No one will be able to accuse Sen. Barack Obama of not making his pro-education, pro-prevention, pro-choice values clear in this election.
Unlike ghosts of Democrats past that hemmed and hawed, straddling hot-button issues like abortion by playing defense against the harsh tactics and misinformation spread by far-right social conservatives, Obama has clearly stated his beliefs and aggressively defended his values. He shaped his party’s platform to reflect values that both pro-choice and pro-life Democrats embraced, and spoke clearly to all Americans by saying in his acceptance speech "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in this country."
Polling has consistently suggested that a majority of Americans agree abortion should remain legal with some restricitions, but few candidates have been willing to take on the more aggressive far-right and their extreme tactics. Even Congressional Democrats who regained the majority in 2006 have been reluctant to stand up to the far-right on issues like abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, contraception and reproductive health issues. Democrats (pro-life and pro-choice) along with pro-choice Republicans made efforts by introducing pro-education and pro-prevention legislation, but when votes were required on continuing abstinence-only funding and integrating reproductive health services with HIV prevention in the US global AIDS legislation known as PEPFAR, the far-right held Congress hostage.
The Associated Press today talks about how Sen. John McCain, "seems content with the public’s perception that he’s more moderate on the issue" of abortion while Obama is educating voters about McCain’s real position which advocates making abortion illegal. The GOP platform rejected pro-choice Republicans completely, calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. McCain touts his pro-life record, says he will appoint Supreme Court Justices that will overturn Roe v Wade, and selected a running mate in Gov. Sarah Palin who believes abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest.
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Politically, Obama’s embrace of the education and prevention agenda long encompassed in the phrase "pro-choice" represents a shift away from abortion politics as usual. Too often mainstream media and advocacy organizations on both sides have missed the nuance of sexual and reproductive health issues, and assumed a candidate’s position on abortion defined them on many other issues.
McCain seems to adhere to the far-right playbook of the ’70’s and ’80’s that many voters are familiar with: run to the right in the primaries and then attempt to appeal to moderates in the general election, and finally govern from the far-right if elected. As soon as his nomination was secure, statements about his wife’s more moderate position on abortion started to emerge, and even Palin repeated the correct talking point about "reaching out to the other side" in her interview with Charlie Gibson.
In this election, the attention to the full range of sexual and reproductive health issues in the mainstream media coverage, sensational as it often is, is giving voters and candidates a chance to talk about how these very personal and private issues translate to public policies in our pluralistic democracy.
Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute said, "Obama’s strong stance on prevention
and his common-sense positions make for smart politics, and it makes sense that
he would want to let the electorate know where he stands on the issue. His views on abortion rights
more closely correspond to where the majority of Americans stand than those of John
"Obama’s positions and votes in
favor of making abortion less necessary by promoting a real prevention agenda are
light years ahead of McCain’s, who has actually voted against policies and programs that would
make a real difference in reducing unintended pregnancy to begin with," Cohen added.
NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a poll earlier this year about how pro-choice values play, particularly in swing states. According to U.S News and World Report, "women voters in states including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and
Pennsylvania, [pollster Al] Quinlan says that Obama gained 13 points among pro-choice
independent women and 9 points among pro-choice Republican women once
they were presented with what the pollsters called ‘a balanced
description of the candidates’ respective positions on choice.’"
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL
Pro-Choice America said, "Sen. Obama is consistently strong in expressing
his pro-choice values, and that message not only energizes our pro-choice base
but it connects with swing voters, especially the moderate independent
women who will decide this election. The Obama campaign’s approach
underscores what we’ve known for a long time: choice is a winning issue."
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund said, "When it
comes to women’s health and rights, including protecting Roe v. Wade, the choice
is clear. Barack Obama has a long and consistent record of standing up for
women’s health. John McCain has voted against women’s health 125 times,
including voting against affordable birth control. He wants to overturn Roe v.
Wade. Not enough voters know how out of touch McCain is when it comes to women’s
health. The more voters, particularly women, learn about the striking
differences between Obama and McCain on women’s health, the more likely they
will be to support Obama."
During the campaign so far, voters have had a chance to get beyond the surface solgans and really examine pro-choice vs. pro-life values on a range of sexual and reproductive health issues.
Last week the nation was treated to a teachable moment on age appropriate comprehensive sex ed as the McCain campaign attacked Obama in ads that have been widely criticized as being inaccurate, both about the Illinois legislation the ad questioned, and fact that most people think it is in children’s best interest to grow up with a healthy sense of body and self, and be able to protect themselves from pedophile priests, teachers, family members.
With Gov. Sarah Palin’s explosion on the national scene we’ve also witnessed discussion about the failures of abstinence-only-until-marriage-programs and the reality of teen pregnancy. Voters are discussing what works and what doesn’t with respect to education and prevention, within families where all private choices should be made and respected, and as a matter of public health for parents who are concerned about the education and information given to their children. Parents can and should teach sexual health and respect in the home, but eventually they encounter the world, and comprehensive sex ed is about creating a base line of factual, age appropriate, evidence-based, reliable scientific data all parents and kids can use to learn respect and personal responsibility.
Often overlooked, voters are also seeing how candidates deal with the difficult issue of violence against women and rape, and the subjugation stemming from a culture that allows women to be abused.
Voters also have a front row seat for the Quadrennial Catholic Intramurals with Obama’s selection of Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate. Biden’s ability to separate his private faith from public duty, a view shared overwhelmingly by lay Catholics, raised the hackles of the far more political hierarchy of the church, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The one issue that has not yet been explicitly discussed by the campaigns is contraception, which is currently under a very real and dangerous threat from far-right social conservatives. McCain was asked about insurance coverage for contraception, relative to the fact Viagra is widely covered, and was visibly uncomfortable before making no comment.
The Bush Administration is already attempting to make contraception access more difficult, which is counter-intuitive to most Americans who use contraception to avoid unintended pregnancies and thus reduce abortions. The final few days for public commenting on a rule change proposed by the Bush Department of Health and Human Services are ticking away (Sept. 25 is the deadline, register your comments here) and it seems logical that if the campaigns are going to talk about all of these other sexual and reproductive health issues, a more direct conversation about contraception access and affordability is also in order.
Looming over all of these discussions about sexual and reproductive health is the Supreme Court and the appointment of the next two or three Justices. If Roe v. Wade is overturned abortion will be banned in 23 states in an instant and the door will be open for Congress to legislate a federal ban in all 50 states, ensuring the extreme politics of the far-right will continue to divide the nation. Banning abortion will not stop abortion, only make criminals out of women and doctors, and endanger their health and lives.
In addition, one of the precedents upon which Roe is based, Griswold v Connecticut, could also be threatened. Griswold challenged a law prohibiting the use of contraception based on a privacy claim, underscoring yet again the threat to contraception, even though access and affordability remains an issue for far too many people.