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The Best Candidate for Choice

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In a recent Huffington Post article, an impressive group of women leaders examined Hillary Clinton's Senate record on reproductive rights and concluded that "Hillary Clinton is the best choice for president of the United States." The viewpoint of these leaders is important, they are all knowledgeable insiders, committed feminists and have extensive professional experience with Senator Clinton. The 10 endorsers, including Martha Burk, Cecelia Fire Thunder, Irene Natividad, Ellie Smeal, and Gloria Steinem, rightly identify themselves as "women who have spent our careers fighting to protect a woman's right to choose."

As another woman leader who has spent her career fighting to protect a woman's right to choose, with a special emphasis on protecting women's religious freedom, I see the record through a different lens. I have endorsed Senator Obama. While I believe in the nitty gritty of a day-to-day legislative agenda, there will be little difference between Clinton and Obama, I am convinced that in the larger struggle to complete the social transformation promised by Roe, Obama's instincts and values will bring us closer to that transformation.

There is no doubt that not even the most anorectic model could slip through the "space" between Obama and Clinton on some major choice issues. Both will nominate Supreme Court justices who support Roe; both will lift the global gag rule within days of taking office with a coterie of choice leaders standing behind them: and UNFPA can expect that its funding will be restored as both will certify that the agency is not involved in coercive programs in China. The Clinton endorsers rightly point to Clinton's leadership role in the Senate on over the counter availability of emergency contraception and expanded support for Title X and Medicaid family planning funds, but does anyone expect that Senator Obama would not be equally supportive?

Of course, Obama enters the arena with a shorter record and on some of the more controversial reproductive health issues, we don't know what he would do or how he would use his office to advocate for women's reproductive rights. I suspect that in some areas he may fall short and we will need to work hard to prevent that. I also more than suspect, based on her record as a Senator and the record of the Clinton administration, that there are a number of areas where Senator Clinton is more likely to disappoint us and I am surprised at the short memory of my friends and colleagues who are supporting Senator Clinton. While allowing for a change of heart, we need to remember those failures.

While Burk and others noted in their letter of support Senator Clinton's leadership on Medicaid family planning funding, they studiously ignored the question of whether the Senator has led efforts to restore Medicaid funding for abortions. She has not. In fact, in the last years of his presidency it was Bill Clinton who signed into law a permanent Hyde Amendment that prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, a presidential first. We might have expected that the Senator with eight years in the Senate who our colleagues tell us is "the one candidate whose leadership on this issue is unparalleled" and who is considered one of the best across the aisle players might have tried to overturn that Amendment and shown a stronger commitment to poor and low income women than we saw in Senator Clinton.

Another controversial issue that went unmentioned was the question of whether the health care plan of Senator Clinton will give religious organizations the right to refuse to provide services they consider "immoral" -- emergency contraception, voluntary sterilization, condoms to prevent HIV, and assisted reproduction come to mind. Will the Clinton plan require abortion coverage? Some of us still remember the battles we had with Senator Clinton when as First Lady and health care reform honcho she was at first unwilling to include abortion as a mandated service. To the end the Clinton health care reform plan included the broadest right of refusal to provide services ever introduced in federal legislation. It would have allowed any provider, religious or not, to refuse to provide any service they deemed immoral and still participate in the plan and reap the benefits of participation. Has Senator Clinton changed her mind on these issues? It is perfectly plausible that she has, but it is the responsibility of reproductive health and women's rights advocates to secure those commitments now, not simply trust that the woman they know and love will do the right thing if elected.

Other issues mentioned by my colleagues also require more careful scrutiny. Senator Clinton has led the charge for the Prevention First Act which would expand family planning services and education dramatically thus reducing the need for abortion. The bill has languished in both the Senate and the House for almost four years, including the last two years when Democrats have had a clear majority. It seems fair to ask how high a priority this legislation was for the Senator when the bill never came to the floor for a vote in spite of the Senator's power, a Democratic majority and considerable Republican support for family planning.

To be fair, this is one of those situations where the fact that the Senator has a longer record works against her as well as for her. My candidate, Barack Obama, needs to be asked by the pro-choice community the same questions I ask Senator Clinton. Our task as advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights and women's rights cannot be limited to electioneering or the idea that getting Democrats elected means the most equitable and progressive reproductive health policies will be supported. We must first and foremost be advocates for both the positions that will make women's lives better and the style of leadership that will enhance feminist values best.

The role of a president is not the same as that of a senator. I fully expect that whichever of the two, Obama or Clinton, become president, I will be fighting with them for more than either is ready to give. I am more suspicious of Senator Clinton because as much as I respect her, she has more than once failed the movement. The struggle for reproductive health and rights over the next decade cannot continue to be about defending against bad legislation or being the biggest pit bull in the fight; it is no longer about "winning" the culture war. It is about completing the social transformation that Roe began but did not solidify. That task, I believe, will best be accomplished by a president who sees her or his role as calling us to greatness. It is not about beating anti-abortion advocates to death; it is about listening to the majority of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal and highly regulated, acknowledging what it is that they are afraid of and making them less afraid. I think Barack Obama is the person who can do that. I deeply believe he is the best hope we have to ending both the abortion wars and the war in Iraq.