Reporting Back from WAM!2009: Putting Reproductive Health Coverage Front and Center

Pat Robertson once famously
declared that feminism was a movement that, amongst other things, encouraged
women to "practice witchcraft."  If he knew about it, he’d
probably have an aneurysm over the annual WAM conference, a collection
of women (and a few men) who get together to talk politics, hang out,
and have a good old time while crafting ideas for another year of media
and activism.  Which is exactly the sort of thing that puts fears
of witchcraft into the souls of the misogynist and superstitious. 
This was my second year going and my first year just taking it all in
and not presenting.  But I’ll make up for my non-work then by
reporting back to RH Reality Check readers now.  After all, when
you put a bunch of progressive women (and a few men) in a conference
center to talk politics and media, issues of reproductive justice tend
to arise. 

In fact, our very own Emily
Douglas moderated a panel called "New Administration, New World Order:
The Top Five Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights Stories You’ll
Want To Track – And How."  Panelists Kiki Zeldes from Our Bodies Ourselves and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas from the National Latina
Institute for Reproductive Health

discussed the "what", and Dana Goldstein from The American Prospect explained the "how."  

Zeldes started by talking about
the rapid pace of change for the better since the election, both from
the executive branch but also from other areas of government. 
She invoked an executive decision to improve the sexual health information
on the CDC website, a court decision relaxing standards for over-the-counter
access of emergency contraception, and most interestingly, talked about
the government’s new commitment to fund a form of drug research that
tests not only safety, but relative efficacy between different drug
types.  This struck me, especially in light of the discussion that
happened during the Q&A section, as an interesting topic that merits
further discussion amongst reproductive health advocates.  While
sexier topics dominate the critical discourse around pharmaceutical
companies, very little attention is paid to the substantial problems
with the industry, and the lack of comparative testing is one of those
problems.  Often, there will be two treatments available with similar
safety levels but different efficacy rates, and the drug companies will
push the more expensive option without even asking if it works better
than the cheaper option.  If we’re to have universal health care,
this issue needs to be addressed. 

Gonzalez-Rojas discussed the
need for reproductive health advocates to expand our view of what needs
to occur to maximize the health outcomes for all women, regardless of
race, class, or immigration status.  This, she stated, is only
going to be a bigger issue when and if universal health care becomes
the focus of national attention–who will have reproductive health
care covered, and will it be covered at all, or will anti-woman, anti-immigrant,
and religious activists seek ways to shut down women’s access to complete
health care?  She also talked a bit about the issues regarding
mandatory HPV vaccines for immigrant women, a particularly grueling
requirement when the shots cost $360.  Unfortunately, merely raising
the question of Gardasil meant the Q&A was dominated with discussions
of feminist concerns with the drug that go back not so much to actual
science but abstract, badly defined fears about Big Pharma.  Personally,
I find the vaccine paranoia to be a distraction from the actual problems
with Big Pharma.  It’s sexier to fear that they’re poisoning
us, but the more mundane problem is they spend too much R&D money
on trying to come up with new variations on Viagra and less on innovative
drugs to tackle other problems. 

Goldstein used a number of
examples from her own extensive writing about sexual and reproductive
health issues to educate on how to find new angles to keep the topic
fresh, which in turn helps keep attention on it.  She demonstrated
how a little digging around an issue you read about in passing can reveal
many unexamined aspects, even if you do something as simple as use regional
examples to illustrate or illuminate national stories.  And, of
course, some stories are just begging for more coverage all the time,
such as examinations of how the Hyde Amendment will increasingly become
an issue if we have universal health care.  She also demonstrated
how to keep your ears attuned to culture war and/or women’s rights
angles to stories such as the infant abandonment laws, the potential
HIV-fighting benefits of male circumcision, and dog whistle politics
in elections. 

For those out there looking
to sharpen their reporting and activism skills, I can’t recommend
WAM enough.  I learned quite a bit from all the panels I attended. 
The keynote panel "Women Reporting From the Global Frontlines" powerfully
illustrated the importance of investigative journalism around the globe,
which in turn caused anxiety because the money to fund such work continues
to dry up, and is only slowly being replaced by non-profit sources. 
The "FOIA For Feminists" panel showed how easy it really can be
to start digging for dirt, with the panelists proudly showing off how
they helped expose Joe Arpaio of Arizona, shame
Eric Keroack out of office
and get some wealthy deadbeats to pay back taxes to the city of Boston. 
And, to make it a little more light and fun, Sarah Haskins showed
how you too can make fun of sexist

But really, it’s not just
the panels.  It’s the energy, the parties, the fact that every
time you turn around you’re meeting another awesome, hard-working,
and often hilarious feminist.  For feminist lovers, it’s like
dancing through a field of ice cream cones.  And who doesn’t
want to do something like that?

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  • invalid-0

    I agree with the point about the real problems with big Pharma. Issues of safety and R&D go hand in hand…most R&D is about finding a drug that’s just different enough to be a new product so they can get patents and keep charging $$$. There is not a connection between public health priorities and R&D. That, plus the politics based on a deep contempt for women as people, makes it sadly no surprise that something as safe as Plan B gets held up for YEARS while fudged science and cronyism gets “no-different-from-the-OTC/placebo- but-might-harm-you-otherwise” drugs like Vioxx pushed right through the FDA only to be taken off the market after it has hurt or killed people.