Ready or Not: Obama Transition Team Publishes Reproductive Health Community’s Agenda

A recent directive from John Podesta, chair of
President-Elect Obama’s transition team, informs transition team staffers of a
sweeping transparency policy that will make public all policy documents and
recommendations from meetings staffers conduct with outside organizations.  Apparently, they mean it: dozens of
transition documents drafted for the transition team by advocacy groups ranging
from the American Association of Airport Executives to the Women Business Owner’s Platform for Growth are
now up on the website.  Papers
on reproductive health are well-represented: visitors will find among the
documents a transition memo crafted by over 50 groups in the reproductive
health community.  Advocates hadn’t
intended the document to go public, but now that it has, it’s apparent that the
public has an appetite for reproductive health policy minutia. 

Advocates involved in crafting the document – "Advancing
Reproductive Health and Rights in a New Administration
" – say it represented a
wholly collaborative effort by the reproductive health community to articulate
a concrete plan for progressive reproductive health policy during the Obama
administration, including many fixes for harmful Bush administration policy.  None of the "asks" include anything not
previously seen by any regular RH Reality Check reader: These range from
restoring funding to UNFPA to urging Congress to pass the Prevention First Act.  The document
is clear and comprehensive on the gaps in access to women’s health care and how
to repair them. It acknowledges lesser-noticed restrictions of women’s
reproductive autonomy alongside those that are well-reported: for instance, it considers
an end to the practice of shackling women prisoners while they are giving birth
a crucial component of "supporting healthy pregnancies."  It also calls for increased spending on
substance abuse treatment programs for pregnant and parenting women.

What advocates were less eager to share with the public is
the detailed roadmap included in the document for the changes in policy needed
to improve reproductive health for women both here and abroad.  Several advocates cited concerns that the
administration would be criticized as doing the bidding of reproductive health community
if it made use of the specific legal reasoning outlined in the document.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the public likes being privvy to
policy documents like this one, apart from or in addition to getting
information about the women’s health agenda for the next administration.  There are now over 100 comments on the
on, debating sexuality education policy and reimbursements for
Certified Nurse Midwives, calling for free, over-the-counter access to
emergency contraception, and funding for self-esteem and empowerment programs
for teens, among many other threads. 
Scattered comments decry the use of abortion as "birth control," and
others put the issue of abortion in religious terms, but the comments
overwhelmingly favor prevention and securing women’s access to abortion.  As any reader of pro-sexual and reproductive
health online content can attest, even the best-reasoned pieces of writing can
be met with outcry from anti-choice commenters. 
Impressively, in this instance, those who attempt to frame the issues of
reproductive health in religious or moral terms are respectfully refuted, and
commenters reframe the issue around women’s health and rights.

A recent article by Peter Daou captures the burgeoning, and vocal, "online
commentariat" ready and willing to respond to policy proposals at a level of
sophistication largely unimagined by traditional communications strategies.

Daou writes,

For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass
media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were
discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled
funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous
interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the
media’s constraints…Every piece of news and information is instantly processed
by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and
unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into
reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences,
speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a
previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and

And Daou highlights the role of the online commentariat in providing
"validation and legitimation" of agenda-setting work done by advocates.

Now that the transition document has gone public, a question arises: How can
reproductive health advocates more effectively enlist the power and support of
the public in making these issues a central concern for the next administration
and ensuring that the voices of the pro-choice majority of Americans are represented?  Jessica Arons, Director of the Women’s Health
and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and one of the advocates
involved in drafting the document, says that the groups who contributed to the
document haven’t yet reconvened to consider any collective communications or
movement-building strategy around the document. "Our goal was to come
together to present a united front and outline what we hope the new
administration will do," says Arons. "Whether we will develop a collective
communications or movement-building strategy around the document
remains to be seen. In the meantime, some organizations have put forth
their own agendas publicly, and have made efforts to mobilize people
around items on those agendas."

In the mean time, perhaps interested members of the
reproductive health community should head to to make sure their
voices are reflected among the growing chorus of commenters weighing in on
reproductive health priorities for the next administration!

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  • scott-swenson

    Emily, nice work. I’ve heard there may be just a smidge of angst in the community over this release of the transition document. The fact of the matter is, as you point out, the public actually wants to be more involved in the public policy process and new media technology, as Peter Daou writes, allowed that to happen in this election in ways never before seen. We are in a distinctly new communications moment and those who fail to fully grasp it do so at their own peril. Most importantly, the SRH advocacy community should take heart — the Obama-Biden ticket ran openly and honestly on pro-education, pro-prevention and pro-choice values — the very values reflected in the policies put forth in the transition document. Obama spoke of being able to "disagree on abortion but agree on reducing unintended pregnancies" in his acceptance speech and often on the campaign trail. On health (Daschle) and global issues including women (Clinton and Rice), their cabinet picks could not be stronger. McCain-Palin ran the social-con playbook attacking sex ed, promoting abstinence-only even in the face of its obvious failures within the Palin clan, and McCain even took up the egregious "born-alive" claims face-to-face in the final debate. The RNC and several 527 and PACS also used that same messaging in mail, calls, TV, and radio. Voters were very clear about where both sides stood in this election and they overwhelmingly embraced progressive values and policies. Oh yes, and we won with nice margins in South Dakota, California and overwhelmingly in Colorado against niggling little ballot initiatives that attempted to erode personal freedom. The GOP is in open civil war now and many are suggesting it is the pro-life community who has reduced the GOP to a small, regional, race-based party. In other words — in case the news hasn’t made it all the way around the Beltway listservs just yet — WE WON! It’s okay to act like it. Secrecy is what the opposition does — just look at the soon to be promulgated HHS refusal clause regs — the only reason we knew about those was because they were leaked — that’s the type of government we want to reject, not repeat. When they were leaked, it was because of new media and consistent pressure through online organizing that more than 325,000 petition signatures went to HHS and more than 200,000 public comments were registered. Yes, sexual and reproductive health advocates have been on the defensive during the Bush years and much of the generation before, but communications has changed — as Peter brilliantly points out (read his entire piece if you haven’t) and as we all know from polling and the crushing weight of message testing the advocacy community has done, the public really is on our side — no matter how much Ross Douthat might want to twist the polls to make it sound otherwise in his recent NYT piece. Lastly, after a little over two years of RH Reality Check, to me this is a moment to send up a flare to the SRH advocacy community: Change your internal online commenting policies NOW! Staffers should not only be allowed to, but encouraged to participate in the important online dialogue about public policy. They should be encouraged to use the RH Reality Check Wiki and other tools to build a vibrant center for policy discussion on these issues. You have the public health expertise, scientific studies, and God knows you’ve got more message testing than you know what to do with all at your finger tips. Every comment online does not have to be signed by an organizational spokesperson. More than just Executive Directors should be writing online. Approval processes should be streamlined or re-written to take into consideration the rapid pace of online dialogue.  Many of RHRC’s most loyal readers work under organizational policies that tell them they cannot comment — not even with screen names. We know they are reading the site, our numbers tell us that — so why not engage the conversation?  Communications has advanced considerably since 1973 when Roe became law, it is time for the leadership of advocacy organizations to move their conversations from 20th Century listservs and join the public debate online. If we have the conviction that our policies are right we should want them openly debated and we should encourage transparency in government. I repeat — we won — the public is on our side — evidence-based public health policies, science-based medical facts, and values that speak to individual decision making and respect are being embraced by the public. It is time the policy community communicate directly with the public and embrace 21st Century debate and dialogue. Come out, come out wherever you are!

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for this post and comment Emily and Scott…I’m kinda bummed I have to head to a meeting b/c I want to join the discussion online. Guess it will still be there in a few hours when I get back. I LOVE everything about this – transparency, online community-building, real discussion!

  • jodi-jacobson

    I completely agree with Scott’s comments and wanted to add one other reason it is critical that our community become more proactive in using social networking and new media to engage and increase the number of supporters.  In a word: Congress.

    Many hopes are being pinned on Obama and everything Scott says is true.  But a President, even this one, can only do so much without the full-fledged leadership and support of Congress.  And we need to make sure there is a majority vote in Congress not just for some quick fixes and a few extra dollars of funding for specific programs here or there, but rather for fulfilling a new and visionary approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights here and abroad.

    Remember that even during the Clinton Administration members of the far right, several of whom remain in power, brought us “metering” of international funding and made numerous attempts to hamstring programs and prevent progress on health and rights.  Remember that in just the last two years a Democratic Congress has failed to end funding of abstinence programs in the United States despite rapidly mounting evidence such programs not only don’t work…they put people at greater risk.  Remember that a Democratic Congress reauthorized PEPFAR while failing to fix weaknesses in—never mind dramatically strengthen–prevention programs. 

    We need to push lawmakers to get out of the "safe" mold and write laws and providing funding for programs that work.  To do this, we need to galvanize, energize, engage, educate and be educated by a public that not only clearly wants a say in what happens, but has good ideas, and the power to make things change.  The use by the community of new media and social networking will enable us to create the movement needed to achieve our vision of the future.  President-Elect Obama is inviting us to follow him by modeling the behavior of an agent of change, down to using his own transition to model the transparency about which others have only previously spoken rhetorically.  Let’s be out front in rebuilding our movement so we can realize our goals and look back in four years on a vastly different landscape throughout the country.


  • cristina-page

    Thanks so much for this post Emily. I read the transition document and
    think those who drafted it deserve bundles of praise. It really is the
    greatest proof of what the pro-choice movement stands for. The
    lionshare of proposals are about prevention; whether through
    contraceptive access or education. It really embodies the spirit
    of the March for Women’s Lives and represents the expansive approach
    (including access to health care and healthy pregnancies) reproductive
    rights advocates called for then and have pursued ever since.

    Also, the
    Obama team should not view these proposals in simply reproductive
    rights terms, these policies should play a role in our economic
    recovery plan. As people lose their jobs, and with it health insurance,
    we will see increasing numbers relying on Title X and
    Medicaid for family planning services. It would be shortsided to not
    fortify Americans ability, especially those in the most precarious
    economic positions, to plan their families at this unstable time
    especially. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation
    report, "From 1980 to 2007, appropriations for Title X, the only
    federal program focused solely on family planning services, had
    declined by 61% when inflation is taken into account." As a result of
    the lack of funding for family planning for the poor, we witnessed a
    spike in the number of poor women getting pregnant unintentionally; at
    considerably higher rates now than in the mid-1990s. Poor women are
    giving birth to many more unplanned children and having more abortions.
    In fact, women living in poverty are almost four times more likely
    to become pregnant unintentionally than women of greater means.
    Clearly, access to birth control is a economic issue with those least
    able to support a child most at risk of facing an unwanted pregnancy. A
    critical component to ensuring economic stability is to grant the
    most at risk among us the ability to control one of the most important
    economic factors in our lives: the ability to plan the family we want
    and support the family we have.

    There’s also a lot of common ground
    areas in there, at least for
    pro-lifers committed to reducing the need for abortion. This plan is
    built on the policies proven to prevent unwanted pregnancy; from
    contraceptive access to support for the comprehensive ed programs the
    pre-Bush CDC listed as "Program that Work" based on quantitative
    results. Except for FOCA, most everything in this proposal genuine,
    rational prolifers interested in reducing the need for abortion can get
    behind. The Obama adminstration should present this to the public as an plan rich in common ground because these are the policies the vast
    mjority of Americans, on both side of the abortion debate, want.

  • invalid-0

    Democracy is waking up from a long, long slumber! When the public is seen as an integral part of the conversation, we will be better equipped to see the messy processes of democracy as measures of its health. People want to be heard and they want to know that their elected leaders understand what they need.

    This doesn’t happen all-at-once; it happens by what I’m calling subversonance–when the need for change rumbles below the human hearing threshold and breaks out in many places, many forms, redundancies upon redundancies, until it becomes clear to everyone that there IS a new consciousness at work. Then we can come together and hammer out the details, and I predict that that will also look and feel chaotic.

    Chaos is what creativity looks like and feels like until the urgent tensions are resolved into a finished work. Urgency and necessity and seemingly opposing imperatives drive creativity–nothing creative happens without struggle, discovery and feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. I’d like to see our country expand its tolerance for creative chaos. That’s when people get involved–when the joint is jumping!

  • kirsten-sherk

    I don’t mean to distract from this interesting and important discussion of intellectual debate and organization priorities and democracy BUT speaking of democracy, I have a couple of observations:


    1. It’s virtually impossible to find the document from have to have the whole URL to find it, which you probably received from a blog or listserv like this one already focused on reproductive health and rights.  In other words, John or Jane Citizen, browsing the, isn’t going to find it.  Most people who find it will be people already interested in the subject.


    2. Oddly, there are TWO different sites with different sets of comments. The first is the site you reach from this post; it has over 150 comments and while they are pretty divergent in perspective, discussions are really pretty concrete.  The second site is reached from, and the commenters aren’t really focused on concrete policy discussions, but on the sanctity of life and the rights of the unborn. (The only difference in the two URLs is the / at the end of the link above.)


    As Cristina pointed out, the beauty of the plan being put forward by CAP is the focus on the common ground — a focus that many people who are not "in the movement" (on either side) really value.  My question is whether people who aren’t already in those camps going to be able to read them?  Are they appearing elsewhere?   

  • invalid-0

    I am stunned and pleasantly surprised by this development. I am sure it feels fairly disconcerting to those who worked on this document under the (old) assumption that it would be more or less confidential.

    But this is an excellent opportunity for the RH movement and the administration. Why?
    1) We desperately need transparency from the executive branch. Think of Cheney and his secret energy meetings. This is the polar opposite, thank goodness.
    2) Anything that goes to policy makers is never really THAT secret. Think of all the opposition info we get, whether from friendly Hill staffers, oppo research, or our own research. This is one of those documents that had to get disseminated widely in order to get the buy-in need to move it.
    3) This is the new communications and engagement paradigm. If the RH/RR movement wants to engage, REALLY engage people, we need to be willing to put our stuff out there and let people interact with it. It is so hard with an opposition like ours, who never let up and some of whom literally want to see us dead. But on the whole, I strongly believe the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages and we will have a chance at engaging more people with this type of public posting.

    I love that our president-elect is pushing organizations on transparency. That is just beautiful.

  • scott-swenson

    I’m sure some people have read this who have different opinions based on the fact the number of comments reflect a fraction of a percentage point of the total number of reads for the post … it would be interesting to hear from others, commenting anonymously or with screen names, so that we have a more complete picture of what people are thinking or the challenges that are being faced as we all learn this new transparent policy world.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    good luck

  • invalid-0

    Good points Kirsten i get what your saying. Thanks for the link “reproductive health” you also posted as well. I suggest any readers on here take a look as there is some great talking points.

  • invalid-0

    Interesting article about the site. I didn’t know it existed! I think that the technology that we have available now lets people get their voices heard much easier and it will help to give more accountability for political leaders due to the instant feedback they receive!