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Dawn Laguens Headshot

Thanks for the lecture

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In a recent Washington Post blog post, well-known political strategist and a founding partner of the Glover Park Group Carter Eskew took the reproductive rights movement to task, and not a minute too soon by his watch. In his column, he explains that advocates for reproductive health are mired in "convoluted, poll-tested messaging" and "cannot win the debate as it is currently framed." He probably imagines he's doing us a favor, but he instead seems to be just tuning in to a conversation that's literally happening all around him.

At its core, his argument is thus: Our "pro-choice movement has been on the defensive" and "can achieve only small victories." Our forces, he writes, "can't and won't win... because they don't have an affirmative argument, only a defensive one."

As evidence, he quotes Hillary Clinton saying abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," a message that peaked in the 1990s, when President Clinton first said it, and was probably last used around 2006. Nobody says that anymore. In fact, the term "pro-choice" itself is used less frequently as well, as is "pro-life," not because of fashion or polling but because these terms have become less meaningful over time.

The reproductive justice movement has been saying this for two decades and deserves the lion's share of credit for articulating the weakness of the choice frame. Admittedly Planned Parenthood Action Fund was later to this party, and interestingly we worked with Eskew's firm to help us name this in our own work. The fact is that fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves as either pro-choice or pro-life. The majority think of abortion as a private decision where politicians have no place. To those entrenched in DC-speak, that might sound convoluted. We call that real life.

Of course, it's not that simple. Reproductive issues are about a lot more than abortion. Increasingly, we have to fight even for access to birth control, insurance coverage, and women's basic health care services such as Pap tests and breast cancer screenings. We call this "women's health" because, well, we're women and it's our health. In this way, the public discussion about abortion rights has expanded, becoming more reflective of the real experience of women's lives.

This new reproductive health paradigm has yielded significant gains, not the least of which was the election and re-election of a president who fought for -- and continues to fight for -- contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act. In the first full year of the birth control benefit, women saved $483 million on contraception than the year before and picked up 24 million more prescriptions. Thanks to Obamacare, 48.5 million women are now eligible for preventive care including birth control -- without a co-pay! To women, that is not a small victory for their health or their wallets.

In 2012, women's health advocates remained in control of the Senate largely thanks to a winning public discussion about abortion and women's health, though politicians like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock definitely deserve their share of the credit. And Eskew may not have noticed Planned Parenthood Votes' television ads about abortion rights in Virginia, a state where we worked to elect a pro-women's health governor last year alongside our local political and advocacy organization, incredible volunteers, community organizers, as well as advocacy and justice groups who are credited for the strong showing of women of color at the polls.

Where our efforts fall short, it's not because we're not saying the right things but because we don't get it out there enough. In 2010, we didn't turn enough women out to vote, and we're working feverishly to make sure that won't happen again in 2014. We probably will knock more doors in North Carolina alone in 2014 as we did nationwide in 2010.

Eskew writes that we need to start a national discussion about reproductive rights, but in truth we've never stopped talking about them. What has changed is a growing appreciation of all that women's health and access entails, and anything that shines a light on that ongoing discussion -- including Eskew's piece -- is welcome.