The Grand Folly of Focusing on “Common Ground”

I believe in making common cause with people of all persuasions, but here’s what I learned about the quest for common ground on issues where people have diametrically opposing worldviews. Originally published at On The Issues Magazine.

©Elaine Soto
©Elaine Soto

The day before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was expected to rule, rumors circulated that the agency would approve Plan B One Step emergency contraception as a non-prescription item and allow it to be sold without age restrictions. Freelance writer Robin Marty predicted via e-mail, “Conservative reaction will be a total shitstorm.”

Instead, the next morning, it was Marty and other progressive women who doubled down in paroxysms of shock and anger.

The same unholy alliance of theology and right wing politics that defines zygotes as persons apparently had tied into knots the intestinal fortitude of President Obama and his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, in a raw political preemptive strike, unprecedented in American history, overturned the FDA’s scientific ruling that would have brought Plan B out from behind the pharmacist’s counter.

Our “Common Ground”-obsessed president had done it again — betraying the very women whose votes were the key to his election, while getting nothing in return from anti-choice extremists who would never vote for him, no matter how much he tried to appease them.

But wait. During his campaign, candidate Obama vowed to prioritize passing the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) to guarantee women reproductive self-determination as a civil right. How is it that within a few months after election, he not only said FOCA wasn’t high on his priority list, but also persuaded leading pro-choice groups to back the Capps bill to make federal restrictions on abortion for low-income women more pervasive than ever?

That cascaded into the political shitstorm known as the Stupak amendment, which, in turn, spiked federal and state anti-choice bills in a magnitude unseen since the mid-1990s. Without the countervailing force of proactive initiatives, the pro-choice side fell on the defensive again.

So much for common ground.

Meanwhile, the FDA did its job as a scientific body and removed the restriction that purchasers of Plan B had to prove they were 17-years-old. But even in the Bush-era’s dismal War-on-Choice once an FDA ruling was made, it stayed.

It’s been calculated that if all women had access to EC and used it properly, up to half of unintended pregnancies and abortions could be averted. Shouldn’t that make EC the ultimate “common ground” in the abortion debate? Logically, opponents of abortion should be lining up to advocate for emergency contraception. But as author Rita Mae Brown has said, “If the world were a logical place, men would ride sidesaddle.”

To understand the seeming illogic, it’s necessary to confront a triple whammy of reasons why attempts to find common ground fail: the wagging finger of patriarchy, the clashing world views about sex and the contrast of constituencies.

Wagging Finger of Patriarchy

Insisting that women are moral equals to men is still a big elephant in the room, sometimes even hard for people who identify as pro-choice to confront. Because it’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. Harder still to see injustice when it’s all around you, and feminism is an unfinished revolution that aims to change a deeply patriarchal culture from within.

Obama’s Dad-in-Chief response to overturning greater EC access (the old “I don’t want my 11-year-old daughter to get it so I support the age restriction, medical advice be damned”) was presaged by his post election finger wagging at women when he reneged on FOCA: “I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they… suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations.”

The same phenomenon emerges in public opinion polls that find the more in control of her own life and decisions a woman is, the less others support her decision to choose abortion. The less in control, the more of a helpless victim the woman is, the more likely people support her right to choose. For example, if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, around three-fourths of respondents think abortion should be available, whereas if a woman is married and financially stable, the ratio flips to fewer than one-quarter saying she should be able to terminate the pregnancy.

Differences in worldview about women and sex are rarely acknowledged on abortion and contraception…

Simply an issue of women’s freedom” doesn’t sound trivial to me, but when one is operating from a male-dominant framework, it makes all the sense in the world. It’s why every advance toward women’s reproductive self-determination has resulted is an explosive reaction, why in 1873, as women were just beginning to assert their rights, Anthony Comstock created the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice and fought to pass the laws making it illegal to send information about abortion or birth control through the mail. It’s why so many opponents of abortion are also opposed to birth control. It’s why doggedly logical pro-choicers’ attempts to foster common ground by making birth control available to prevent unintended pregnancy are routinely rejected by abortion opponents.

Although conservative fundamentalist groups such as Focus on the Family would likely be apoplectic at the suggestion, the fact is when we’re talking about family, what we’re really talking about is sex. Without sex, there is no family. And when we talk about sex, what we’re really talking about a complex web of social interactions, all of them defined to a significant degree by women’s personal agency and sexual power.

Michelle Goldberg writes in The Means of Reproduction, “There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order.”

Clashing Worldviews about Sex

Freeing women from those ancient biological bonds of involuntary childbearing changes the gender power balance profoundly. And, yes, that does change the family structure.

Yet these differences in worldview about women and sex are rarely acknowledged in common ground discussions about abortion or contraception.

So what seems to pro-choice individuals like a slam dunk – EC is another method of pregnancy prevention; therefore, even those opposed to abortion should embrace it — is yet another sign of the impending fall of the republic to those who oppose abortion. The latter are just as queasy about birth control because they are queasy about any sex without procreative consequences. Their argument goes that if women — and heaven forfend, teens — have access to pregnancy prevention after intercourse, they will become promiscuous hussies.

No wonder then that in 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade, as the anti-abortion movement was starting its first forays to recriminalize abortion, a young reporter bounded into a news conference where I was being introduced as the new executive director of Planned Parenthood in Arizona and declared, “My nightmare is that 40 years from now, I’ll be a little old lady still asking the same questions, reporting the same story of the clash between the two positions.”

Forty years will soon be upon us, and the debate rages on.

Contrast of Constituencies

People with conflicting world views can work out some common cause: measures they can work on together to build relationships. Supporting local food banks, for example. But don’t expect common ground on policies rooted in something as fundamentally clashing as views about whether sex is for procreation or pleasure, and whether women will be treated as true equals or not.

Yet many — usually people supportive of the pro-choice view — still try to find the common ground. That, too, stems from fundamental differences in the two constituencies.

Pro-choice activists need to put a lot more starch into their spines…

To name a few such efforts: There’s the Common Ground project at RH Reality Check (duly eviscerated by Frederick Clarkson and by RHRC’s own editor-in-chief Jodi Jacobson, as well). It tried to get out ahead of Obama’s Common Ground quest that resulted in a bill called “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act,” cosponsored by pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and anti-choice but pro-family planning Tim Ryan (D-OH) Not surprisingly, the legislation suffered its demise at the hands of the anti-choice majority in the House of Representatives.

There’s the well-respected Public Conversations Project founded by Laura Chasin that has tried mightily to facilitate productive common ground discussions about abortion. I myself joined with Chasin and several dozen other remarkably smart and sincere people in an online abortion conference sponsored by the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and lasting, appropriately, nine months. But that labor couldn’t birth significant actionable common ground, either.

The two constituencies differ about the roles of women and the purpose of human sexuality. Oh, we all have the same body parts, many of the same aspirations for our lives and we almost all use birth control at some point. Kristin Luker found in her groundbreaking comparisons that pro-and anti-choice women are surprisingly similar in family demographics.

Difference lies, however, in the breadth of tolerance for other points of view. Some of those opposed to abortion, like the Catholic Bishops and fundamentalist Evangelicals, have no stake in finding common ground, because any shred of tolerance shakes the foundations of their absolute and unambiguous positions.

I asked mediation expert Victoria Pynchon how a mediator would try to bridge this divide. When she found herself sitting in flight next to a fundamentalist Christian Republican woman who “believes that a zygote is a person that trumps the life of a woman and believes in every literal word in the Bible as she was taught it,” she asked respectful questions to probe whether she would find an opening for genuine discussion of alternative views.

“Martha,” the name Pynchon gave her seatmate, articulated these beliefs: (1) life begins at conception; and, (2) “inconvenience” or even serious burden to a pregnant woman cannot justify the termination of any human life. Women, in particular, should be prepared to sacrifice their own lives to protect the lives of their families and children. She believed in a set of fixed moral rules from which there can be no deviation.

Eventually, “Martha” came to say, “I don’t know what I would do” if she were raped. But then she mused that Jaycee Duggar, whose years of enslaved sexual abuse resulted in children, nonetheless loves her offspring and wouldn’t wish them nonexistent.

“You have to be able to enable the other person to acknowledge a place of doubt,” Pynchon told me, in order to engage in a conversation that could lead to common ground between two diametrically opposed views.

But how do you translate that into actions? Or policies, for that matter?

For that, Pynchon didn’t have an answer. She concluded that the culture war over abortion isn’t based on views about what the Bible says or when personhood begins, “but deeper fears about authority vs. self-determination; rules vs. ethics or morals that require critical thinking; and, the desire to draw a bright line around human life so that no mistakes are possible.”

“Doubt R us,” I replied, describing pro-choice constituents. We love to turn over ideas and take contrary positions for the fun of it. Pro-choice is live and let live. It’s don’t tell me what to do or say or, especially, think. And that makes the perfect opening for people with moral certitude and water-on-stone persistence. They stay with an argument until they wear us down.

Course Adjustments Needed

The folly is in trying to force common ground, where one side has no stake in compromise, whereas the other side wants to appease.

Pro-choice activists need to put a lot more starch into their spines, clarify their bedrock beliefs and learn from their adversaries about the efficacy of persisting.

Women voters, in particular, can declare their independence (here’s a petition to deliver the message) when a president betrays their trust, and use the power of their voices loud and clear: “We elected you and we demand you stop giving our rights away or we will unelect you.”

Because in fact, no, we can’t all get along all the time. If women are to preserve what’s left of our human and civil rights to make childbearing decisions, we must get over thinking we can make everyone happy and, instead, lead ourselves forward to do what we know is right.


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

What Does Choice Mean to Me?

RHRealityCheck asked me to answer this question for the 1/22 anniversary of Roe v Wade. What does choice mean to you?

What does choice mean to me? Forget about Roe v Wade and legalities for a moment. Just a few minutes ago I received this message via e-mail from a professional colleague:

I saw my granddaughter born last March and it is because I value life that I value choice.  I think we should speak out for ourselves – perhaps even as grandmothers who know a thing or two.

So speaking as another grandmother who knows a thing or two (ahem), I’ll be happy to tell you what choice means to me.

Even though I worked within Planned Parenthood for over 30 years, in roles ranging from local volunteer to national CEO, I’ve never diminished the passion for what I believe is women’s human right to make their own childbearing decisions, and I still get goosebumps when someone says to me–as happens almost every day even though I’ve been on my own as a writer for four years now–“You saved my life.” I know what they mean. It isn’t me they are talking about but about things like the birth control pill that allowed me as a 20-year-old mother of three in 1962 to realize I could plan my own life. About being able to get the honest information about sexuality they needed and basic women’s health care they could afford. About having the freedom to consider all their imperfect options when faced with unintended pregnancy and be respected to make their own moral choices without judgment or shame. To be able to welcome their babies into the world with unbridled joy when it is right for them, and to say “not now” when they know it’s not.

Reproductive choice is our right and also our responsibility, an awesome responsibility. But in an even more profound sense, choice is the human condition. It defines us as humans, and we are in turn defined by the choices we make.  Choice is the basis of morality after all, and it is sacrifice as much as it is freedom.

So this grandmother of 12 dedicates Roe’s 37th anniversary to changing the conversation about abortion from a debate about the limits of privacy to an unwavering affirmation that reproductive choice is a fundamental human and civil right and as a result, a health care service that should be covered for all women in any health reform plan regardless of who is paying the premium.

Because if we want our beautiful, wonderful, precious granddaughters to have an equal place in this world, then our society must value their choices as much as we grandmothers value their lives.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Penetrating Sotomayor’s Judicial Philosophy: My Interview With Diane Walsh

The Glass Wall: The People vs. Obama’s Supreme Court nomination
by Diane Walsh
Penetrating Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy is proving no easy task. Will we get the information we need to properly evaluate the merits of the US President’s ambiguous choice for the high court – before it’s too late? The media is in a frenzied state over this nominee – Judge Sonia Sotomayor. One would expect this, given the stakes that her nomination holds for the fate of abortion rights – which are currently hanging in the balance.

What is Sotomayor’s view about a woman’s right to make childbearing decisions? Oddly, there is nothing concrete that we know about her actual judicial philosophy. No one seems to know exactly – because there is no clear answer being laid bare.

This is creating much unease on both sides of the political spectrum. There is a fundamental lack of information flowing. This is unacceptable. I decided to seek out Gloria Feldt, former president of US Planned Parenthood, to get her take on the Sotomayor nomination. She’s the quintessential trailblazer of the pro-choice lobby.

Gloria initiated the Prevention First Act and reintroduction of a new, improved, Freedom of Choice Act. Her “fight forward” mission is further exemplified on her blogs and through her speeches and writings, all accessible through her website:, including 30 years on the frontline. So, needless to say, she’s in a position to evaluate the ‘threats’ that Sotomayor presents, if any, should Sotomayor be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice.

Diane Walsh: Have you managed to find out whether Judge Sotomayor believes that Roe vs. Wade is “settled law” (under the precept of stare decisis)?

Gloria Feldt: Based on her previous rulings and past approach to judging, it is reasonable to assume that she will say Roe is settled law, but then so did John Roberts and Samuel Alito and we have already seen how meaningless that was in the Gonzales v Carhart ruling. The Court has and can continue to make abortion less and less accessible while maintaining Roe as “settled law”. So even if Sotomayor issued a notarized statement that she believes Roe is settled law, it would be cold comfort to women. The question I want answered is: what is her judicial perspective on who has the right to make childbearing decisions? Roe is almost useless now as a basis for reproductive rights, though privacy remains an important principle and I wouldn’t want to see Roe overturned–as I wrote here, though, we must get beyond Roe and on to human rights for women.

DW: What have you found out that could make us confident that she could be counted on as someone that would ‘definitively and always’ rule essentially pro-choice?

GF: I am not confident at all for two reasons. First, Obama’s spokespersons say he didn’t ask her the questions. That raises a big red flag. Why didn’t he ask, since he said during the campaign that he wouldn’t appoint a judge who would not support a woman’s right to choose? Second, both of her rulings related to reproductive rights have come down on the side of those who will stop at nothing to strip women of the human and civil right to make their own childbearing decisions. Doesn’t [the] murder of Dr. George Tiller [on May 31st, 2009] chillingly remind us of why we must not appease them?

DW: Ditto. Here’s a snapshot of Sotomayor’s climb up the ladder: As an assistant District Attorney (in NYC), early on in her career, she happily threw the book at, as it were, thieves and prostitutes and other so-called ‘undesirables’ of the times; but, later, she is seen to get involved with social housing issues dealing with the poor. Then, later again, she becomes involved with corporatist-leaning projects suggesting that overall she doesn’t necessarily sit on the left side of the political spectrum. You can say if you agree with the characterization, of course. But keeping her ‘history’ in mind, and, also, tracking back to the time of Robert Bork’s nomination, and the grandstanding that he, at that time, was allowed to do – when it was ‘right’ for Republicans to hear about ‘their’ Justices beliefs – I ask you this [following] question, in the context of today’s political climate: Do you not think it is reasonable to hear the political philosophies of Supreme Court nominees?

GF: If we could only get straight answers about judicial philosophies – that would be a giant step forward!

DW: Have we seen a pattern of ‘deciding Justices in secret’, culminating in the present state of affairs? Let me frame this question in more detail: As a public, we don’t even truly know where Sotomayor stands on abortion, strictly speaking. For instance, the last info release NARAL put out to its list members is to encourage us to push to get a fair hearing to be able to ask Sotomayor questions! That is to say we are practically begging to even be able to ask questions of her. How does this work? Is there not something wrong with this picture, that we feel we are in a state of not-knowing?

GF: It’s been said that the role of advocacy is to make it impossible for those in power not to do the right thing. I am more deeply concerned that most of the pro-choice groups aren’t asking their questions pointedly enough and vigorously enough to get meaningful answers. This does not augur well for how much our concerns will be addressed in future appointments, for we all know the squeaky wheel get the attention.

DW: Apparently, President Obama personally knew four other possible nominees – but not the vetted Sotomayor – and she is the one chosen. Does this strike you as a little odd? Janet Napolitano, of the Department of Homeland Security, when questioned, showed extreme ignorance about US-Canada border issues. Yet she was put forth.
What does this say about President Obama’s judgement?

GF: I asked myself this question too as a former CEO. Often I’ve seen a tough decision get made like this: there are many competing recommendations each with good supporting arguments, but none is perfect. The leader is stuck. Then late in the game, someone comes in with a completely new idea, and it is chosen with minimal vetting but great relief. I am not saying this is what happened—I wasn’t in the room. But from the scenario described in the press, I wouldn’t be surprised.

DW: Who would you, Gloria, have liked to see nominated?

GF: I am thrilled at the idea of the first Latina justice. And I think it was essential that he nominate a woman. Fortunately, we now have a deep bench of highly qualified women on the progressive side. I would have preferred to see one of the women whose deep scholarly roots in liberal judicial philosophy might have served to pull the court back toward the center. Someone like Kathleen Sullivan or Pamela Karlan. Both, I believe are Stanford professors. We seriously need someone on the left who can balance Scalia on the right both intellectually and with the same strength of conviction. I am enthusiastic about a Latina and another woman on the court. We’re all best served when our legislatures and courts look like America. But I have expressed concerns about Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy on reproductive rights.

DW: There is a brewing conversation about Sotomayor’s 2002 decision, a case involving the Centre for Reproductive Law v. Bush whereby she upheld the then Bush Administration’s implementation of the Mexico City Policy, that says that “the United States will no longer contribute to separate nongovernmental organizations which perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.” – and thought by many, on the left, to be quite ghastly. In brief; apparently Sotomayor contended that the policy did not constitute a violation because, she argued, “the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds. Clearly this is fraught with difficulties. What is your view about this? What are your feelings about this decision? Does it take away from Sotomayor’s credibility as far as her being someone the Pro-choice lobby can rely upon to defend the rights of women when it comes to reproductive choice?

GF: To refer back to your fist question, she will claim this was stare decisis, that she stood on precedent, and that is likely to be viewed positively by both Senate Republicans and many Democrats. But several aspects of this decision concern me:

First, she wrote it. So it must illustrate how she approaches such cases. Given that most of the significant cases interpreting Roe since 1973 have been steps backward for women, stare decisis these days means trouble for reproductive rights—not just abortion but also contraception and pregnancy rights.

Second, the ruling rejects CRR’s claim for standing, which would have perhaps allowed them to raise new questions about the gag rule that had not been considered in previous cases, and thus might have allowed even a stare decisis court to relook at some of the issues involved.

Third, often if a judge feels compelled by precedent to uphold a law she feels is unjust, she will write the ruling in a way that suggests to the appellant how to ask the question differently in the future to have a better chance for the court to reconsider the issue. Sotomayor not only didn’t do that; the ruling’s language is clear and simple, offering no wiggle room or invitation to further challenge the gag rule which violates both medical ethics and the first amendment.

DW: What can we do to make things more certain?

GF: We can’t. You never really know what a justice will do until he or she has been on the bench for 5, 10, 20 years. Who would have thought the rather conservative Republican Harry Blackmun would have become the architect of Roe v Wade? But please see my answers to questions 5 and 13 for additional comment on this question.

DW: The Judiciary Committee will of course screen her. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Democrats rejected her and Republicans were seen to support her? Shouldn’t that make progressive Democrats suspicious? Wouldn’t that speak volumes but by then be too late? What would the consequence of this slap to President Obama?

GF: Oh the irony of politics. But this is too speculative to answer right now. In any case, I predict she will sail through, for good or ill, barring the release of some damaging personal information.

DW: Should Obama’s remarks about the need to look for “common ground” not make us all into skeptics given what is frankly, an all-out warring terrain governing pro-life versus pro-choice? Especially since he has said outright that he personally doesn’t like abortion but of course understands that it needs to be available – as if he’s doing us all (on the pro-choice side) – a favor! Because he personally opposes abortion – theoretically, that is – as far as he, himself, is concerned; he cleverly manages to remove any kind of ownership over the issue when advocating the need to make some abortion service available – qualified by programs and abstinence and what ever else he can say to deflect the spotlight. More over, what’s even more shocking is he apparently never asked Sotomayor what her position was on abortion before choosing her. So what he’s asking of us is to trust him. It’s not good enough.

GF: It is infuriating that Obama demonstrates so much leadership and courage on other issues, but when it comes to these most fundamental of women’s rights he demurs, deflects, looks for “common ground”, when on reproductive rights, health, and justice issues, the prochoice position clearly is the common ground. He should just declare it so and move on with a positive agenda such as the Freedom of Choice Act.

DW: What do you know about Sotomayor that could make the rest of us more comfortable with her?

GF: We should not be comfortable. We must continue to ask the questions and persist until we get the answers. And even if we get the answers we want, we must continue to demonstrate grassroots political strength at the ballot box and in legislative policy if we want our views on equality and justice for women to prevail in the courtroom

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Justice Ginsburg’s Right About Roe, Wrong About Solution

Several people have e-mailed me today to ask what I thought about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments about the Roe v Wade decision in today’s New York Times.

“The court bit off more than it could chew,” Justice Ginsburg said in remarks after a speech at Princeton in October. It would have been enough, she said, to strike down the extremely restrictive Texas law at issue in Roe and leave further questions for later cases.

“The legislatures all over the United States were moving on this question,” she added. “The law was in a state of flux.”

Roe shut those developments down and created a backlash that lasts to this day.

“The Supreme Court’s decision was a perfect rallying point for people who disagreed with the notion that it should be a woman’s choice,” Justice Ginsburg said. “They could, instead of fighting in the trenches legislature by legislature, go after this decision by unelected judges.”

It’s also old news that Ginsburg believes, as many others have said over the years that the Court’s decision in Roe leapfrogged over public opinion that was heading in the prochoice direction anyway, so they should have just waited for the legislative process to work.

Seems to me that if you buy that, then you would also buy the notion that the court should not have decided Brown v Board of Education when they did, and in both cases you would be totally wrong from a social justice perspective.

If your goal is not to upset the applecart, then maybe you could make the argument that Roe was too much too soon. But as they say, justice delayed is justice denied. And pray tell, why should women so often be the ones who are told they should wait?

Ginsburg has long been on record also that she thinks the Roe decision wasn’t a sustainable one because it wasn’t based in women’s rights but in privacy. I agree with her completely on that score and in the interest of efficiency, here’s a link to an article I wrote for Democracy Journal on why Roe was necessary but not sufficient, and why I believe we must build a human rights basis for reproductive justice legally and culturally.

Interestingly, the article in which Ginsburg was quoted about Roe today was relating the “wait till the legislatures catch up with you” the same notion to gay rights an same sex marriage. And it’s just as wrong-headed there as it is in regard to any other civil right, if for no other reason than American citizens shouldn’t have to deal with a patchwork of state laws where some states respect them as equal citizens and some don’t.

And she shares her opinions on why she thinks it is appropriate for the U.S. to consider rulings by foreign courts in its decisions in another Times article today. Perhaps she might want to take a look at Supreme Courts in countries such as Mexico that are increasingly ruling in favor of reproductive rights to see that the U.S. is in good company.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Liveblog: Pro-Choice Messaging for a New Era


Welcome everyone to RH Reality Check’s second in our monthly series of live-chats on the reproductive health and rights issues facing the country today.

Of course, today is the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and President Obama is at the helm. We have a lot about which to be hopeful (and thankful) when it comes to global reproductive justice!

Today’s discussion is titled Pro-Choice Messaging’s New Wave or Passing Ship?   And I thank everyone for coming, participating in the discussion and asking your questions! We are so honored to be joined by two experienced, passionate, thoughtful leaders in the journey towards reproductive justice!

Former Planned Parenthood Federation president, author and activist, Gloria Feldt, and Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota’s president Sarah Stoesz, one of the leaders in the successful fight against the abortion ban in South Dakota this past November.

Gloria and Sarah will discuss, and debate, what kinds of messaging worked in the unique fight in South Dakota – an extremely conservative state – and what kinds of messaging may be overall more harmful to the larger movement.

Please submit your questions whenever you’d like and we will try to get to as many as possible.

The chat lasts for one hour and soon after we will have the transcript available on the homepage of our site.

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:52 AmieN

With that introduction, we can start. We’ve already received some reader questions which we will get to shortly! My first question to start things off is for Sarah.

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:58 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

I want to start out by extending my empathy, sympathy, and courage to Sarah after the violent attack on her clinic this morning.

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:58 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

Thank you, I appreciate it, Gloria. As a veteran leader of our movement you know all too well what these experiences feel like.

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:59 Sarah Stoesz

Thanks, Gloria. As we all do, absolutely. Are you all safe and is the clinic okay?

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:59 AmieN
Sarah Stoesz:

Fortunately no one was hurt, and services were uninterrupted, but it does underscore how much work we have to do in our community and nationwide.

Thursday January 22, 2009 2:59 Sarah Stoesz

(For readers wanting to know more about the attack on Sarah’s Planned Parenthood clinic in Minnesota, click here.)

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:00 Brady

Absolutely, Sarah. You all have done a lot of great work. Can you talk a bit about why you think the South Dakota campaign’s messages and stories used to challenge Measure 11, the abortion ban that was defeated in November,   resonated with South Dakotans? In other words, as Kay wrote in her article on RH Reality Check about the defeat, how does a state in which most voters would probably still identify as pro-life manage to defeat abortion bans twice?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:00 AmieN

And for our readers, once again, thank you for your questions and we will get to them in the order we receive them or as they are relevant. Thank you so much!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:02 AmieN
Sarah Stoesz:

You’re right, Amie. Most voters in SD, by a sizeable margin, do still self-identify as “pro-life”; however, people are capable of complex moral reasoning, and what I’ve learned is that treating people with respect, especially when we are in disagreement, is essential to establishing mutual trust and conversation.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:02 Sarah Stoesz
Sarah Stoesz:

So, when we listen to the voters and understood their concerns, and approached them with open mindedness and respect, they were willing to do the same for us.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:03 Sarah Stoesz
Sarah Stoesz:

It’s more than a messaging strategy, it’s a political strategy that involves allowing people to be morally conflicted about abortion, while at the same time asking them to keep abortion legal.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:03 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

More than anything, I think, voters respond to authenticity and moral clarity.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:04 Gloria Feldt

Do you think the pro-choice movement is afraid of keeping this idea of being morally conflicted about abortion as part of our strategy – whether political or messaging wise?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:04 AmieN

And as an extension to that question: What kind of moral reasoning did you see? How were voters able to explain their positions to themselves? “I oppose abortion morally, but … “

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:05 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

I think that when people are under seige for so long, there is a tendency to close ranks as self protection. But in truth, the moral breadth of our position is what is so powerful and what ultimately wins almost every ballot initiative we have fought.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:06 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

I wouldn’t say afraid. I would say inexperienced with this idea. It’s hard for all of us to let go of tried and true language that we’ve relied on for many years. But in point of fact, our refusal to acknowledge genuine moral ambiguity is not helpful and does not move the conversation forward.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:06 Sarah Stoesz

Marcy Bloom asks, then, Hi, Sarah and Gloria. When you discuss moral clarity and conflict. ho you believe it is successful and “appealing “to use the concept of women as moral and ethical decision-makers? Does that resonate?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:07 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

I want to clarify something–appreciating moral ambiguity does not mean moral relativity, or that we don’t have moral values/beliefs.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:08 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

Marcy, yes, emphatically.The secret of the anti-choice efforts’ success has always been rooted in their moral clarity. That gives them a simple and authentic argument. We have that ability too. We shouldn’t be flippant (eg, phrases like rosaries off our ovaries, Bush stay out of mine, etc). But elevate the debate to a higher moral plane of women’s human rights, justice, moral agency. Then justify that position with stories, illustrations of healthy happy families, drawing the bigger map about childbearing choices that includes birth control, prevention, health, etc.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:09 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

Good question, Marcy. I would say that is not an argument we would take to the voters of SD if we want to win these ballot campaigns.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:09 Sarah Stoesz
Sarah Stoesz:

Gloria, I think those are fine arguments in certain parts of the country but they do not work in places like South Dakota, and that is unfortunately where these battles are being fought.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:11 Sarah Stoesz

Thanks Sarah.   Ok, next question comes from Deborah Kotz of US News and World Report…   Is there any way you see (in terms of the messages you send) that can unite most Americans when it comes to abortions? The vast majority favor a woman’s right to choose but also believe there should be some restrictions on abortions. I’m not sure how many will be in favor of using their taxpayer funds to pay for abortions–which would occur if the Freedom of Choice Act passes. Do you have any message to unite yourselves with those in favor of choice but personally against abortions or using their tax dollars to pay for them?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:11 Brady
Gloria Feldt:

Sarah, I would agree with you in part and disagree in part. fighting ballot initiatives is a very particular skill. But I would suggest that even in those localized situations, our responsibility as movement leaders is to start where people are and move them to where we want them to be. Ballot initiaves can be a great teaching tool.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:12 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

I just want to give my red state bona fides to those who don’t know.We’ve always had an axiom in the movement that everybody thinks she lives in the most conservative state. Certainly SD would be a contender. So would Arizona and Texas, the two places where I led PP affiliates for 22 years. I understand red states better than blue ones, to be honest. In AZ in 1992, we defeated a ballot initiative to ourlaw abortion except for rape and incest by 67% to 33%, the highest margin of any initiative to tha date.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:13 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

I lived almost all my life in the most conservative areas first of Texas and then of Arizona. So I do understand how hard it is to be in that crucible.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:14 Gloria Feldt

Yes, Gloria. And while Colorado was blue this time around it certainly hasn’t always been and the personhood amendment there went up in flames this year. Sarah, as Gloria says, how can we meet certain people where they are at but also teach and work towards change. We dont’ want to tell someone they are flat out wrong but that discrimination is wrong, that ownerhip of womens’ bodies is wrong. In other words – the person’s opinion isn’t wrong but the underlying issues. Anna Clark asks: How can pro-choice activists support each other in recognizing that moral complexity of the public–rather than letting ourselves be defined as the simple “opposite” of those opposed to legal abortion?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:14 AmieN

Readers and participants – your questions are fantastic and we hope to be able to get to as many as possible! Thank you!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:16 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

To me, the egg debate in CO has a huge silver lining. After decades of defending Roe, the women’s movement must address the question it has long avoided: the value of a woman and her life. Roe was a meaningful and necessary advance, but its grounding in privacy rights portended that it could not stand forever. So though it feels scary in a way, it is a great time to set a bold new agenda based on justice and human rights and secure the policies and social support that make rights meaningful. Maybe Marcy can comment on how they get the human rights basis in Mexico…we should really watch how things continue to unfold there.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:16 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

To get back to Deborah’s question – what we did in SD can be done elsewhere. We started by respecting people who see the world differently than we do and listened to their concerns. We didn’t ask them to abandon their moral opposition to abortion. We just asked them to keep it legal.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:17 Sarah Stoesz

Thank you, Sarah. We have another question for you. Also, we’d love to get Marcy’s vision in response to Gloria’s question. Marcy Bloom is a consultant with GIRE, a reproductive rights advocacy organization working in Mexico for abortion rights.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:18 AmieN

For Sarah: Hi Sarah. I was in the Rapid City office volunteering with Healthy Families during IM 11, and had a question about the messaging that I was told to use on my canvassing trips. We were told explicitly not to focus on women or choice; why do you think that was necessary for a victory in South Dakota? Also, there was talk of a hidden pro-choice movement that I, personally, didn’t see much evidence of. Can you expand on that idea at all?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:19 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

Deborah, thanks for that excellent question that goes right into the political realities. To answer it, I need to separate out what I think a movement should do to keep advancing toward full justice for women and the realities of moving a piece of legislation forward. We have to go on two tracks.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:19 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

If we had used pro-choice rhetoric in South Dakota, we would have lost. No question about it.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:20 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

The FOCA can be a teacher. It can provide the platform for us to talk about why abortion coverage is fair and just–two more great American values. Note i said “coverage”, not funding, because that is accurate.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:20 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

To further answer your question, there is not a hidden pro-choice movement in SD. There is a movement to keep government out of personal decision making, and that means no abortion bans.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:21 Sarah Stoesz
[Comment From Marcy BloomMarcy Bloom: ]

Thank you, Gloria. When the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in August that abortion is a constitutional right, they emphasized the critical aspects of women’s human rights, equality, discrimination, and unique health needs of women that were key to their lives and different from the limitations of Roe’s privacy right.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:21 Marcy Bloom
Gloria Feldt:

But FOCA as it is curently written is so much more. It is a human rights-based civil rights bill that says teh government can’t discrimimate against you if you decide to have or not have a child. Two sides of the same coin. That’s what reproductive justice is. So having an agenda that gives us the opportunity to talk about these issues even if the bill doesn’t pass in the near future is valuable.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:22 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

Sarah, how do you define “pro-choice rhetoric?” I want to understand better what you are referring to.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:24 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

We didn’t use the words “pro-choice” in any of our campaigning because to “pro-life” voters in SD, choice is not the point. And it’s the “pro-life” voters that we needed to convince.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:25 Sarah Stoesz

Gloria, the way the anti-choice leaders are framing FOCA though, is by saying that it is the most “pro-abortion” legislation to ever be introduced. They have seized on FOCA as an all powerful piece of legislation and it’s hard then to go back and frame it, on our side, as something that isn’t that. Is part of our challenge the pro-activity with which we approach legislative and other fights?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:25 Brady
Gloria Feldt:

Oh, thanks for that clarification, sarah. Re choice, it remains a positive value for the public but as currently understood it would never trump life. It seems hard to remove it from the lexicon—I tried and failed—good luck if you can do it—it seems to be a handy code word for a larger philosophy of less government intrusion, and people take it to include birth control, abortion, and other childbearing issues. I think the word could be rebranded to be what it is—the basis of all morality. But that would be enormously expensive and a very difficult leadership heave for whoever has to make it happen.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:28 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

You’re right, Gloria, and fortunately we don’t have to make it happen. We can move on.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:29 Sarah Stoesz

Kristen Sherk asks… Hi, Sarah and Gloria – You raise the important point that one message can’t work for every audience. But as a movement, how do we embrace both those who are morally ambivalent about abortion without invalidating the experiences of women who have chosen to have abortions?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:29 Brady

And as a related comment: Judith Steinhart says, The issue of abortion is so emotionally charged. I don’t think anyone likes it, which is why prevention is so important, but to be able to have the option is critical, for a woman to be able to make a choice and to have qualiity healthcare rather than take it upon herself

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:29 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

Brady, of course we knew that’s how they would try to frame it. All the more reason why we need to keep saying what it is, educating people, and at all times using language that reflects the highest moral principles.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:30 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

Thanks Brady. Why can’t we just say “you have a right to your moral ambivalence, and we understand and respect it.”? At the same time, government should not be the decision making agent for women.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:31 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

Hi Kirsten. ah yes, the great conundrum. A college student in the course I am teaching came to me after class yesterday and expressed her dismay that we always talk about women’s stories when they were victims, but never about women who simply make what they think are responsible decision about their own lives and aspirations for themselves and their future children. This troubles me, as it troubles her. she said it made her feel very bad…I don’t know her personal story, but I can imagine.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:33 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

Sarah, but let’s add to that formulation: I feel equally strongly about my moral position and I ask you to respect me in the same way I respect you.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:34 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

In fact, Gloria, that’s what we did. And the voters of SD, twice in two election years, did respect us.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:35 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

We don’t serve ourselves so well when we just acknowledge the other side’s right to their moral view and balance it with moral relativity. I suggest that our message is stronger when we start from our own moral clarity and acknowledge that many people are ambivalent, hold differing positions, etc. and in a pluralistic society, we need to respect that.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:35 Gloria Feldt

Sarah and Gloria – there are more and more publications and groups that are doing that – presenting the moral ambiguity, the varying experiences of women and I think it is critical that we recognize and validate all womens’ experiences. But, unfortunately, there cannot be ambiguity when it comes to public policy. As an example, the HHS regulations. We simply cannot allow some to use their own moral code as a way to prevent others from receiving and accessing services. This is where they ambiguity gest difficult, no?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:36 AmieN

I’m sorry about my typos!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:36 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

Amie, thank you for your typos. they make me feel less dorky.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:37 Gloria Feldt

That’s what I’m here for!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:37 AmieN

And, relatedly from a reader:   It seems that the pro-choice movement is also critically concerned, though, with “outing” anti-choicers as anti-contraception, too — in other words, they’re opposed to women’s reproductive and sexual freedom, and their moral hesitation around abortion is a convenient smokescreen. Sarah, is that an entirely distancing and disrespectful way to cast their position?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:38 AmieN
Sarah Stoesz:

No it’s not difficult, because people who have moral ambiguity about birth control should not work in a clinic, and we should be able to hire people in our clinics who support our mission. We’re not asking all voters to work in our clinics, we’re just asking them to allow us to provide health care to women.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:38 Sarah Stoesz
Sarah Stoesz:

To respond to the reader’s question, the leadership of the anti-abortion rights movement/anti-contraception movement are not reflective of the mainstream voters in SD who have defeated abortion bans. There’s a clear disconnect between the leadership’s agenda and the voters on the ground.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:40 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

To go back to Roe on this 36th anniversary, it is both the solution to and the cause of some of our problems, especially the one Amie raises. This is just a tad radical, but I propose (as Justice Ginsburg has always said) we now must shift the legal framework from one based on privacy to one based on equal protection such as FOCA. The language of the debate must be elevated accordingly, and advocates must create a steady stream of policy initiatives to protect and expand reproductive rights, health care access, and justice. No time to rest after the great celebration Tuesday!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:40 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

I couldn’t agree more with Sarah re the contraception issue. I delineated the connection clearly in The War on Choice.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:41 Gloria Feldt

Sarah, excellent point and one with which I agree. Unfortunately, though they are not representative of most voters they wield enormous power. And so, as Gloria wrote, is now the time to be as pro-active as possible in both our messaging and political strategy? Julia, a reader, writes:   I find it’s often difficult to attract people’s attention to reproductive justice issues because financial, housing, food security, etc. concerns are more immediate in people’s day-to-day lives. How do we get the general public to understand that legal abortion and, more generally, reproductive justice are core human rights issues that affect everyone? What kind of messaging can we employ to capture people’s attention?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:42 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

That said, there are many pro-birth control, anti-choice people with whom we can work very effectively–and should.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:42 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

To Julia’s Q: I am jazzed that the U.S. Senate is today debating the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay act. economic and reproductive justice, as many women of color especially have beeen telling us for years, are inextricably linked. That’s why the words “barefoot and pregnant” have always resonated.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:44 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

Oops, to complete my thought to Julia, I am jazzed that Ledbetter is being debated on Roe Day.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:45 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

Amie, it depends on what you mean by being proactive. I certainly think that now is the time to push as hard as possible to ensure universal access to birth control and inclusion of abortion in the health care reform debates that are raging across the country in state capitals and in Washington. I think that our electoral victories have demonstrated to politicians that they need not be afraid of the abortion issue and that they need not turn away from it. In the past abortion has been used as a wedge issue to divide the progressive coalition and we’ve now demonstrated in South Dakota that abortion can be a unifying issue.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:46 Sarah Stoesz

Sarah – how did younger voters differ from older voters in SD on Measure 11? And Gloria and Sarah, are these messages resonating with younger people? Mia, a reader asks, How can those of us interested in the protection of reproductive rights best appeal to the younger generations to care about this issue as well?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:47 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

Amie, to answer your queston about geting the public’s attention, Religion Dispatches had an excellent piece today about the importance of the relitious vioces. Especially note Carleton Veazey’s words, prophetic a always.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:48 Gloria Feldt
[Comment From Sarah StoeszSarah Stoesz: ]

Post-election polling tells us that our messages resonated equally with all demographic groups including church goers and non church goers, young and old.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:49 Sarah Stoesz

Gloria, In your article, in the December 10th issue of Democracy Journal, you write about the history of Roe and the problems with arguing for choice as a “right to privacy” issue. Of the legal battles that have ensured choice, you wrote, “these very victories carried within them the seeds of their own demise, for they were not grounded in women’s moral and legal agency.” Can you tell us more about what you mean by this?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:51 Brady
Gloria Feldt:

To take an example from recent political events: I suggest that Obama’s messaging beat Clinton’s because it elevated people’s moral vision and made them feel good about themselves. It wasn’t carefully parsed to diferent constituencies. It was or at least seemed to be authentic, not to shy away from controversy, and to appeal to people’s higher selves rather than their fears.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:51 Gloria Feldt
[Comment From jenjen: ]

i really hope someone’s writing a book about how the SD abortion bans were faught, i’d love to know more about it

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:51 jen
Sarah Stoesz:

One final point is that for too long the reproductive rights movement shied away from electoral battles, and this was at the expense of building a movement. Litigation doesn’t build movements. Actively engaging ordinary people in debates about important issues does. The most important achievement in SD is that we now have a movement where one did not exist prior to 2006. With this movement we have defeated two bans and we can defeat more if we need to.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:53 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

BRady, Shameless self promotion here: , in case anyone wants to read the article– I reviewed legal history and interviewed Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine and legal expert for xx. Seems that in 1965 when the Supremes took Griswold v Connecticut (which legalized birth control), they had no gender-based civil rights precedents on which to base their ruling. So they used the precedent that there is an unwritten but implied right of privacy in the Constitution. (more in next post)

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:53 Gloria Feldt
Gloria Feldt:

That right of privacy then logically formed the basis of the Roe v Wade decision. The 14th amendment, equal protection, was given a nod but it wasn’t the central rationale. Justice Ginsburg, as I noted previously, has long said that in her view this was a big mistake for women’s reproductive rights, and she has been proven correct. Roe has been subjected to successful attacks since it was decided. At this point it is a mere shell. Any restriction that doesn’t cause an “undue burden” is upheld by the court which finds almost no burdens undue. So in Beyond Roe, I say we have to start over, create a new movement for women’s human and civil rights to make their own childbearing decisions. That’s my challenge to the next generation.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:54 Gloria Feldt

Thank you Gloria and Sarah! Extremely inspiring words from both of you. Sarah, you have built a strong and powerful movement in SD clearly built on an allied vision and one that it seems is mirrored, somewhat, in teh common ground movement PResident Obama is also trying to build. Gloria, the challenge now is certainly to work wtih a younger generation on these issues while making sure they know and understand the history.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:56 AmieN
[Comment From MandyMandy: ]

I guess I would disagree with Sarah on her last point about a movement not existing until 2006+. I’m an activist in SD and myself and many others think that these bans and the way they were handled actually hurt our already-existent movement.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:56 Mandy
Gloria Feldt:

Sarah, you are so right. Litigation strategy is helpful in many ways, but especially now when the courts are owned lock, stock, and barrel by the right, litigation has limited value. The next wave is person by person, vote by vote, state by state.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:56 Gloria Feldt
[Comment From Marcy BloomMarcy Bloom: ]

Could we hear more from Mandy?

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:57 Marcy Bloom
Sarah Stoesz:

Thanks Gloria. It’s great to hear your voice through your words. Keep up the good work.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:58 Sarah Stoesz
Gloria Feldt:

So my parting shot to the younger folks in our movement is to keep true to your convictions and never stop fighting forward proactively. At the core of opposition to abortion and birth control is opposition to women’s independent moral agency. It’s our responsibility to move people toward greater support for women’s equality and justice. . That’s not easy. I know the temptation to narrow the argument is strong. But then if it were easy, they would have sent less capable people to do the job, right? JFK said about going to the moon,”We do this not because it’s easy but because it is hard.’

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:58 Gloria Feldt

Thank you, Gloria. Sarah do you have any parting thoughts? Thank you to Sarah and Gloria for their excellent work on behalf of the reproductive rights movement, for agreeing to spend part of the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with us – at this moment in history. We clearly disagree in some ways on messaging and strategy but we all have a larger vision for a world in which women’s lives are respected and our status elevated. I hope we can continue the debate and discussion, respectfully and productively!

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:59 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

And thanks Sarah for your kind words but more so for your leadership. It is truly a pleasure to share this conversation with you.

Thursday January 22, 2009 3:59 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

The important lesson is that we should never shy away from an attempt to have a debate about abortion before the electorate, even in conservative parts of the country. Abortion may be morally uncomfortable for some people, but very few want to ban it. We should embrace debate about abortion with our neighbors wherever we live, and never, ever be afraid to talk about it publically, as long as we are willing to listen to those who disagree with us.

Thursday January 22, 2009 4:01 Sarah Stoesz

And thank you to our readers and all who submitted questions and participated in the discussion. We are still working through the technology for these live-blog chats monthly. If you have questions, comments, complaints, suggestions, feel free to email us at We do want to hear from you! Gloria and Sarah, stay safe and thank you again for sharing your time and expertise with all of us!

Thursday January 22, 2009 4:02 AmieN
Gloria Feldt:

Thanks to all who participated. Onward.

Thursday January 22, 2009 4:03 Gloria Feldt
Sarah Stoesz:

Thanks so much.

Thursday January 22, 2009 4:03 Sarah Stoesz

A transcript of this discussion will be available shortly on the homepage of RH Reality Check! Thanks again, all!

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Roe v Wade Anniversary Thank-You to Sarah Weddington

Today, on the 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade, I salute Sarah Weddington.

I first met Sarah, the lawyer who successfully argued Roe v Wade before the U.S. Supreme court when she was just 27 years old, in a church meeting room in Midland TX. Yes, the heart of George Bush country where we both had roots. It was around 1975, I was the relatively new executive director of Planned Parenthood of West Texas, then called Permian Basin Planned Parenthood, and the topic that brought together a number of family planning providers from the wide expanse of West Texas was legislation to allow nurse practioners to work in our health centers so that more women could get birth control and related health services to prevent unintended pregnancy and plan wanted ones. The demand from women desiring to plan and space their childbearing was clearly outstripping the supply of services available to them.

As a state legislator, Sarah continued her commitment to women by working tirelessly to make sure they could get access to reproductive health services. She understood that legality is one thing; access can be quite another, and rights without access are meaningless.

Sarah continues now to speak, write, teach, and work on behalf of women. Her accomplishments are legendary and too numerous to mention. But the most striking thing about Sarah is that she is such a great friend and a generous, devoted colleague in the continuing movement to secure the human rights of women to make their own childbearing decisions.

I wrote in Democracy Journal recently about how American society has changed so dramatically since Roe, 36 years ago. (Here’s the link to the full article here on Heartfeldt.) What was once considered private is a very public issue again. The next phase of our long trajectory toward women’s full personhood requires that we build a movement anew from the ground up—person by person, state by state, vote by vote, step by step. I know Sarah will be there on the frontlines.

Will you be there too?

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Beyond Roe: Toward Human Rights for Women

With a new Obama administration about to begin, timing couldn’t be more perfect for a fresh look at reproductive rights, health, and justice policies.

I reviewed the book Our Bodies, Our Crimes, by Fordham sociology Professor Jeanne Flavin, for Democracy: a Journal of Ideas. DJ asked me to write the review as an essay about reproductive rights. I’m reprinting it here with their permission. It’s longish, but stay with me and let me know what you think!

Privacy Goes Public

Author Jane Smiley rightly observed that pregnancy is the most public of conditions. Check-out counter magazines flash baby bumps as routinely as they offer ten-minute meals. Whether Angelina Jolie or Bristol Palin, bump watch is rampant. Yet abortion, which in my experience of three decades on the frontlines of the reproductive justice movement is as much a part of making families as childbirth, rarely elicits so forthright a pop culture mention. The wildly popular movie “Juno” boasts hip, smart dialogue that glosses over the reality that a young woman’s life is unalterably changed by a pregnancy, no matter what option she chooses. The film “Knocked Up” reinforces the narrative that all a woman needs to find her bliss is any jerk of a man to get her pregnant and take her away from a meaningless high-powered professional life (abortion, meanwhile, is hardly mentioned—literally: The film referred to it euphemistically as “smashmortion”).

But if the realities of abortion are often overlooked, its potency as a political weapon for the right remains strong, despite well-deserved post-election euphoria that Americans—thanks to an seven percent female-tilted gender gap–elected a pro-choice president, 26 additional pro-choice members of Congress, and defeated three anti-choice ballot initiatives. We deserve to celebrate for about five minutes. Then there is much work to repair the Bush administration’s damage and continue the long march toward reproductive justice. Here’s the landscape.

Today, nearly half a century since the birth control pill arrived in 1960, contraception was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965, and pre-viability abortion was legalized by Roe v. Wade in 1973, the purposefulness of pregnancy among most women in America is sure evidence that many victories have been won. Yet these victories carried within them the seeds of their own demise, for they were not grounded in women’s moral and legal agency for which the law should provide protection equal to men’s—the right to one’s own life—but in a right never deemed an absolute value by the Court or the court of public opinion, the right to privacy.

Paradoxically, personal freedoms to make childbearing decisions privately had to be won through the political process. That’s how the state of a woman’s uterus became the most public of political battlegrounds. Griswold and Roe didn’t end the fight for dominance over women’s sexual and procreative lives; they started a new round. Look no further than the stringently anti-choice Sarah Palin to see how the right’s assault on reproductive privacy hoists even its own zealous advocate on its petard. Mother Palin insisted we respect her family’s privacy concerning her Down Syndrome baby and her 17-year-old daughter’s “choice” to continue her pregnancy and marry her high school boyfriend, while Candidate Palin campaigned on the draconian Republican platform to strip other women of their childbearing choices.

Like water on porous stone, the right has slowly eroded the vulnerable legal protections of Griswold and Roe. A cascade of more than 30 post-Roe Supreme Court decisions—starting with 1980’s Harris v. McRae (upholding the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on Medicaid abortion coverage) through Planned Parenthood v. Casey (allowing legislatures to restrict abortion in any way that does not create an “undue burden”)—laid a smooth path for 2007’s Gonzales v. Carhart decision, which upheld the first ever federal abortion ban (misnamed the Partial Birth Abortion Act). The Roberts Court reversed its often-reaffirmed precedent that women’s health is paramount in abortion law, and it used anti-abortion code language to signal that it will likely allow states and Congress to limit women’s reproductive rights further. Even Barack Obama’s presidency can’t soon change the reality that lower Federal Courts are now dominated by anti-choice judges and the Supreme Court stands one unreliable Anthony Kennedy vote away from eviscerating Roe entirely; plus the oldest justices, most likely to retire to make way for Obama appointments, are those in the pro-choice bloc.

Roe has been de facto, if not technically, overturned. Carhart’s language drips with such disrespect for women that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg charged it “reflects ancient notions about women’s place.” Those ancient notions are alive and well today.

This year, emboldened by the juridical trend, abortion foes in Colorado revealed their endgame, proposing a state ballot initiative to create personhood rights for fertilized eggs from the moment of fertilization, flouting the medical definition of pregnancy (implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus) and making this fertilized egg more important in the law than the woman upon whose body it is wholly dependent. It would have outlawed not just abortion but also most hormonal birth control and IUD’s, since they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. The measure was roundly defeated, helped by fissures between anti-choice groups that advocate incrementally chipping away at abortion and those that pitch the battle at its logical extreme, and by the extraordinary wind beneath Obama’s voter turnout wings. But if experience is any teacher, such measures will return and return again,

The egg debate has a silver lining. After decades of defending Roe, the women’s movement must address the question it has long avoided: the value of a woman and her life. Roe was a meaningful and necessary advance, but its grounding in privacy rights portended that it could not stand forever. It is well past time for the women’s movement, not just policy makers, to set a bold new agenda based on justice and human rights and secure the policies and social support that make rights meaningful.

Our Bodies, Our Crimes
Within this political context, society’s perverse focus on women’s reproductive capacity makes the subtitle of Jeanne Flavin’s book Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America ring very true. The book’s exploration from a feminist perspective of what lies beneath our baby-bump fixation could not be more timely. It’s easy to get mired in debates about abortion techniques, the fetus, or who is “fit” to be pregnant or to mother in the first place. But in reality, the argument, as Ginsburg pointed out, has always been about whether women will have an equal place in the world, and who controls the means of reproduction. Flavin pushes the reader to peel back layers of rhetoric. She lays bare what’s at stake for all women in this seemingly endless debate.

The book’s major sections are organized in reproductive terms: “Begetting,” “Bearing,” “Mothering.” Flavin documents how the maltreatment of women through judgments placed on their reproductive capacity, though frequently reduced in common parlance to the single word “abortion,” actually extend on a continuum from pre-conception through motherhood. This is an important framework within which to ask why such scrutiny, so often translating to oppressive gender-based policies and intrusion upon women’s bodily integrity, has pervaded our history.

To convince readers that “the patriarchal regulation of motherhood” deems a woman’s value to society to come mainly from her sexuality and reproductive capacity, Flavin uses the criminal justice system’s most extreme examples as measure and metaphor. “Our formal systems of criminal justice and public welfare,” she writes, “maintain invidious distinctions between bad women and girls and good ones, welfare recipients and workers, offenders and mothers.” The chapter entitled ‘“Liars and Whiners’: Incarcerated Women’s Right to Reproductive Health” tells one horrendous story after another, of legs shackled together during delivery, tubal pregnancy misdiagnosed as constipation or pelvic inflammation resulting in near death of the inmate, a delay of 18 months between breast cancer diagnosis and starting chemotherapy. Flavin documents the system’s poor reproductive health care practices, especially the lack of preventive care for pregnant women, as a case study of how society devalues women, punishing rather than supporting their reproductive capacity, and in the process harming the fetuses and children the system is supposedly protecting. She also illustrates, with powerful numbers, the system’s inherent racism: Black women are more than twice as likely as Hispanic women and over three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, and thus more likely to be subjected to deficient reproductive health care.

Few women have been to prison, to be sure. But the criminal justice system merely magnifies the disrespect for women’s ownership of their own bodies that permeates society as a whole: lack of access to basic reproductive health care, including contraception and screening for reproductive cancers for millions of uninsured women; barriers to finding and getting a safe abortion, especially if you are young, poor, or live in one of the 87 percent of counties that have no abortion providers; insurance plans that still don’t cover contraception; and the Supreme Court’s assumption that women are incapable of determining when they should carry a pregnancy to term so the state should decide for them. No other civil right is divisible by popular will. Americans either have the right to freedom of religion or they don’t. We don’t vote on this state by state. Why is it so different when it comes to women’s rights to their own bodily integrity?

As a description of what ails us, Our Bodies, Our Crimes offers convincing arguments. But it falls short of prescribing a cure. Though Flavin sounds a ringing plea for women’s empowerment as the desirable outcome, the book does not attempt to create a coherent action framework to get there. That left me morose rather than energized to right these wrongs. The package’s appearance exacerbates the depressing message of the author’s effectively made case: the dreary cover of a woman in handcuffs, the title and chapter titles (“Bad Mothers,” “Innocent Preborn Victims,” “Baby Killers”) repeat anti-choice images of women as criminals just for being women. To what end?

Time to Elevate the Debate

Interestingly, Our Bodies, Our Crimes is itself measure and metaphor for the most vexing strategic mistake made by the reproductive rights movement today: It does not effectively challenge the intellectual framework of those whose mission is to advance the patriarchal regulation of motherhood by stripping women of the hard-won right to make childbearing decisions. (Start with their usurping the term “pro-life,” a complete misnomer.)

As a result, pro-choice political leaders are failing to elevate the debate to a higher, human rights and justice-based value set. When Barack Obama was asked “at what point does a baby get human rights?” during a nationally televised interview with Reverend Rick Warren, he demurred, saying the answer was “above my pay grade.” In doing so, he illustrated the self-inflicted wounds incurred when a movement bases its arguments on the narrowest portions of justice that must be meted out to women to remain legal. Though Obama later acknowledged his answer had been too flippant,he uttered not a word about the woman’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nor did he elevate the discussion, as he had done so eloquently with racism, to an examination of the sexism that puts all responsibility and blame for unintended pregnancy on women. And while he did allude to prevention, it turned out he meant helping women with resources to continue pregnancies and encouraging adoption. This despite being a cosponsor of the omnibus prevention bill, the Prevention First Act, and the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the right to decide whether or not to have a child (there are two sides to the procreation coin, after all) as a civil right, while tracking Roe’s guidelines for restrictions on post-viability abortions.

Such legislation is badly needed not only to restore liberties systematically carved away out of Roe, but also to shift the legal framework from one based on privacy to one based on equal protection. The language of the debate must be elevated accordingly, and advocates must create a steady stream of policy initiatives to protect and expand reproductive rights, health care access, and justice.

We might have John McCain to thank if these initiatives move forward in the new Congress. When he denigrated the notion of “women’s health” (the quotation marks represent his hand gestures as he uttered those ewey, nasty words during the final presidential debate), even complacent pro-choice and mushy middle voters were offended; it drove home how real the threats are to their own personal, ostensibly private, reproductive decisions. But such concern will only propel action if the movement is reinvigorated and courageous enough to take on core justice and equality issues so long submerged under the more palatable privacy and health concerns.

Privacy Good but Not Good Enough

In proposing the movement return almost to its beginning, it is important to take a step back and review why history unfolded as it did. Abortion wasn’t illegal during the early days of our country, and nostrums for pregnancy prevention and termination were widely advertised until, gradually during the nineteenth century, they became illegal state by state, largely to wrest control of women’s medical care away from (mostly female) midwives and give it to (mostly male) physicians. Opponents of birth control argued it would cause promiscuity, sterility, the demise of the family, and the end of the existing (male-dominated) social order.

The American birth control movement began early in the twentieth century, but was largely pamphleteering until Margaret Sanger committed civil disobedience by opening the first clinic in 1916. “No woman,” she said, “can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not become a mother.” Though the law was against her and she was promptly arrested, Sanger’s bold action began an era of step-by-step progress in birth control laws, technology, and public acceptance.

I entered the movement in 1974 as executive director of the fledgling West Texas Planned Parenthood affiliate, just as those who had been involved for years thought all the battles had been won. A woman could still be denied, or fired from, a job if she were to sport that telltale bump; still, it was a heady time. The second wave of the women’s movement was creating firsts for women in jobs, professions, and public life. All this was made possible by reliable birth control, symbolized by The Pill (always referred to in capital letters: The little pink contraceptive’s impact was that profound). It seemed so clear that when people can make babies as a conscious decision, then babies, and the women who birth them, become more highly valued by society. Or so we thought.

I learned on the job the admonition “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” applies to social movements as well as democracies. There were two near-fatal flaws in the otherwise rosy situation. First, the political mistake plaguing all social movements: they suffer the wages of winning. In a pluralistic democracy, no victory is safe from the next wave of activists who organize to champion competing policies. The energy tends to be with insurgents. And it’s an uphill battle to maintain the passionate advocacy that brought about reproductive rights victories.

Second, the platform of legal precedents upon which the Supreme Court built reproductive justice has always been less than sturdy. When the question of whether to legalize birth control came before them, the Court based Griswold v Connecticut on a penumbral right to privacy within the marital relationship, something not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine, explains that since the Court hadn’t yet taken up gender equality issues in the early 1960’s, privacy was the best precedent it had to go on. It turned out to be a haunting rationale: Privacy is highly valued, to be sure, but pit the moral scales of privacy against life, and there is no contest (same with “choice,” though I have always thought the word “choice” could and should be rebranded to convey that choice is the basis for all morality). Roe v. Wade built upon that same right to privacy, sowing the seeds of culture wars so visceral they led Toobin to observe that since Roe, the Court has basically had only two kinds of cases, those about abortion and those not about abortion.

Despite a ringing affirmation of Roe’s notion of privacy concerning consensual gay sex in 2003, Lawrence v. Texas, both the rhetoric and the laws on women’s reproductive rights have been pushed so far backward that Roe’s remaining, fragile shell affords limited real protection. Privacy is a highly valued principle and a cornerstone of modern understanding of the limits of government intrusion, but it does not provide the same affirmation of the value of human life that reproductive self-determination and justice deserve.

In other words, there must be something more than privacy. And there is. A woman’s right to her own life and body has to be elevated to the moral position that supports a human rights framework. This framework must be translatable into civil rights-based legislation that gives access to relevant healthcare, education, supportive counseling, and economic justice, through policies that will be upheld by courts reshaped by presidents who speak without apology about the legitimacy of women’s reproductive self-determination,

What Obama’s Leadership Can Do

America stands at a crossroads for reproductive rights. It remains to be seen whether President Obama will take the way toward a proactive reproductive justice agenda. A pro-choice president does not necessarily equal pro-choice initiatives; Bill Clinton rescinded George H.W. Bush’s executive orders such as the Global Gag Rule, but he never aggressively pursued proactive legislation to expand access to reproductive health care or rights (at least without a great deal of prodding).

Obama should assume leadership on the new reproductive justice agenda, including but not limited to the Freedom of Choice Act, Prevention First Act, and inclusion of the full range of reproductive health care in any expanded or universal health plans. That will only happen if women’s movement constituencies demand it, supply a constant flow of sensible policy measures, and organize to support lawmakers and the president to pass them.

American society has changed dramatically since Roe, almost 36 years ago. What was once considered private is a very public issue again. The next phase of our long trajectory toward women’s full personhood requires that we build a movement anew from the ground up—person by person, state by state, vote by vote, step by step. . With an Obama administration in the lead and Congress tilting pro-choice, there’s a window of opportunity to declare, “Yes, we can!” achieve Flavin’s positive vision for “empowered women” who have real choices. Still, only we the people can determine whether the response resounds: “Yes we will!”

(c) Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Winter, 2009

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

What Did Sarah Learn?

The frisky pit bull bounded out of her debate camp confinement, lipstick glistening under the PBS staging lights. Her black suit might have echoed Susan B. Anthony, were it not for the decidedly un-serious peplum that added a not so subtle, curtsy-cute feminine flourish.

But then nothing about Sarah Palin is either subtle or uncalculated. Just as her glittering rhinestone flag pin, ten times the size of the one on ol’ “Say it ain’t so, Joe” Biden’s lapel, intended to telegraph “I’m a red-blooded, patriotic all-American girl”, her perky (Red Bull enhanced?), “Hey, kin I call ya Joe?” aimed squarely to disarm both her audience and her debate adversary.

I mean, what was Biden going to say?  “No, honey, call me Senator Biden”?

She certainly knew full well her political future and that of her presidential running mate John McCain hung in no small measure on her performance at this, the only vice-presidential debate. To that end, she had practiced forcefully spitting out her most emotion-laden words like  “maverick!” the Republican red meat “tax cuts!” or the ultimate epithet “Washington DC!”, even while flashing a shining smile. And she looked absolutely gleeful when she got to pounce on Biden’s promise that “We will end this war” applause line with her obviously practiced sound bite: “Your plan is the white flag of surrender.”

Palin is a fierce competitor, as her high school basketball teammates knew when they nicknamed her Sarah Barracuda. If you’re a feminist, you’ve got to love the way this woman embraces her powers, both the power of her physical attractiveness and the power of her current political opportunity to become America’s first female vice president. It’s pretty heady, even for someone who said, when told she might become governor someday, that she’d really rather be president. You can’t blame her for going full bore for the brass ring.

The chattering classes used the word “spirited” often in describing the tone and tenor of the debate, and most concluded that Palin didn’t knock it out of the ballpark, but her performance kept McCain-Palin in the game. That was no surprise, since the format agreed to had been designed to favor her particular strengths.

To me, the only real surprise in this debate was how well Biden did. Republican strategist David Gergen said it was the best performance of his life.

Most of the pre-debate speculation had centered on whether Palin would measure up. I was frankly much more worried that Biden would be too smart for his own good—that he would display his deep knowledge and experience as Al Gore did in 2000, and afterward find himself characterized as arrogant.  People like perky a lot more than they like arrogant. And if they don’t like you, it doesn’t matter how smart you are; you won’t get elected.

More than once at Senate hearings, I’ve seen Biden become testy and condescending with women. Anita Hill is a case well known, but I myself have been pointed to publicly by Biden and excoriated for insisting that the Senate Democrats shouldn’t roll over and confirm George Bush’s judicial nominees without evaluating whether their judicial philosophy is consistent with American principles of justice and equality for all, including women.

That why Biden’s reply to debate moderator Gwen Ifill’s question, “Can you bring up a single policy issue where you had to change your position over time due to changed circumstances?” was to me the pivotal point of the debate.  It spoke volumes about the man’s character, his principles, and his willingness to learn.

“Yes,” he said without skipping a beat.

I was of the view that the only criteria for judges is judicial temperament, had not been convicted of a crime of moral turpitide…. It took about five years for me to learn that the ideology of that judge does matter

That’s why I led the fight against Judge Bork. Had he been on the court, I suspect there would be a lot of changes that I don’t like and the American people wouldn’t like, including everything from Roe v. Wade to issues relating to civil rights and civil liberties.

And so that — that — that was one of the intellectual changes that took place in my career as I got a close look at it. And that’s why I was the first chairman of the Judiciary Committee to forthrightly state that it matters what your judicial philosophy is. The American people have a right to understand it and to know it.

In contrast, Pit Bull Palin answered that same question by referring in her usual generalities to compromises she had struck in state government.

He went immediately to a question of principle; she went to a question of expedience.

Ever the calculating competitor, for Palin the game is simply about winning. In this debate, Palin certainly lived to compete another day. But Biden won the debate hands down on his humanity and on his substance.

You betcha.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

“Omaba Caint” Post Sure Could Get Blog Buzz Going

Seems like my last post, “Obama Caint Choose Kaine”, riled some folks up.

Erin Kotecki Vest, who blogs at BlogHer and Queen of Spain, got on my case with several arguments worthy of response. I have great respect for Erin, and am pleased for this excuse to congratulate her in public on becoming BlogHer’s Producer of Special Projects (high five here!).

However, I learned from hard knocks on the political frontlines that her argument on behalf of Gov. Kaine is self-defeating. Sadly, it also demonstrates how we can make it so incredibly hard to hold politicians’ feet to the fire about reproductive rights, health, and justice, and how women are often entirely too well behaved to make history turn out the way we want it.

True, the issues of birth control, sex education, reproductive rights, and abortion have been so polarized by the media’s false balance (someone else used that phrase on HuffPo last week, but I made it up when I wrote The War on Choice) that both the facts and the framing get skewed in public discourse. That’s frustrating to be sure. But, the deal is, whoever defines the terms of the debate is probably going to win it. And you can’t ever win at all if you don’t stay in the game.

If you haven’t already, please read “Obama Caint Chose Kaine” for my key points about Obama’s veep pick, which I won’t reiterate here. Here’s an excerpt of Erin’s reaction:

We could go through and talk about Kaine’s repeated his position supporting Roe and what he’s done as Governor…however, let’s just put all that aside too.

Let’s deal with the realities of this country. The reality of government. The reality of America in 2008.

The abortion issue is never going to be resolved. The abortion issue is never going to go away. The abortion issue is one of the many, many issues that splits this country right down the middle.

I think we can all agree extreme viewpoints in politics, religion, and American life have led to stalemates, ugly campaigning, inaction of government, special interest, and even death, destruction, and wars.

So why is it bad to have a VP who WILL NOT vote to overturn Roe v Wade, yet does express concern with abortion?

That makes him like many of my neighbors. Like many in my family. Like many of my friends and like half of this country. I certainly will not be agreeing with them anytime soon, but I would like Thanksgiving to be more civil.

Senator Obama keeps talking about change. The biggest, single change our country could see is unity. Ending the divisive, nasty way of life we currently lead.

Are you really willing to hear all sides of an argument and bring everyone to the table? Are you really willing to respect all voices in this country? Even the ones you TOTALLY disagree with? Will you at least listen?

Or will you stay set in your extreme ways, and sit and wait for your knight to rescue you?

Bear with me please as I address three points that I believe are most egregiously misguided: 1) The relevance of Roe today, 2) The negotiability of reproductive justice, and 3) The political strategy most likely to succeed.

1. Roe v Wade was an important decision in its time, but it has been chipped away so dramatically by subsequent legislation and court decisions that it is today a fragile shell of what it represented in 1973. Protecting it/not opposing it has become increasingly irrelevant as a consequence. If you haven’t read Jeffrey Toobin’s book about the Supreme Court, The Nine, I commend it to you. I spoke with Toobin; he explained that in 1965 when Griswold v Connecticut gave married couples the right to birth control based on the constitutional “penumbra” (meaning an assumed right not written explicitly in the Constitution) of a right to privacy, there were no gender-based civil rights precedents. Privacy was the best precedent the Court had. And when the question of abortion came before Court, the whole idea of gender equality as women’s civil right was still unformed, so the Court again used the privacy precedent. Asserting privacy rights, however, does not carry the moral or legal heft of acknowledging women’s equality as citizens whose civil rights extend to making their own childbearing decisions.

This might seem like TMI, but it’s necessary in order to understand the insecure backdrop against which the debate about reproductive justice has been carried out, and why today we must proactively create a new legal and ethical basis if we want policies that protect the right to choose about birth control and childbearing–to have or not to have. Merely having a candidate who says he “won’t vote to overturn Roe v Wade but does express concern with abortion” is totally insufficient in 2008.

2. Women’s human and civil right to make their own childbearing decisions is not a negotiable matter, any more than right to attend school without discrimination, or the right to be a Christian to a Jew or a Muslim or no religion at all is negotiable. That doesn’t mean that I or anyone else is unwilling to hear all sides of an argument or that we don’t respect worldviews other than our own. In fact, I’m pretty sure pro-choice folks are a lot more willing, and even interested, to listen to opposing views than those who are anti-choice. It is a fascinating conversation, and we progressives love to play with ideas.

But in the end, just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant; you either have reproductive rights or you don’t. You simply cannot have your right to decide whether and when to be pregnant determined by a shouting match, a committee, or a legislature and still be a full and equal citizen. To live in that kind of environment means your body is metaphorically and sometimes literally being torn apart for the sake of someone else’s ideological comfort.

Erin is 100% right that the debate isn’t going to go way; but that’s all the more reason to create a space for the woman to exercise her personal moral beliefs and the legal right to her own body. If she opposes abortion, she shouldn’t have one. But she has no right to judge her sister is whose shoes she hasn’t walked, or to saddle her with a vice president whose personal beliefs do not respect her moral capacity.

3) Now we come to political strategy. The first principle is never start from a position of compromise. Because in the course of the political process–the art of the possible, as it has been called–there will inevitably be some give and take. And there will be many areas ripe for crafting compromises where eveybody can come away feeling like they have won something. Far from waiting for “your knight to rescue you”, staking out the principled position at the beginning will bring the conversation and the resolution closer to where you want it to be in the end. It’s the position of strength, the position of integrity, and the position of an empowered citizen who actually can make history.

And the time to tell Barack Obama what we want from him is now, before he is nominated and before, goddess willing, he is elected, while he still feels the heat of our passion for reproductive justice on his feet.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.


Repairing the Damage, Before Roe by Waldo Fielding M.D., in today’s New York Times is a must read and must share. Fielding is 80; his generation of doctors knows the real stories about the injustices of illegal abortion.  An excerpt:

With the Supreme Court becoming more conservative, many people who support women’s right to choose an abortion fear that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that gave them that right, is in danger of being swept aside. When such fears arise, we often hear about the pre-Roe “bad old days.” Yet there are few physicians today who can relate to them from personal experience. I can.

I am a retired gynecologist, in my mid-80s. My early formal training in my specialty was spent in New York City, from 1948 to 1953, in two of the city’s large municipal hospitals. There I saw and treated almost every complication of illegal abortion…

Now it’s up to the generation now present to make the coat hanger (photos of which accompnied the article) a symbol of women’s empowerment rather than victimization.

The importance of electing a president in November who understands and will vigorously advance women’s human rights to reproductive self-determination and moral autonomy is of paramount importance. But we must also continue to stay engaged in the political process, asserting clearly to the President over and over that we expect him or her to make good on campaign rhetoric about supporting a woman’s right to to make her own childbearing decisions and to have access to the health care  and information that makes rights meaningful. It is too late to fight back against the incursions that have chipped away at reproductive choice and justice. The situation calls for us to fight forward with a proactive agenda, such as I proposed in The War on Choice.

A reminder: Sen. John McCain has a 100% anti-choice voting record.

Both Sens. Clinton and Obama have 100% pro-choice voting records since they’ve been in the Senate.

Clinton is a sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act which would codify reproductive rights as civil rights and track the major provisions of Roe. She is also a prime sponsor of the Prevention First Act, which would provide additional funding and therefore access to birth control services, among other preventive education and health services. Sen. Obama is a cosponsor of this bill.

These are the two most significant pieces of proactive legislation aimed not just to restore lost access and rights but to expand them to a point where women are assured both. And that larger vision is where this debate must go.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.