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 change.gov 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
document on change.gov, 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.
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 change.gov to make sure their
voices are reflected among the growing chorus of commenters weighing in on
reproductive health priorities for the next administration!