to understand misogyny and sexism as root causes that negatively impact us all.

Is this a renunciation of choice? No, but it is movement in a very promising direction.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

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

Susan Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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