Emily Douglas | The Nation

Emily Douglas

Emily Douglas

From abortion rights to social justice, and lots in between.

Christine Quinn’s Meteoric Fall: 2008 All Over Again?

Christine Quinn
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Ok, I admit it: I’m tribal and narcissistic. Well, that’s not the only reason I voted for Christine Quinn for mayor. But that’s part of it. Here’s what it seems like to me: the city understands the value of having a woman mayor, a lesbian mayor, but then skipped right over actually having one, right back to the white guy!

How did Bill de Blasio win the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City? Many reasons, not least of which are that while he’s white and straight, his family isn’t. Plus, as Richard writes, a politician doesn’t represent each of those identities—gender, race, and sexual orientation—simply by pattern-matching his or her constituents. Representing LGBT New Yorkers, or women, means pushing policies that protect them—like paid sick leave, like an enforceable anti-profiling bill to curtail stop-and-frisk. And yes, admittedly, as public advocate, de Blasio got there first, and proudly. That is something to admire, and possibly something to vote for. But, on both those issues, the political process worked like it’s supposed to: constituents pushed, movements grew, celebrities called and, ultimately, the Speaker of the City Council changed her position.

And so this mayoral primary seems like a repeat of the 2008 presidential primary. Female candidate credentials herself for much longer, takes a more traditional path. The path she and all her consultants think is safer. Runs a general election campaign for years before she actually runs in the primary. Male candidate—whose previous job has not required so many compromises—kicks off campaigning later, is able to adapt to the present mood better. It’s not much of a defense of Quinn to say she was running a campaign for so long—that’s pretty calculating—and it was clearly, in this case, a miscalculation. But isn’t this yet another case of it being easier to be the “most progressive” candidate—having the luxury of staking out the most liberal positions—when you’re white and male?

Richard, anyone else, your turn to reply! —ED

* * *

Hi, Emily! I’m glad we’re doing this. I’m also glad you took the time to express an unease with the results that clearly many feminists and LGBT activists share. I can see how it all seems so unfair: New York has long been a tribal city, and getting one of your own elected to the throne has been a sign that your clan has arrived. Italians got Fiorello La Guardia; Jews got Abe Beame; African-Americans, Dinkins. And just when it seemed like it was Christine Quinn’s turn (a two-fer at that!), the rules changed. As Jim Ledbetter of Reuters points out, the city’s reliable pattern of identity politics broke down yesterday. Quinn lost the women’s vote to de Blasio (16 percent to 39 percent) and to Bill Thompson (!), who got 26 percent. De Blasio split the black vote with Thompson. John Liu didn’t get the Asian vote. And de Blasio even captured the city’s LGBT voters (47 percent vs. Quinn’s 34 percent).

Just when identity politics seemed poised to reward a female and LGBT candidate, voters threw identity politics out the window. Hey, wait a minute!

But I have to say, I’m glad that system is coming to a close, at least here in New York. A few reasons why: historically, over-determined identity politics facilitates the formation of political machines, and with that, corruption (see Tammany Hall). It can encourage mindless loyalty at the expense of ideas, including ideas about the rights of minority groups. One of the great things about de Blasio’s win is that it looks like African-American New Yorkers gravitated to his candidacy not just because of Dante’s legendary afro, but because de Blasio, much more so than Thompson, intends to end racial profiling and stop-and-frisk.

Which brings me to the main reason why I’m not overly upset about the fact that New York missed an opportunity to elect its first female and lesbian mayor. Our ideas are winning. All the candidates have great positions on LGBT rights, reproductive choice and other women’s issues. Quinn, of course, has a deeper record (although, as I argued in my column, a more complicated and muddled one than commonly presumed). But in broad brush, there’s not much to separate the pack here. Which is a good thing, because it means that there’s a consensus.

You raise the specter of Hillary Clinton, and I want to go there. But two related question for you first: Do you think Quinn was the victim of meaningful sexism and/or homophobia in this race? And do you think Quinn took the positions she did because she felt she had to overcome her gender and sexual orientation? It’s hard to get in her head, of course, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for either claim.   —RK

* * *

Richard, you articulate better than I did my sense of disappointment: “Just when identity politics seemed poised to reward a female and LGBT candidate, voters threw identity politics out the window. Hey, wait a minute!”

But, you ask, was Quinn victim of meaningful sexism and homophobia on the way to her loss? Or did she lose fair and square, because New Yorkers rejected her positions? A recent New York magazine poll asked voters why she was sometimes described as “unlikable.” Twenty-three percent said it was because “she’s a Bloomberg hack”; only 10 percent thought homophobia was to blame; 6 percent sexism. (Eight percent said it’s because she’s “too brash,” which might be another way of saying “because of sexism,” but still.) Potentially sexist or homophobic flashpoints from the campaign trail are few. Yes, The New York Times ran a feature on Quinn’s short temper, which it might not have done for a male politician (on the other hand, it ran a piece on de Blasio’s “plodding, contemplative” management style based on a thin anecdote from a conference call thirteen years ago). De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, suggested that Quinn wasn’t “accessible” for conversations about “concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school.” That wasn’t a smear on Quinn’s own family, no, but did that signal to voters that a woman candidate without children doesn’t get what you care about—even if McCray didn’t mean it that way?

When Quinn realized she was failing to connect with voters, she tried to go vulnerable and personal, opening up about past struggles with eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Was she trying to force the Hillary Clinton crying-in-a-diner moment? For a city inflamed over out-of-control living costs, tired of its mayor genuflecting to Russian billionaires and coming to terms with the moral failing that is stop and frisk, it didn’t resonate. That, to me, is a gendered moment too: that’s Quinn realizing that her pushy, mouthy self isn’t working, trying out a more “feminine” public persona. Does it count if Quinn visited the sexism on herself?

The age of identity politics is coming to an end, you write. And maybe that’s for good, what with its blunt categorizations of loyalty and affiliation, the focus on being rather than doing. But who wins primaries after identity politics is over? Are those blunt categories really so easily dissolved? When we stop thinking about how to push for fair representation among race, gender and sexual orientation, I think I know who’s winning the race.   —ED (And, readers, please respond in the comments below! We’ll join you there.)

* * *

Emily, so I think it’s fair to say that, while we might have differences over emphasis, we both agree that sexism and/or homophobia did not play a determinative role in Quinn’s defeat. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a straight, white, male candidate with similar ties to Bloomberg and similar positions would have fared much better in this anti-incumbent climate, and it’s possible he would have done a lot worse.

I was thinking about your provocation—who wins primaries when diversity itself is no longer a predominant rationale?—when NYC council member Brad Lander called. He’s been reading our exchange (Hi Brad!) and wanted to point out that six LGBT council candidates won their elections yesterday. That’s a record! In addition to incumbents Jimmy van Bramer and Danny Dromm from Queens and Rosie Méndez from the East Village/Lower East Side, Corey Johnson will take over Quinn’s west side seat. Brooklyn and the Bronx will both see their first LGBT council representatives in Carlos Menchaca and Ritchie Torres respectively.

What strikes me about this achievement is that with the exception of Quinn/Johnson (and arguably Méndez), these LGBT candidates didn’t run in gay enclaves, which means they had to win by appealing to non-gay (and some non-gay friendly) voters on issues besides gay rights. Torres, for example, described his district as “the Bible Belt of New York City,” and noted a “whisper campaign” against him. Nonetheless, he didn’t hide his sexuality; he wove it into a broadly progressive story he told about youth empowerment, housing, economic opportunity and sustainability. And it worked. The same can be said for the other LGBT candidates to varying degrees.

So to go back to your question: “who wins primaries after identity politics is over?” LGBT people do! Carlos Menchaca, an out Mexican-American, wins—in Sunset Park. Ritchie Torres, an out Puerto-Rican, wins—in Belmont, Bronx. In the purely tribal model of electoral politics, we’d be permanently relegated to one lonely representative from the West Village, waving that rainbow flag all by herself. It’s only because people voted across identity groups and on the issues that we’ll have a record number of LGBT folks in the next council.

You wrote that you voted for Quinn, in large part, because she was a lesbian like yourself. But there will never be enough lesbians in New York to elect a lesbian mayor if, as you seem to admit, that is the only or primary reason to vote for her. Holding our candidates to higher, broader standards isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only path to victory.

Ok, that’s all for now. Next exchange, we’ll have to get into the subject of Hillary. Hmmmmm, maybe I’ll let you bite that apple first. ---RK


Now I’m regretting that, in a fit of pique, I agreed to being narcissistic and tribal. Because really, I’m neither. I don’t want women to vote for women and LGBT people to vote for LGBT people and African Americans to vote for African-American candidates. I want everyone to vote for women and LGBT people and people of color! Which is why “identity politics” isn’t quite the right way to think about this. I don’t want a gay city council member elected by a gay enclave—I wanted a gay mayor, for all five boroughs. It’s more like “solidarity politics”—vote for someone who isn’t necessarily just like you, but who represents people who need a place at the table. And they need a place at the table, not just a white guy working on their behalf! Symbolism is irreducibly powerful, even if it isn’t everything. Among other things, having a female and gay mayor would force us to confront how we respond when women are in power, a lingering and well-known obstacle to women’s advancement in many fields. I can’t say it better than Erica Brazelton, who writes that before Obama’s election “we could only ask the question, ‘would a black president in America signal post-racialism?’ as a hypothetical. Obama’s presidency now gives us a resounding emblematic answer: Hell. No.” The news about the record number of LGBT city council members is heartening, but I’d like it best if their constituents weren’t voting for them in spite of their being gay but, at least in part, because of it.

Here’s what I will agree to: Quinn had the wrong stance on the election’s key issues, and voters rejected her for it. But here’s what I would like to see you acknowledge: Successful female candidates are less likely to be the hopey-changey underdog. Sometimes they will be: cf. Elizabeth Warren. But that’ll be rare. If getting more women into elected office sooner rather than later is a priority to you (only one of America’s big-city mayors is female, and only five of fifty governors), then sometimes the less-unimpeachable, more insider candidate might be the one we cast a ballot for.

At any rate, the obituaries for identity politics are premature. It’ll be over when a majority of white voters cast ballots for the black candidate, or majority of men vote for a woman. Since you wanted to talk HRC, let’s remember that most men voted for Obama, and did so by at least 10 percentage points in 18 states (and in the general election, most white voters, including white women, voted for McCain).

As for there never being enough lesbians in New York, well, your imagination may fail you…! —ED


For the record, I don’t think you’re tribal and narcissistic either! But I do think it is revealing that both you and June Thomas at Slate copped to that before laying out what I think is the more compelling case, one you make here and now: that symbols matter. Maybe it’s because the power of that symbolism is so hard to quantify and so impossible to guarantee, especially in the case of Quinn, whose documented record is less than stellar. That said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for you and June to have voted for Quinn based on a gut feeling about the lasting impact of her historic candidacy. I weighed that too; I just reached a different conclusion.

But let me address your claim that successful female politicians are less likely to run and win as hopey-changey underdogs, a mantle you seem to think men (straight, white ones? But what about Obama?) are more easily able to don. Here I think Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run (and possible 2016 run) over-determines your thinking. You mention Elizabeth Warren, but what about Patty Murray and Carol Mosley Braun, who both ousted male Democratic incumbents in 1992’s “Year of the Woman”? The insurgent energy, in the wake of multiple sexual harassment and assault scandals and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, was certainly with female candidates then. And why couldn’t it be again?

There’s also the related assumption that female candidates are more likely to be insiders, to ride the safe track and to accumulate credentials and qualifications that can later be put, fairly or not, under a microscope. On one level, that’s an apt description of all candidates, because despite some outliers, our political system still rewards incumbents and dogged party loyalists who work the ladder. (And just on a side note, I’d put Bill de Blasio in that category; the man was on city council for three terms and then Public Advocate, which is first in line to succeed the mayor). Here again, I think Hillary’s 2008 run plays an oversized role. Was she more qualified than Obama? Sure, on some level. Was she the most qualified New York Democrat when she began her run for Senate in 2000? Not by a long shot; she wasn’t even a New York Democrat!

My point is: it cuts both ways. Historically, female politicians have had to expand notions of what counts as experience and qualification (a good thing!) or transcend them altogether. So it’s strange to see some feminists rest upon those values now, presumably because doing so would bolster Clinton’s (or Quinn’s) case. I think that’s short-sighted and also entrenches a political value system that more often than not works to exclude women and minorities. ----RK


All right, we’ve had our fun (and it has been fun!), it’s summing up time!

So, I am hung up on HRC’s run, but I think fairly so: the Patty Murray and Carol Moseley Braun examples are from when I was in fifth grade! The outsider strategy for women can work, sure, but your own examples suggest that’s in limited cases. And yes, hopey-changey Candidate Obama was not white, but he was male. That’s not to say he wasn’t targeted by other race-based insinuations that he wasn’t up to the job (something the Clinton campaign wasn’t above suggesting itself, to my enduring shame and disappointment). He was. But being the less-experienced-but-still-believable candidate—all the more appealing as a blank slate!—is something that men, in my observation, have an easier time selling.

But let’s see if that holds true in 2016. What I’d like readers to take away from this is a willingness to weigh a candidate’s public positions against the realities and exigencies of the path they’ve taken in the course of seeking higher office. And once there are representative numbers of women, people of color, and LGBT people in office, we can focus on the issues alone.

Til next time! And thanks to everyone who weighed in in the comments, on Twitter, etc.! —ED

Who's Paying for Your Birth Control?

Last week, the Obama administration updated its proposed regulations regarding birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It refused to create an exemption for for-profit employers who object to provide contraceptive coverage on religious grounds, but it left a lot of people, reporters included, confused about how religiously affiliated employers would be accommodated, and who—the insurer, a third-party provider, or the federal government—would be left footing the bill for the coverage.

To find out whether you can access no-copay birth control through the ACA, check out the infographic below!

Birth control regulations under HHS

Would Gay Voters Really Fall for a Pro-Marriage Equality GOP?

A few hours after watching this tearjerking ad run by the Maine marriage equality campaign—in which an elderly man, arm around his gay granddaughter, says “It takes a lot of bravery to be a lesbian”—I read an oddly deflating Slate piece about how the gay marriage battles in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington (yes, all four) were won. Spoiler: it’s not because a majority of voters in those states witnessed a particularly persuasive kiss-in at the local mall. Instead:

For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.

So this time around, the pro–marriage equality contingent emphasized ““love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits.” In response to research finding that parents worried about ceding control over their children’s values education to schools, the Maine campaign created an ad in which a teacher and her husband reassert that “No law is going to change the core values we teach our kids here at home.”

Why was this so disappointing to read? Election Day seemed to herald the arrival of a new America—Liberal America, as Ben Smith and Zeke Miller deemed it. Not only was Obama back in office, but Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were going to Washington! Californians voted to raise taxes! Marylanders voted for a state DREAM Act! Here, though, was an indication that support for marriage equality dovetailed uncomfortably with appeals to conservative values.

Marriage, family, and community don’t have to be conservative values, of course, but when all brewed together, they can be. Pro–marriage equality messages can veer dangerously close to implying that marriage is the only, or best, way for people to show commitment or protect their families. When people argue that same-sex marriage is necessary to access survivor benefits, private health insurance and housing, they are making a claim about fairness under the law. But they aren’t challenging the biggest assumptions about those laws: that private households, rather than an expanded welfare state, should be the main vehicle for guaranteeing a minimum level of security.

And that’s an appealing message for open-minded conservatives. No wonder some forward-looking Republicans are calling on their party do a 180, come out for marriage equality and neutralize the Democratic advantage. That’s just what Marc Ambinder suggested the party do: “If Republicans drop their opposition to gay marriage, the chances that Democrats will continue to pick up majorities of new and young voters will diminish. Gay issues are the civil rights issue of the time. Many of these voters see the party’s implacable opposition to equal treatment for gays and simply turn away. The GOP is killing itself by giving libertarian-leaning younger voters a reason to think that the party is held hostage by a loud minority” (emphasis his). Here’s how a Buzzfeed piece on the coming revolt of young Republican operatives characterizes their views on the matter: “The wide agreement among the younger operatives on the need for a generational upgrade is matched by a near consensus on a pair of issues: gay rights and immigration.”

But can marriage—and only marriage, not employment or housing non-discrimination, not transgender rights, not anti-bullying protections, not honest, science-based sexuality education and funding for HIV treatment—be pried loose of a broader LGBT agenda, and a broader progressive agenda that’s both economic and social, to woo a critical mass of voters?

I think not. As Obama’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, argued yesterday, it was not a loosely held coalition driven by brute demographics—young voters, gay voters, an increasing majority of Americans that supports same-sex marriage—that handed Obama his second term. Instead, voters across race and gender chose “to side with a set of values and principles—and an agenda that would advance them—that they believe will offer not just economic recovery, but a restoration of the kind of opportunity and security that America long offered the middle class and those working to join it.” In a Logo TV poll taken in August, only six percent of gay voters said that marriage equality was their top issue. Their biggest concerns? The economy, jobs, and unemployment and healthcare—just like everyone else. And as we now know, just like the majority of Americans, they cast their vote for the candidate they trusted to fight rampant economic inequality and keep the recovery going.

There’s plenty of work to do to turn the Democratic electorate into a real progressive coalition. But with Obama headed back for four more years, that work can continue in earnest.

Oh, you want to see that ad? Here you go!

For more on voter intentions, read the lead editorial in our lastest issue.


Why I Didn't Hate Martha Raddatz's Abortion Question

Precious little time during last night’s vice-presidential debate was devoted to an issue the Republicans have been hellbent on politicizing since they took control of the House in 2010. That, of course, was the niggling question of whether Romney and Ryan would work to further restrict access to abortion and contraception—or outlaw it altogether—if they win on November 6. Romney’s long career of flip-flopping on this issue has hit some kind of time-lapse photography in recent weeks, with his flips and flops coming fast and furiously: in Des Moines on Tuesday, he told an audience “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Perhaps he should alert his running mate, who’s a co-sponsor of no less than thirty-eight abortion-restriction bills. (Romney’s staff walked back his statement the next morning.)

Debate #2 was a good time to clear this up, since Jim Lehrer failed to raise the issue in last week’s Obama/Romney match-up. And, with about ten minutes left in the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz finally did. But many of us watching at home, the question she asked left a lot to be desired:

RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country…

RYAN: Sure.

RADDATZ: …please talk personally about this, if you could.

There is a good argument against this way of framing the question. Joe Biden and Paul Ryan’s personal and religious beliefs aren’t really the most salient issue here: their policy positions are, and the way those positions impact 52 percent of the population of this country. Raddatz’s question took the focus off how restrictions on abortion rights impact actual women (plus, as Katha Pollitt put it last night, her voice “got all mourny and tragic”).

For many Democrats and pro-choicers, talking about religion and abortion in the same breath has long felt like playing on right-wing turf. As Irin Carmon wrote, “[S]he chose to frame the late-breaking, much-yearned for question about “social issues” in just the way Republicans prefer: in terms of religion.” But does it have to be that way? Joe Biden offered voters who struggle with the morality of abortion a way to separate their personal, religious beliefs and their public, political orientation toward the issue. He didn’t quite make the case that his religion leads him to support abortion rights, but he drew a clear distinction between his religious beliefs and his political position. And he acknowledged that equally devout people can and do come to different moral determinations about abortion than he does.

BIDEN: My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who—who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.

With regard to—with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a—what we call a [inaudible] doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the—the congressman. I—I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that—women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.

It’s not intrinsically anti-woman to grapple with abortion through the lens of religion or morality. It’s just that religion has so often and so effectively been used as a weapon against women, demeaned them, made them incapable of being moral actors and dismissed the complexities of their lives. And while “personal views” aren’t necessarily best placed at a vice-presidential debate, I’m glad we have a prominent Catholic politician on record that faith and respect for women’s own decision-making don’t have to be opposed.

I wasn’t thrilled that Sister Simone Campbell, one of the Nuns on the Bus traveling the country to oppose Ryan’s budget, identified as pro-life in her DNC speech, either—but if she was going to go there, I loved that she did it by describing support for the Affordable Care Act as “part of my pro-life stance.” Both she and Joe Biden have offered pro-choice, anti-choice and confused Catholics a way to vote for the Democratic ticket with a clear conscience. And for that I’m grateful—to Raddatz, too. Besides, as Amy Davidson notes, Raddatz made use of one of her many strong follow-ups in a way that put the attention right back on women: “I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?” For anyone who still hadn’t figured it out, by the end of the night, the answer was clear.

For more reproductive rights coverage, check out the Nation editors on the "Year of the Woman." And be sure to sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation's weekly newsletter featuring feminist content, here.

DHS Throws a Lifeline to LGBT Immigrant Families

Today, the Department of Homeland Security threw a lifeline to undocumented immigrants who are in same-sex relationships with US citizens. New federal guidelines will allow ICE officers to take into account a same-sex relationship with an American partner when determining whether to pursue a removal proceeding. This doesn’t offer immigrants a path to permanent legal status, but it does provide “a way to mitigate the harshest consequences of the lack of immigration equality and prevent some couples from being physically separated,” said Victoria Neilson, an attorney with Immigration Equality.

These guidelines build on DHS’s 2011 directive to concentrate enforcement priorities on immigrants with criminal records and stall the deportation proceedings of those who have not committed crimes. A same-sex relationship can now help qualify an immigrant as “low-priority” for deportation.

Immigration Equality and other advocates in Congress are still calling for a comprehensive reform that would enable the 36,000 Americans in same-sex relationships to sponsor their spouses for permanent residence just as opposite-sex spouses can. For that, they’d need DOMA to be overturned, comprehensive immigration reform to be enacted, or the Uniting American Families Act to be passed. But momentum is clearly building in their favor. In 2009, Greg Kaufmann noted that recognition for LGBT couples had been included in a broader immigration reform bill for the first time—and three years later, it’s in the Democratic Party platform.

Five years ago, I answered phones for the legal hotline at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a non-profit legal organization working to end discrimination against LGBT people and people living with HIV. Many of our callers—over a thousand each year—were in desperate straits, but the calls that felt most hopeless were often ones from same-sex couples in which one member of the couple was a US citizen, and one wasn’t. It fell to us hotline workers to explain that for the purposes of federal immigration law, the couple was considered legal strangers, and that the US citizen had virtually no chance of sponsoring his or her partner for legal status. At that time, we advised same-sex binational couples not to get married, because it could indicate an intention on the part of the undocumented partner to stay in the US past their visa, and trigger deportation proceedings. Often, callers were totally taken aback by the injustice of the law, and its blindness to their lives. This was deep into George W. Bush’s second term, and the idea that the federal government might be responsive to the concerns of LGBT people who were also immigrants seemed impossibly far-fetched.

So today’s news comes as a startling and exciting reprieve. But as with President Obama’s executive action to defer deportations of young undocumented immigrants, nothing in today’s guidance prevents a new administration from reversing course. “November 6th will be a strong indication of how long-lasting and durable this guidance will be,” said Steve Ralls, communications director at Immigration Equality.

Does It Matter Why Women Have Abortions?

As seen on Facebook.

The Guttmacher Institute today released a nationally representative study, the first of its kind, finding that most women seeking abortions had experienced at least one “disruptive event” in the year prior to their abortion. Such “social shocks,” as study author Ann Moore called them, include moving multiple times, being unemployed, separating from a partner, falling behind on rent or a mortgage or having a partner incarcerated, among others. Physical or sexual abuse is another kind of “disruptive event,” one that seven percent of women obtaining abortions reported. “Women with abusive partners are substantially over-represented among abortion patients,” the study concluded. Perhaps surprising to some, more than half of the women surveyed reported using a contraceptive method in the month before they become pregnant.

The study comes as a needed reality check after Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s ridiculous remarks about the likelihood of pregnancy after “legitimate rape.” As this and other studies suggest, rape and sexual coercion play a role in a significant number of pregnancies. The link found in the Guttmacher study between intimate partner violence and unintended pregnancy in particular calls out for further examination, said Moore. “There are direct ways that violent partners, and nonviolent partners, can interfere with a women’s ability to prevent unintended pregnancy. There’s also a relation between the instability that comes with being in a violent relationship.” Two years ago, Lynn Harris reported on a crop of studies that identified a phenomenon researchers called “reproductive coercion” among teens in abusive relationships, “in which abusive partners subject young women already at risk of violence to the additional health risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” Birth control sabotage also showed up in the Guttmacher study released today, with six respondents of forty-nine saying their partners had undermined their efforts to prevent pregnancy, for example by tampering with contraceptives. Researcher Elizabeth Miller has called for more study into whether “pregnancy ambivalence”—the term researchers use to describe sexually active women who don’t want to get pregnant but aren’t trying to prevent it—is really “male-partner influence on women’s reproductive health and autonomy.”

Akin’s comments have provoked a number of thoughtful responses about how often women are obligated to justify their rapes, abortions and other personal, private life events. Whether a rape victim appears “legitimate” can often determine whether the rape is prosecuted, and whether the jury convicts the defendant. Whether a woman seeking an abortion is doing so for a “legitimate” reason—her health is in danger, or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest—can determine whether she can legally or practically access the abortion at all.

Drawing attention to women who experience reproductive coercion or seek an abortion as a result of a rape might, on the surface, suggest that we’re trying to find an “excuse” for an abortion—a “legitimate” reason—that, might, just might, placate conservatives. As Maya Dusenbery wrote on Feministing, “You don’t know anything about other people’s lives. The point is to show that we can’t categorize abortions into these different types, because every single woman’s reason for getting an abortion is absolutely unique” (emphasis in the original).

Hearing about other people’s abortions requires in us a deep humility about what we can know about others’ life circumstances and how and why they make the choices they do. We can’t categorize abortions, and we shouldn’t. But our ability, as progressives, to push for policies that respond to the realities and complexities of women’s lives would be enriched if we all understood more about what other factors are going on in women’s lives when they are pregnant and aren’t sure they want to be (or are certain they don’t want to be).

The purpose of talking about the specific situations in a woman’s life is not to pit the women who deserve abortions against unworthy ones. No one is entitled to turn a personal opinion about when a private medical procedure is ethical and when it isn’t into a law that interferes with a decision made between a provider and patient. For many women, an abortion is exactly what they need, and all they need. But for many others, it’s a sign that they lack the necessary sexuality education, access to birth control or safety at home that would enable them to prevent pregnancy. Even more pernicious is the reality that abortion can be a sign of an abusive partner who won’t use the birth control a woman knows very well about.

“For women who have a great deal of insecurity in their lives, abortion is not a magic bullet, but it helps them manage everything else they have going on,” says Moore. “All the social turbulence sets the stage on which she winds up being exposed to an unintended pregnancy.”

There’s a danger that seeking to understand more about the circumstances of women’s abortion choices reiterates the same power dynamic we’re fighting against: that a broader public is entitled to know why a woman is getting an abortion, find out all about her life, and make up their minds about her decision. And I’m not convinced that even if they do understand the real and complex reasons behind a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, anti-choicers will see how heartless and fantasy-based their belief system is. But those of us who support women’s autonomy, in all circumstances, can’t let our commitment to non-judgment interfere with getting a fuller picture on the lives of women who have sought abortions. As anyone who has been to an abortion speakout knows, there’s a lot to learn.

“The hopeful impact of this study is to help make clear the complex social circumstances that women are experiencing at the time that they are choosing to terminate a pregnancy,” says Moore. “It helps fill out the life stories of the challenges women are facing. These are not easy experiences that we were measuring. We hope it will help raise awareness about often turbulent lives that women are having to juggle at the same time that they’re facing unintended pregnancy.”

For more of The Nation's coverage on Todd Akin's comments, read Ilyse Hogue's The Danger of Laughing at Todd Akin.

Catholic Health Association Pulls Support From Contraception Mandate

From the Department of I Was Worried Enough About Obamacare Already, Thanks: the Catholic Health Association, a key ally of the Obama administration in passing the Affordable Care Act, has changed its mind about supporting the compromise on birth control coverage. That was the “miraculous” accommodation that ensured no-cost contraceptive coverage to employees of religiously affiliated organizations, while making insurers, rather than the religious employers, responsible for picking up the tab. When the compromise was offered in February, CHA gave initial support. But CHA has now sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the compromise.

In an interview with Kaiser Health News’s Mary Agnes Carey, Sister Carol Ann Keehan, head of CHA, says:

I wouldn’t say as much as we withdrew support. What we said very clearly was that it is just too cumbersome. And I’ll tell you why. 

Many, many, many of our organizations offer a choice in health coverage to their staffs. So they would have two different ways of dealing with their employees on this issue and, quite frankly, many of our members were hearing from local insurance companies and agents that ‘well, we may not carve out explicitly how we’re charging you for this but there is no free lunch and you are going to pay for it one way or the other.’ That was exactly what the goal was not. The goal was to not pay. And that’s not the fault of the White House. That’s the reality of the marketplace.

Here’s another reality of the marketplace: religious hospitals, like non-religious hospitals, rely on public funding for about half their operating revenues. Despite the religious affiliation, reports MergerWatch, “little or none of the operating funds of these religious hospitals come from churches or other religious sources.” The reach of sectarian hospitals is vast: MergerWatch found that in 1999, religiously affiliated hospitals were operating one in every five acute-care community hospital beds in the United States. And while Catholic hospitals may have been founded to cater to the spiritual needs of Catholics, by 2012, religiously affiliated hospitals have become deeply embedded in diverse communities and insurance plans. “This complaint is a red herring,” says Sharon Levin, director of federal reproductive health policy at the National Women’s Law Center. “Women have a right under this law to needed healthcare, including contraception. How to avoid doing that should not be the focus.”

CHA’s letter makes clear the pitfalls of pandering to “religious freedom” concerns in setting public policy. “If an institution chooses to participate in secular activities and hires people who are not co-religionists, they should be held to the same standard as other employers,” says Levin. “Religion is not a license to discriminate.”

At issue is not only contraceptive coverage. CHA is also concerned about what institutions count as “religious”—a designation that has ramifications reaching far beyond the birth control issue. While Obama’s compromise required hospitals, schools and social service agencies with religious affiliations to provide contraceptive coverage, it exempted houses of worship as “religious institutions.” According to its letter to HHS, CHA would like to see an institution considered “religious” if "it shares common religious bonds and convictions with the church.”

That’s a stretch. “It is very important that the administration resist the request for a broader religious exemption that would cover entities that are not themselves religions but have vague ‘bonds’ to a religion or are motivated by faith,” says Frances Kissling, former head of Catholics for Choice. “CHA claims that running hospitals is an integral part of living the teachings of Jesus. One can care for the sick and the impoverished in many ways besides controlling one-sixth of the hospital beds in the US.”

Meanwhile, the birth control mandate remains popular. A just-released poll found that nearly three-quarters of voters agree that cost should not be an obstacle to using birth control, including 66 percent of Catholic voters and 58 percent of evangelical voters.

The 'Julia' Backlash: Because Americans Like to Pretend They Don't Need Government

Life of Julia

There’s been a lot of over-thinking it about poor Julia, the composite character created by the Obama campaign team. In my book, she’s a success despite the backlash, because, in keeping the focus all about policy, the infographic of her life got even her detractors to spell out the popular stuff that they’re against. Ross Douthat, usually a master of obfuscation, is forced to tick off the injustices:

The list of Obama-bestowed benefits includes Head Start when Julia’s a tyke, tax credits and Pell grants to carry her through college and low-interest loan repayment afterward, guaranteed birth control when she’s a 20-something and government-sponsored loans when she wants to start a business, all of it culminating in a stress-free retirement underwritten by Medicare and Social Security.

Oh, no! A stress-free retirement! Sounds awful.

Campbell Brown saw in “The Life of Julia” evidence of Obama’s ongoing tendency to condescend to women, calling it “a silly and embarrassing caricature based on the assumption that women look to government at every meaningful phase of their lives for help.” About a family member who lost her job, Brown writes, “Friends and family, not government, have been there at the dire moments when she has asked them to be.… [S]he, and they, wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Obama does condescend to women. But his policies generally don’t. Faux protestations that women are smarter than men: that’s condescending. Telling us it’s “common sense” that 15-year-olds can’t figure out how to take emergency contraception correctly: condescending. Backing policies that enable to women to access reasonably priced health insurance, earn fair wages, pay for college, start a small business: that’s showing respect.

“The Life of Julia” doesn’t condescend to women, either. (And don’t forget, many of the policies Julia benefits from—the Small Business Administration loan, the better kindergarden for her son Zachary, Medicare—also benefit men.) We’re just unaccustomed to having our attention drawn to the way the government provides benefits and social insurance to a middle-class person throughout his or her life. Suzanne Mettler’s work has demonstrated that far more Americans make use of government programs—like the mortgage interest tax deduction, student loans, tax deductions for employer-sponsored health insurance and Social Security—than realize they do, a phenomenon she refers to as the “submerged state.” And even when people are aware of their reliance on government programs, they tend to be embarrassed about it, as the New York Times found, or dislike that they do. The backlash to “Julia” made it clear that, as Nancy Folbre put it, “liberals need to make a stronger case for collective investments in the development of human capital.” As Folbre points out, Julia is not the recipient of public assistance—in fact, she’s a “model member of the business community” who pays taxes, might have employees, invests in the economy through consumer spending:

Sure, we could move toward an every-man-for-himself economy. But private insurers typically have a financial incentive to exclude those most at risk. And choosing to invest only in your own human capital is a lot like choosing to invest all your resources in one small company.

Most of us will do better with a diversified portfolio that includes both socially responsible commitments and protection against long-term uncertainty.

What’s most remarkable about “The Life of Julia” is how much the government doesn’t help her out with, as my colleague Bryce Covert observed. Paid leave to care for Zachary? Childcare after she goes back to work? There’s no government help for Julia there, giving her plenty of time to rely on the bonds of kinship Brown so prizes.

As Nancy Keenan Steps Down, a Chance for NARAL to Be About More Than 'the Votes'

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, addresses at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, will step down from her position in January 2013. She could have departed the way presidents and executive directors usually do, amid a cloud of platitudes about the strength of the organization she’s leaving and the health of the movement it represents. But while the release announcing her departure covers those bases, she also gave an interview to the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff that’s a little more interesting.

As the reason for her departure, Keenan cites the need for a younger leader to take over the oldest abortion rights group in the country. Roe v. Wade turns 40 next year, she noted, telling Kliff: “It’s time for a new leader to come in and, basically, be the person for the next 40 years of protecting reproductive choice.” She added, “People give a lot of lip service to how we’re going to engage the next generation, but we can’t just assume it will happen on its own.”

I hope there isn’t only one leader that will be “the person” for the next forty years, but still, I’m impressed. Of course, I have no idea why Keenan’s really leaving, and her tenure was not without missteps, including slights against the younger feminists she’s now holding up as her organization’s best hope. But even so, she’s acknowledging here that the organization has an issue with engaging younger activists, instead of attempting to paper that over.

“Engaging younger activists”—let’s unpack that. First, consider the fact that polls show that while millennials are far more progressive than preceding generations on some social issues, including same-sex marriage, that’s not true for abortion rights. (NARAL says that in its own polling, it has found that millennials are more supportive of abortion rights than their parents but lack “intensity” on the issue.) When I interviewed Nancy Keenan last spring, she was clearly deeply interested in the political commitments of millennials, observing that by 2020, millennial voters will be 40 percent of the voting public. “We’ve done a lot of listening,” she told me. “The stories of my generation don’t resonate. Young people believe it is going to be safe and legal, and not go away.” She also said, “There are going to be some people in our movement that don’t like what we hear. They [millennials] don’t frame it in rights language. They don’t frame it in feminist language. We have to be open to how they understand this issue in a way that is different from my generation. All of that is new, and the movement has to be open to learning. That is the goal.”

So, Keenan has been thinking about how to reach people under 30 for awhile. But I’m equally interested in NARAL’s ability (and that of all of the prominent pro-choice groups’) to engage seriously with activists who are passionately engaged in the fight for abortion rights—and there are many—but who worry that the professional feminist movement is too ensnared in fighting defensive battles to drive big-picture social change on the issue. Obviously, it’s not the pro-choice organizations’ fault that the Republican Party is hostage to the batty anti-choice fringe in this country, and that outrageous attacks on reproductive rights spring up nearly every day. Hello, blaming the victim.

But the communications and organizing strategy doesn’t have to follow from the regrettable legislative reality, at least not every time. Keenan said to me: “Every one of these battles that we fight—we don’t pick ’em. They pick them. If we had the numbers of votes, we wouldn’t be fighting these fights.” Maybe that’s a problem. When’s the last time you signed a petition or called a legislator on a bill that sought to expand abortion access, not defend it? As I’ve written, healthcare reform was a game-changer on access to birth control and maternity care, and NARAL spokesperson Ted Miller pointed out that 60 percent of the Prevention First agenda, a bill NARAL had championed, was enacted through Obamacare. But expanding abortion access is still unfathomable. When I asked Keenan about the fight to reinstate public funding for abortion, she responded, “Ideally, we would love the day when we could have the conversation and actually pass public funding for abortion, because it is so unjust to low-income women. But the reality of that right now—we have a long way to go, to have a serious discussion in this country around taxes, around race, around economics. Plus, you still need the votes!”

Whoever replaces Keenan, no matter how young and savvy, will have to deal with the intractable reality of “the votes.” But will she also seek to develop for the movement a vision of the world we want, not just the one Republicans force us to live in?

To read more about generational struggles in feminism, check out Jessica Valenti’s “Who Stole Feminism?” and Katha Pollitt’s “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?

In Nebraska, an Unlikely Alliance Fights for Prenatal Care for Undocumented Women

Nebraska’s state legislature, one of the more inventive when it comes to finding ways to restrict access to reproductive healthcare, is poised to override Governor Dave Heineman’s veto of a bill that would extend prenatal care to undocumented immigrants. Heineman, who is strenuously anti-choice, is apparently equally strenuously anti-immigrant. But other Republicans and anti-choicers in the state evidently are not: the legislation is endorsed by the Republican speaker of the legislature, Mike Flood, who has sponsored legislation to ban late-term abortions, as well as a number of other anti-choice lawmakers, and by Nebraska Right to Life and the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

The bill would restore coverage for prenatal services to pregnant women who are ineligible for Medicaid for reasons other than income (those are largely undocumented women, though not solely). Nebraska provided that care until two years ago, when the federal government said it could no longer use Medicaid funds to do so. The state could have preserved funding simply by switching its funding stream to SCHIP, but declined to do so. Sixteen other states provide such coverage to undocumented women, but no neighboring states do; Governor Heineman claims that the legislation would turn Nebraska into a “a magnet for illegal aliens.”

If the bill has made enemies of friends, it has also made for allies of usual opponents, including Right to Life and the pro-immigration reform, pro-universal health care group Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. Jennifer Carter, director of public policy at the Appleseed Center, told me “This is first time we’ve had a common focus that I can recall” but “there’s been a lot of common ground on it from the perspective of protecting the health of unborn children. it’s foundational: you have to start with good prenatal care.” The local Planned Parenthood affiliate, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, supports the bill and has mobilized “friendly senators and our supporters” but has mostly stayed out of the coalition’s way. “Particularly in Nebraska, there is some politics that enters in whenever Planned Parenthood shows up. In this instance, we don’t want politics to get intermixed with what’s right for a women and her healthcare,” says Kyle Carlson, director of legal and public policy at Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

The coverage provided is limited to healthcare services that affect the health of the fetus; in some cases, even postpartum care for the woman is not covered. As the Appleseed Center’s fact sheet states, “The unborn child, rather than the pregnant woman, is the recipient of CHIP-funded services.” Does it matter that the state is adopting federal policy that says that prenatal coverage is specifically for “unborn children,” not women? “We generally find that troubling, because we focus on women and on healthy pregnancies, and we try not to separate those two,” Carlson says. “We try not to get too hung up on that, but that’s not how we would word it.”

When I asked Carter whether the law might expand rights for fetuses at the expense of women, she answered, “The only thing that this law does is adopt what is already in federal law. It wouldn’t technically expand anything.”

Meanwhile, Nebraska remains a deeply inhospitable state for women, whether citizens or not, to access reproductive healthcare. Graded “F” by NARAL Pro-Choice America, Nebraska has biased counseling and mandatory delay laws on the books, doesn’t permit the use of Medicaid funds for abortion care and has in recent sessions considered both a bill to amp up counseling requirements mandating that doctors suggest to patients that they’re taking the risk harming their mental health by having an abortion, and a direct challenge to Roe that would ban abortions after twenty weeks without providing an exception for the health of the woman.

While this bill is laudable for expanding healthcare services, Nebraska’s antipathy to healthcare for pregnant women means “we have been forced into a position of fighting to fund piecemeal what is anything but the full and holistic needs of every woman,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Today is the last day the Nebraska state legislature is in session, so the bill will override Heineman’s veto or die today. I’ll keep you updated!

Update, 5:30pm: The legislature has over-riden Heineman's veto. More information coming!

Update, April 20th, 11:10am: I got another perspective from Kimberly Inez McGuire, policy analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, who told me, "It’s a good policy with a bad justification. On the one hand, we know that undocumented women face so many barriers to getting healthcare, so the fact that this policy would extend care to them is a good thing. But the way that it’s done, with this language that unnaturally separates health of fetus from health of the mother, is dehumanizing to women. The health of the woman is inextricably linked to the health of her child. This sets a dangerous precedent that we’ll be watching closely."

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