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Is Obama prochoice?


WHAT DOES BEING "prochoice" mean? And what does it mean to be a prochoice president today?

These two questions are far from academic at a time when the majority of state and federal policymakers are focusing--not on jobs, deficits, the economy, education or the health of the US population writ large--but instead on incessant, invasive and often pornographic efforts to monitor the vaginas and wombs of the country's female citizens. The resulting loss of freedoms will indeed have negative effects upon the basic human rights, health, economic prospects and educational attainment of women, and thus on their children and families.


In its most narrow sense, the term "prochoice" is shorthand for a group or individual who believes that a woman should be able to choose an abortion. But in the fullest sense, "prochoice" is a political worldview that sees women as equal actors and full participants in society, and is based on the belief that every born child should be wanted, loved and cared for. Being prochoice stems from the understanding that unless women have the means to manage fertility, none of these conditions can exist.

Prochoice means believing in the right of women to choose whether, when and with whom to make the lifelong commitment to bear a child or not. It means understanding that self-determination for women regarding motherhood is a fundamental precursor to women's ability to achieve their own educational, economic and familial aspirations, to the health and well-being of individuals and families, and to the long-term stability and health of society. Being prochoice is being concerned as much or more about living and sentient women and children as it is about fetuses.

Being prochoice in the most comprehensive sense means understanding that there is no justifiable political trade-off in allowing one group of citizens to exercise their rights--to vote, to freedom of speech or to bodily integrity--while denying the same rights to citizens of other states or economic classes for reasons of political expediency.

And finally, being a prochoice politician today--and most especially a prochoice president--means not standing for, and certainly not being cowed by, the incessant bullying tactics used by antichoice, antiwoman politicians who use abortion politics to deflect from the realities of their own antipoor, antihuman-rights corporatist agenda.

It means understanding that in order to win the fight, you have to engage the fight.


During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama ran on what was, rhetorically at least, a solidly prochoice platform.

For example, in answering a questionnaire sent by RH RealityCheck to all 2008 presidential candidates including Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and John Edwards, Obama's campaign asserted that, among other things, he:

* "believes that reproductive healthcare is basic healthcare. His healthcare plan will create a new public plan, which will provide coverage of all essential medical services. [Emphasis added.] Reproductive healthcare is an essential service--just like mental healthcare and disease management and other preventive services under his plan. [P]rivate insurers that want to participate will have to treat reproductive care in the same way."

* "supports comprehensive sex education. He believes that we should not continue to fund abstinence-only programs."

* "supports adolescents' access to confidential family planning and reproductive health services, without having to seek permission from their parents."

* "believes contraception should be covered by private insurance plans and under insurance plans for federal employees."

The Obama campaign also stated:

"Obama does not support the Hyde Amendment. He believes that the federal government should not use its dollars to intrude on a poor woman's decision whether to continue or to terminate her pregnancy and selectively withhold benefits because she seeks to exercise her right of reproductive choice in a manner the government disfavors."

The campaign further declared that Obama was against federal funding for crisis pregnancy centers and that he would overturn the Global Gag Rule.

Not long after his inauguration, however, I realized that Obama's campaign convictions and considerable intellect might not translate into good, courageous strategy in practice. He did not seem to understand that his practice of alternating calls for common ground with deafening silence on reproductive rights would be exploited by the anti-choice movement to further escalate the war on women. And I began to wonder if he cared.

Yes, it is true that President Obama rescinded the gag rule soon after taking office. That he did so late on a Friday night with little fanfare wasn't a big issue at the time, but in retrospect it appears to have been an accurate early indicator of how he would handle the issue of choice throughout his presidency.

Moreover, while he was lauded widely by the public health and women's rights communities for having gotten rid of a policy known to do nothing but compromise the very lives and health of women throughout the world, the administration nonetheless withheld from the International Planned Parenthood Federation and other providers the funds that had been denied them by the gag rule for the next i8 months. So while de jure the policy was rescinded, it remained in place de facto, thereby denying women in the poorest regions on the world desperately needed contraception and other services. Funding has now been restored, but not without a lapse during which both health and lives were on the line.

The first public evidence of the president's inability to stand up for reproductive health and rights came during the 2009 stimulus debate. Included in the original stimulus package was a provision to allow states to expand funding of Medicaid family planning services. This was totally justifiable as part of an economic package since, as noted above, reproduction is an economic issue and the economic status of both women and families is profoundly affected by reproductive decisions. Evidence shows that during an economic downturn, demand for family planning services often increases as more women seek to avoid pregnancy in order to keep their jobs, feed their kids and pay their mortgages. This issue, however, quickly became a politically expedient means of attack on the stimulus package by both the far right and the mainstream media, as "serious men" like George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews turned the family planning provision into a gotcha joke played on Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others who tried to explain the connections.

The administration was unprepared for this completely foreseeable attack. But what is more telling is that the president was stone silent: he never defended the issue nor tried to explain it, and hung Speaker Pelosi out to dry in television interviews. No one in the administration seemed to be able or willing to articulate the very clear connections between reproductive rights and economic security. In their failure to seize such a teachable moment, the narrative was driven by far-right members of Congress such as Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA), Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI).

The debate focused, as always, on abortion, when, in fact, the issues at stake were prevention of unintended pregnancy, effective family planning services and related essential reproductive health services such as cancer screenings and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. But instead of seizing the opportunity to reframe the choice debate, the White House instructed legislators to take out the Medicaid family planning provision. The cumulative effect of this first battle was to concede the framing of family planning services as frivolous and unimportant, and allow the deliberate and malicious conflation of pregnancy prevention with abortion. Instead, low-income women who could have been served were denied urgently needed services during a severe recession because it was considered "sensible politics." An unparalleled opportunity to reframe the debate was lost.

Next came the debate and process around healthcare reform. Unless you were from another galaxy, you would anticipate that Republicans, who from the day after the election revealed their sole purpose was to bring Obama down, would frame any healthcare debate as an abortion debate. This was predictable despite the fact that federal funding for poor women in need of an abortion is essentially non-existent, even under the "permissible" conditions of rape, incest or threats to the life of a woman.

But rather than stepping out ahead and in front to frame the debate, the president again remained silent--for months. He allowed a situation to develop in which the healthcare reform debate appeared to include federal funding of abortion care--a "moral issue" as defined by antichoicers--which implied there was rampant federal funding of abortion.

The president then led a hugely hyped "healthcare summit" to bring Republicans and Democrats together to resolve differences. When Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner claimed there was federal funding of abortion in the health reform bill, the president again remained silent. Like his broader concession of the healthcare debate to Congress and the Tea Party, he said nothing until well after things had gotten out of hand. By staying "above the fray" he allowed a chaotic and unproductive debate to become that much more chaotic until it was too late to contain or reframe. Rather than exacting a high price from either Bart Stupak or Ben Nelson for their demands in the health reform debate, he embraced them.

When he did finally speak about the issue, he broke his own campaign pledge by re-affirming the Hyde Amendment as "the law of the land," without addressing the adverse effects on poor women of said law. He not only signed an executive order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment after the health reform bill passed, his administration also then went a step further. In May of last year, abortion restrictions were applied to high-risk insurance pools, the very sources of health insurance for women most likely to need coverage for abortion care due to chronic or terminal illnesses.

Rather than including contraception as part of the original package of preventive care required to be covered under health reform, the administration punted, leaving this issue to a panel that won't deliver its decision until August. This action effectively raises questions about whether or not contraception is preventive care, gives time to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and others to frame the debate in misleading terms and, finally, leaves the issue to be decided during the heat of the 2012 election campaign. This alone is a mystifying and seemingly politically naive decision for a "prochoice" president.

On the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this January, the White House's statement again came out at the end of the day and, as a slap in the face to the nation's women, did not even mention the word abortion.

"Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women's health and reproductive freedom and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I am committed to protecting this constitutional right. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships and promote adoption. And on this anniversary, I hope that we will recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams," read the president's statement.

When abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered, the White House came out with a tepid statement opposing violence, and did not take on in any material way the violence against providers that has increased under this administration. There are conferences on bullying in schools but no discussion at the national level of bullying women and providers experience on a daily basis. There is also no mention of the domestic terrorism that is called for by the antichoice community.

Between silence and accommodation, the president has spoken in vague terms about "common ground" and about "moral issues" in abortion care, but appears to have ditched the (ill-conceived) White House effort to find this elusive common ground.

As a candidate, Obama said all the right things. As a president, his actions suggest that then-presidential contender and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right--he will not fight for us. While clearly there have been gains for women in other areas under the Obama administration--such as the Lilly Ledbetter Act and provisions of the health reform act that are indeed positive for women--these gains have come at a steep price: The president has presided over the greatest erosion to women's reproductive health and rights in the past 30 years, and a continuing degradation of our rights at the state level. Yet still he remains silent.

Is Obama prochoice? Not by my definition.
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Author:Jacobson, Jodi L.
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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