Reproductive health care advocates are modifying the old
adage "don’t get angry, get organized" by going local.
After weathering eight years of conservative attacks, the
pro-choice community held high hopes that the Obama Administration, bolstered
by democratic majorities in Congress, would signal an end to partisan bickering
over federal funding for comprehensive care and the tedious national obsession
With that optimism scattering to the four winds of
manufactured political controversy, the National Institute for Reproductive
Health is organizing the Urban Initiative for Reproductive Heath, four
regional urban summits to bring providers, policymakers, activists, funders and
legislators together to share effective program strategies and localized
"There is a limitless potential to create change for
women’s health at a local level," said NIRH president Kelli Conlin at a
Sept. 23 kick-off event in Denver. "What people here realize, much more
clearly than people out East or in Washington, is that not everything has to be
a knock-down, drag-out fight. You can get things done without burning down the
Finding common ground
in unlikely places
The emphasis on seeking common ground was a dominant theme
in sessions on sexuality education, underserved populations and the
intersection of reproductive freedom and economic self-sufficiency.
Denver summit co-host Emilie Ailts of NARAL Pro-Choice
Colorado moderated the opening plenary session on how urbanization and
regional political shifts signal new demographic groups the pro-choice
community should be targeting for support. Though electoral demographics may
not be a subject that’s typically top of mind among reproductive health
advocates it’s an especially savvy tactic to identify issue reframing
opportunities with new audiences — another hot topic of conversation among
One of the more interesting examples of this new thinking
was shared by Jill Hanauer, founder of the progressive strategy firm Project
New West, who noted the recent lessons of Montana, a traditional red state
and unlikely beacon in the progressive political fog. According to state
electoral results, George W. Bush carried the state by 20 percentage points in
the 2004 presidential election. A mere four years later, GOP candidate John
McCain won by just two points. To Hanauer, that stunning electoral gap should
spur pro-choice advocates to reconsider potential alliances. As she explained
in a data-laden presentation, typically conservative-minded people who affix
flag stickers to their cars and own firearms also care deeply about self-determination
and would make natural allies in the fight to protect reproductive choice.
Teresa Henry, a state representative from Missoula, Mont.,
has successfully carried several pieces of legislation on health care access
and sex education by following Hanauer’s advice to broaden the coalition.
Despite its reputation as a conservative hotbed, Henry describes the political
climate in Montana as hopeful.
"I think if we can personalize it it’s one of the ways
that we can reframe the issue," said Henry, a three-term representative
who is running for a state senate seat. She also noted that seizing on people’s
optimism about health care reform can help drive more productive conversations.
While it’s not surprising that conservatives have attempted
to derail the proposed public option to provide a federally-backed health
insurance program with an intellectually dishonest debate over taxpayer funds
supplementing abortion services, pro-choice activists are looking to more centrist
issues to attract allies to the greater cause.
the new front for finding common ground in the West
Bridging the gaps between inconsistent, impractical federal
mandates and public health policy at the local level has long been a challenge
for service providers and advocates, alike. That’s been especially true for
school-based youth programs.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, field director for the Portland,
Ore.,-based Western States Center, is seeing some encouraging trends in
culturally-relevant sexuality education curricula that emphasizes values,
teaches healthy relationship skills and empowers parents — all improvements
that can help diminish both legitimate local concerns and overblown partisan
"When the information that their child brings home does
not reflects their values and culture, parents will resist," said
Krishnamurphy referring to recent community surveys that probed how to best
deliver sex education beyond a clinical framework. "If we want to start a
dialogue with parents, schools and sex ed programs need to understand the
critical role that parents play."
Getting schools and parents on board also provides
opportunities to broaden the public discussion to related social problems.
Widely held public perception that sexuality education is
limited to imparting pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted disease
information belies the intertwined issues of economic empowerment, education
and delayed childbearing.
Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez represents several west
side neighborhoods that collectively boast the city’s highest unintended
pregnancy rates. He refers to the problem as a perfect storm of education,
jobs, health care and immigration status disparity.
To make his point, Lopez refers to startling Colorado teen
fertility statistics: white, non-Hispanic girls between the ages 15-17 have a
pregnancy rate of 10.2 percent while for Latinas the figure soars to 69
percent. In any other context the latter would be considered a health epidemic
that would, in turn, unleash a torrent of public concern and funding for
But the reality in Denver, like many other cities across the
nation, is a multi-million dollar budget deficit won’t permit the diversion of
dwindling capital to teen pregnancy prevention when it’s simply labeled a
social problem. Lopez argues that if communities considered reproductive health
issues as economic ones a very different set of public expectations would
emerge — political figures would become more likely to prioritize sex education
funding and the partisan social wedge would be considerably weakened.
That perspective was shared by many at the summit, including
Gretchen Gagel McComb, president of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado,
an endowed fund that underwrites self-sufficiency programs and policy research.
"One of the things that we’re trying to work with other
like-minded women’s organizations is how we reframe the discussion about
reproductive health because it always devolves to abortion," said McComb.
Finding agreement between the polarized views on sex
education between those that advocate abstinence-only and others that support a
more comprehensive view is at the center of McComb’s efforts to broaden the
community conversation about the lack of reproductive health care access and
its effects on the widening economic gap for women with children.
But flipping that switch isn’t easy.
The call for
pragmatism meets reality
Shifting away from ineffective faith-based, abstinence-only
sex education programs as the primary federally-funded option for youth
pregnancy prevention has been mired in power struggles inside the Oval Office
and on Capitol Hill.
But those close to the White House’s Office of Public
Engagement are confident negotiations to promote science-based comprehensive
sex education will win out.
"Here’s where we need to give credit to the White
House," said William Smith of SEICUS, one of the national
organizational participants in the summit. "They are trying hard to bring
together disparate voices to try and figure out how to lower the temperature on
the abortion debate."
Smith notes that the White House-backed Ryan-DeLauro bill,
a common ground approach to reduce abortions that has been met with skepticism
by advocates on both sides of the issue, and the overarching health care reform
debate have advanced the value of comprehensive reproductive health care into
the public fore.
Even when that debate turns prurient, as it did when Sen.
Jon Kyl (R-AZ) quipped Friday that he doesn’t believe health insurance
policies should be larded up with maternity care coverage causing Sen.
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to shoot back: "I think your mother probably
Despite the senatorial made-for-TV fireworks, Smith is
optimistic that prevention bills are the key to avoiding ideological hackles.
Though he doesn’t discount that the process of community dialogue is and will
continue to be arduous.
"In the federalist system of government that we’ve got,
how do you meet the people where they are and bring them to the point you want
them to be?," asks Smith. "That’s the trajectory in which we have to
Initiative for Reproductive Health will hold its next session in Atlanta,
Ga., on Sept. 30-Oct. 2, followed by Chicago, Ill., (Oct. 21-23) and Los
Angeles, Calif., (Oct. 29-30). Presentations will be posted on the summit Web
site to encourage cross-regional dialogue on common issues.