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Ready or Not: Obama Transition Team Publishes Reproductive Health Community's Agenda

01/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Originally published on RHRealityCheck.org - Information, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

A recent directive from John Podesta, chair of President-elect Obama's transition team, informs transition team staffers of a sweeping transparency policy that will make public all policy documents and recommendations from meetings staffers conduct with outside organizations. Apparently, they mean it: dozens of transition documents drafted for the transition team by advocacy groups ranging from the American Association of Airport Executives to the Women Business Owner's Platform for Growth are now up on the change.gov website. Papers on reproductive health are well-represented: visitors will find among the documents a transition memo crafted by over 50 groups in the reproductive health community. Advocates hadn't intended the document to go public, but now that it has, it's apparent that the public has an appetite for reproductive health policy minutia.

Advocates involved in crafting the document -- "Advancing Reproductive Health and Rights in a New Administration" -- say it represented a wholly collaborative effort by the reproductive health community to articulate a concrete plan for progressive reproductive health policy during the Obama administration, including many fixes for harmful Bush administration policy. None of the "asks" include anything not previously seen by any regular RH Reality Check reader: These range from restoring funding to UNFPA to urging Congress to pass the Prevention First Act. The document is clear and comprehensive on the gaps in access to women's health care and how to repair them. It acknowledges lesser-noticed restrictions of women's reproductive autonomy alongside those that are well-reported: for instance, it considers an end to the practice of shackling women prisoners while they are giving birth a crucial component of "supporting healthy pregnancies." It also calls for increased spending on substance abuse treatment programs for pregnant and parenting women.

What advocates were less eager to share with the public is the detailed roadmap included in the document for the changes in policy needed to improve reproductive health for women both here and abroad. Several advocates cited concerns that the administration would be criticized as doing the bidding of reproductive health community if it made use of the specific legal reasoning outlined in the document.

Nonetheless, it's clear that the public likes being privvy to policy documents like this one, apart from or in addition to getting information about the women's health agenda for the next administration. There are now over 100 comments on the document on change.gov, debating sexuality education policy and reimbursements for Certified Nurse Midwives, calling for free, over-the-counter access to emergency contraception, and funding for self-esteem and empowerment programs for teens, among many other threads. Scattered comments decry the use of abortion as "birth control," and others put the issue of abortion in religious terms, but the comments overwhelmingly favor prevention and securing women's access to abortion. As any reader of pro-sexual and reproductive health online content can attest, even the best-reasoned pieces of writing can be met with outcry from anti-choice commenters. Impressively, in this instance, those who attempt to frame the issues of reproductive health in religious or moral terms are respectfully refuted, and commenters reframe the issue around women's health and rights.

A recent article by Peter Daou captures the burgeoning, and vocal, "online commentariat" ready and willing to respond to policy proposals at a level of sophistication largely unimagined by traditional communications strategies.

Daou writes,

For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the media's constraints...Every piece of news and information is instantly processed by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes.

And Daou highlights the role of the online commentariat in providing "validation and legitimation" of agenda-setting work done by advocates.

Now that the transition document has gone public, a question arises: How can reproductive health advocates more effectively enlist the power and support of the public in making these issues a central concern for the next administration and ensuring that the voices of the pro-choice majority of Americans are represented? Jessica Arons, Director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress and one of the advocates involved in drafting the document, says that the groups who contributed to the document haven't yet reconvened to consider any collective communications or movement-building strategy around the document. "Our goal was to come together to present a united front and outline what we hope the new administration will do," says Arons. "Whether we will develop a collective communications or movement-building strategy around the document remains to be seen. In the meantime, some organizations have put forth their own agendas publicly, and have made efforts to mobilize people around items on those agendas."

In the mean time, perhaps interested members of the reproductive health community should head to change.gov to make sure their voices are reflected among the growing chorus of commenters weighing in on reproductive health priorities for the next administration!