on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Newsweek (USA), August 5, 2004

All Quiet on the Abortion Front?

The president of Planned Parenthood discusses her take on the Democratic National Convention and what the Kerry campaign could be doing better

Aug. 5 - Convention-watchers may have wondered if they were watching the same Democratic Party. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton on a platform that emphasized a woman's right to choose. John Kerry made no mention of abortion at all in his acceptance speech; daughter Alexandra alluded only to the right to "control" one's body.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, did address the Fleet Center about what she called the Republican administration's "war on women's choice," but her five-minute address on Monday evening wasn't covered by any of the major networks or cable-news channels. And none of the big-name speakers spent any time on the issue that has been so closely identified with the party. In an election that could have an impact on the makeup of the Supreme Court for the next generation, it is remarkable how little attention the issue is getting. Is Kerry-whose voting record is solidly pro-choice but said last month he believes life begins at conception-trying to avoid wading into controversial waters? Does he assume everyone already knows where he stands on abortion? Feldt recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about her take on Boston, what she would like to see from the Kerry campaign and what Planned Parenthood has on tap for the Republican National Convention later this month.

NEWSWEEK: The Democrats were largely silent on the topic of abortion in Boston. Do they assume that the base knows where they stand, or is the issue losing urgency with them?

Gloria Feldt: I'm sure part of the logic is exactly as you just said: they assume we know where he stands. I want to broaden this issue a bit, however. It's not just about abortion rights. If there's any one important message that I've been giving to the Kerry campaign and to John Kerry himself it is: this is much bigger than abortion rights. The Bush administration is after family planning. They are after birth control. They are after insurance coverage of birth control. They are after medically accurate sex education. They are after telling people how condoms can help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

You wouldn't know it listening to the Kerry campaign.

It is very important for the campaign to begin to articulate more of an agenda. I know they have; they just haven't talked about it in a big public venue like that. I think they're doing themselves a disservice, particularly with the women voters whom they need to bring out if they don't talk more about their agenda for women's reproductive health and rights in the broader view.

Kerry did say last month that he believes life begins at conception. Is that problematic for you?

Not really. Pro-choice means pro-choice. We respect people's different points of view. He also explained that he understood the difference between life and personhood, which is a very fundamental difference. The sperm is alive and the egg is alive-nobody argues that point. The real issue is when does the developing fetus get more status in the law and get more moral status than a living, breathing, alive woman?

Is he strong in your eyes on these issues? Or does his not addressing them suggest to you that he is not as vehemently pro-choice as you would like him to be?

I think that past performance is the best predictor of future behavior and his voting record is 100 percent pro-choice. John Edwards's voting record is 100 percent pro-choice. John Edwards was brilliant in the Senate Judiciary Committee, skewering Bush's most radical anti-civil-rights, anti-choice judicial nominees.

Is that the big issue for you in this election, the appointment of judges?

It's not the only issue. It's one of the most important issues, certainly. But for Planned Parenthood, the other important issues are assuring access to family planning. Bush has now defunded the United Nations Population Fund three years in a row, resulting in millions of unintended pregnancies, millions of abortions and thousands of maternal and child deaths worldwide. We need an administration who will turn that around. Similarly with domestic family-planning programs, the way to prevent abortion-which is most of Planned Parenthood's work-is to make sure people have access to family-planning services and good information.

Is it the role of government to be active in family planning?

The role of government is to make sure that citizens, obviously, are safe and, secondly, that citizens have the ability to make their own choices and better themselves in life. It's long been proven that every dollar spent on family planning saves at least three dollars in other government programs. So there's no cost to this; this is all about the Bush administrations ideology.

What most concerns you about the Bush administration? What would concern you about Kerry?

What most concerns me about the Bush administration is not any one thing. It's that they have created a web of anti-choice attacks and they have done it under the radar screen. At the moment I don't have anything particularly that troubles me about a Kerry administration. He has said the first thing he would do is rescind the "global gag rule," which has served to reduce funding to many international family-planning programs and therefore increase unintended pregnancy and abortion globally. We interviewed all the presidential candidates during the primary. We invited George Bush to be interviewed; he did not accept. In interviewing Kerry, sitting across the table one-on-one, on camera in a video he knew would be sent to all of our affiliates across the country, what I heard was in his gut an understanding how access to reproductive health-care services is part of women's global human rights. I think he's got it in his heart and in his gut. Getting him to specific policy initiatives will be the challenge.

You were at the convention.

I wasn't on the floor every minute ... nor did I get to watch all of the convention, but my observation was without fail any time anybody, myself included, mentioned a women's right to choose or reproductive health, that was met with loud cheers and approval from the audience.

What are your plans for the Republican National Convention?

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is nonpartisan and we have tried very hard the last few conventions to get some change in the Republican platform and have not been successful. Nevertheless, we will have a reception for pro-choice Republicans who are there. We will also have an entertainment event. Planned Parenthood of New York City is sponsoring a march for women's lives. It's on Saturday before the convention actually starts. It's a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Our presence will be there. We're not as interested in attacking George Bush as in appealing to broad public opinion at this point. He's not going to change his mind. There are some groups that want to attack and we don't see any benefit in that. We know and the American people know where George Bush stands.

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