A guest post by Sarah Erdreich and Rachel Joy Larris.
Several weeks ago, two of the major organizations devoted to protecting women’s reproductive rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, along with a host of other civil rights organizations, brought thousands of people to Capitol Hill to lobby Senators and Congressmen on reproductive rights. (There was also a rally, featuring speeches from senators Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer, and celebrities like Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.)
NARAL’s supporters were given a packet of information on HR. 3 and the bill to defund Planned Parenthood. However, they were not directed to lobby Republicans, or given information about where to find Republican lawmakers; instead, supporters—many of whom came from across the country—were told if they wanted to talk to Republican lawmakers that was up to them, but NARAL wasn’t going to send them into the “lion’s den.”
As for the Democratic representatives, even the offices of ardent pro-choice supporters like Ohio’s Betty Sutton and Virginia’s Jim Moran had no idea it was a pro-choice lobby day. Other offices were aware of this, and had appointments with constituents who traveled from far away. But supporters were not directed to Harry Reid’s office, and were not told to specifically mention the issue of Medicaid coverage of abortions in the District of Columbia. This was an issue that DC’s Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton knew might become a bargaining chip in the federal budget standoff, even if Harry Reid said he was standing firm for Planned Parenthood’s funding.
How much the actual lobby day and rally influenced the eventual outcome is unclear, though it was obvious that the supporters brought a great deal of energy and passion to the day. But as we reflect on our own experiences of the lobbying and the rally, it’s hard not to feel a bit disillusioned, both with the Democratic Party and the current strategies used by the major national pro-choice organizations. Too often, Democratic politicians sacrifice their pro-choice constituents’ interests—but this outcome is made possible because the current strategy of growing pro-choice political power isn’t working. While the majority of the country does not want abortion to become illegal, anti-choice politicians feel more allegiance to their constituency than pro-choice politicians. This is not simply a fault of individual politicians. It is an artifact of how the pro-choice political community does its organizing work: from the top down.
The fact of the matter is that most national pro-choice organizations have very little staff in most states. There are exceptions, but in many cases, there might be only a single executive director and perhaps one or two other staff and interns to protect reproductive rights within the entire state. Of course, other organizations, such as state ACLU chapters, often devote resources to reproductive issues, but for North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota there is a single Planned Parenthood and a single communications director to cover all reproductive rights issues for all three states. For politicians in these states and others to feel beholden to their pro-choice constituents, more work needs to be done at organizing from the ground-up.
There is perhaps a better way of doing this than continuing to push money to the existing pro-choice organizations. After all, who better knows their state’s issues, and the concerns of their community, than the clinics themselves?
National organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation, and NARAL do a tremendous job in working on the federal level, and we are not suggesting that they are delinquent at the state level. But in our experience, it is the clinics themselves that can have the most direct impact on their communities, and that best know the intricacies and restrictions of their state’s laws. It would be wonderful to see more support on this grassroots level, both of the financial and volunteer kind, to help protect and expand the work that clinics do.
With more funding and resources, clinics could strengthen—or in some cases, create—outreach programs to educate members of the community about their work and their services. The recent fight over defunding Planned Parenthood made it clear that many people still assume that abortion services are all that local PP clinics provide, when the reality is that so many other services are also available at these locations. Stronger outreach and education initiatives could go a long way in removing the stigma that is too often associated with pro-choice clinics.
In addition, local clinics know just what kind of messaging and outreach work best for their area. Just because an outreach campaign works in Kentucky doesn’t mean it’ll be as successful in Michigan—and understanding these nuances and the particular political, cultural, and economic landscape of individual communities is something that local clinics are very well equipped to work with. Increased funding can also be used to strengthen the communication arm of clinics, so that these messages are delivered in the most effective and targeted manner.
It might be unusual for a medical office to engage in so much activism and outreach work. Yet clinics all over the country are doing just that already. Two years ago, Sarah interviewed clinic directors in Florida and Alabama about their work, and found that for both women, lobbying at the state capital was an integral part of their jobs. In Alabama, the director had even worked with other pro-choice groups to fight against the distribution of medically inaccurate pamphlets at abortion clinics, and helped ensure that the women of the state received safe, unbiased information.
Further evidence of the benefits that this kind of community-level work can yield, can be seen in the work of Medical Students for Choice. The organization operates on a grassroots structure, trusting each local chapter to best know the needs of its school, students, and community. Individual chapters have been successful in both reforming their schools’ curricula and conducting outreach and education work in their communities, and also receive support and guidance on both the regional and national level.
Building out from the community level can yield results on the political front as well. A stronger local awareness about pro-choice issues could translate into stronger pro-choice voting and a demand for stronger pro-choice candidates. It’s difficult to blame politicians for not defending local and state pro-choice issues when too often, pro-choice organizations have failed to do the groundwork for years.
For almost forty years, the country has been divided about abortion rights. While there have been significant pro-choice gains, there have also been a staggering number of losses on the state and federal level. Planned Parenthood’s funding may be safe for now, but in too many parts of this country women either can’t afford or can’t access abortion care. Moving away from a top-down to a grassroots funding and lobbying strategy is not a perfect solution, but it seems that it is high time that we try something new.