In budget fight, pro-choice organizations get played again

The role of the pro-choice community in the last minute budget deal is a sad one: we were totally used.

We have not had a major victory for abortion rights at the federal level since Roe v. Wade. Instead, we’ve been losing since the passage of the Hyde Amendment. Almost 40 years of losing strategy that hasn’t changed much. And our opponents have gotten pretty good at taking advantage of this fact. Much of the debate about the budget has hinged on the issue of abortion, despite the fact the US government continues to bar federal funding for the procedure. But a lot of the public conversation was about funding for Planned Parenthood, and this is where the energy of DC-based pro-choice organizations has been focused. When the budget deal was reached late last week these organizations celebrated because Planned Parenthood was saved.

This is political theater at its worst. The debate around Planned Parenthood funding has been used as a distraction from all the other shameful cuts in the deal, cuts that should matter a hell of a lot to anyone who sees abortion as a part of the intersectional lived reality of real people. Attacks on the Affordable Care Act, medical research, and STI and HIV/AIDS prevention were practically ignored. Plus there’s cuts to education, infrastructure, and climate change research. All this while politicians continue to push for more tax cuts for the wealthy. The deal hurts the government’s ability to collect revenue and won’t do much to reduce the deficit anyway, a shameful enough goal when the economy is in shambles, unemployment continues to be high and the divide between rich and poor continues to grow.

While this circus played out an actual attack on abortion access made it through. The budget deal undermines Washington DC autonomy, and more importantly hurts poor folks, imposing a ban on the use of local funds to help pay for abortion in the District. These funds would be used for low income people who are also predominantly people of color. I was incredibly moved to see Mayor Vince Gray and other politicians stand up for the District and get arrested in the face of this shameful attack.

The way this fight transpired is eerily similar to the battle for health care reform, where abortion was used as a wedge to distract everyone while the bill was weakened, while we lost any chance at the public option. Pro-choice organizations played along then, doing exactly what opponents of health care reform wanted, letting all the focus shift to one divisive, emotional issue. And they’ve done exactly the same thing again, playing right into the hands of politicians and interest groups who want to distract us from what’s really going on at the federal level.

We got played. Again.

I wrote about the pro-choice movement’s decades of losing at the federal level following the abortion debacle in the fight for health care reform. This is just one piece of a broad, intersectional net of losses on the provision of social services, and the reasons are varied. The privatizing of social services, much of which happened under Reagan and is still continuing today, means the left has had to focus on creating nonprofits to be the safety net. Meanwhile, the right got to create think tanks to figure out how to convince poor and working class folks to vote against their own interests. But sadly we’re still stuck in a failed model.

On the eve of the possible government shut down pro-choice orgs held a rally and lobby day for Planned Parenthood. What the hell? I mean seriously, who thought this was a good idea? Why the fuck would our leaders focus on this one specific issue, when Senate leaders had already said they wouldn’t let it pass, when it was so clearly being used as a distraction?

For the bigger orgs it’s hard not to think leadership knew what was going on and played along anyway, trapped in a model of organizing that isn’t working. And the smaller orgs, lacking power, resources, and time to invest in strategy, are stuck following their lead. As one friend pointed out to me that it’s in Planned Parenthood’s interest for their name to be all over the news – this focus brings in funding. It’s understandable – they need money to do their work – but sadly this model actually hurts their ability to fight the real battles. The funding these orgs get makes them incredibly siloed, focused on a narrow definition of reproductive rights rather than on a broad attack on the social reality of which abortion is just one piece. It forces them to focus on their own survival over a broader vision for social justice.

The nonprofit model itself and the way national pro-choice orgs do business is a serious part of the problem. We don’t have enough lobbyists doing the work of talking to leaders on Capitol Hill. They are not backed up in a real way by the rest of their own organizations and partners. The base building arm of the DC scene isn’t working to show the grassroots how the sausage really gets made in Washington and what really needs to be worked on. Orgs focused on mobilizing around the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” and the “Protect Life Act” even though they were never going to move and were pretty obviously set up to be distractions from the real issues. Why? It’s the job of organizers to build lists of names. So they collect petitions that go no where, that they don’t even bother to deliver. Because Congress doesn’t care about petitions or form emails. Most of the work is focused on maintaining the organizations themselves, which makes sense and is part of the inherent problem of the nonprofits. This includes completely failed communications work, messaging that hasn’t really changed in decades even though it clearly doesn’t speak to people any more.

The result is wasted energy of the grassroots. There are so many people passionate about making abortion access a reality in the US, but we’re stuck with leadership that isn’t giving us real avenues for directing energy towards positive change. Those of us blogging and tweeting are often stuck following the lead of national orgs – we have a deficit of time, energy, and resources, so when a national org says an issue is a priority or sends out a petition and says that’s the way to take action we follow their lead. There are also a ton of passionate, dedicated, wonderful people working in these organizations, many of them young people. And their energy is being wasted, used to maintain this failed organizational structure and strategy. I used to work in DC, which is where I developed this critique, and I know I’ve done more good on the issues I cared about as an unemployed blogger than I ever did in my job. This breaks my heart, because this work needs to be sustainable, folks need to be able to get paid to do it, but the avenues for getting paid to fight for abortion rights at the federal level, I believe, actually hurt the struggle.

At this point conservatives know they can use the pro-choice community to distract from the real issues and help them push through dangerous attacks on safety nets or weaken potentially good legislation. Meanwhile, the national pro-choice scene has barely changed leaders, tactics, strategy, or messaging at all in that entire time. What the hell kind of sense does it make to stick with the same losing strategy for 4 decades?

Following health care reform I said a major reevaluation was necessary. We need a new way of doing this work. We need honesty about what matters in the legislative process, what does and doesn’t move. We need real avenues for the grassroots to get involved and impact legislation – phone calls matter a hell of a lot more than petitions, but it’s damn hard to switch to this model. And we need an intersectional approach that makes it possible to see the big picture, because conservatives actually have this and are attacking us on many fronts. I really question the possibility of this happening in the current nonprofit model, but I also don’t know what the alternative is. There’s so much vision on the internet right now, but most of us aren’t making any real money off our organizing. And I question if national orgs get that the base wants to understand how the sausage making works and is ready to get involved in a real way.

We need to be in this fight badly, but I’m saddened by the continued draining of resources for a failed approach that’s become an easy way for conservatives to hurt any progressive cause.

Update: The DC abortion ban has already gone into effect and patients are already being told they can’t use Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions. the DC Abortion Fund desperately needs money now. If you can give, please give.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Blergh. I’m angry at the folks on the anti-choice Right, but I’m so much more angry at the people who were supposed to be on my team.

    That whole, “John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” thing is infuriating on so many levels to me as a D.C. woman.

    I haven’t stopped fuming and ranting about this budget deal since it all went down, so I’m totally on board with getting a new line of action that will actually produce real results in our favor. Unfortunately, I think we’re going to have serious problems maintaining rights, let alone making any progress, if our current electeds don’t take them all that seriously.

  2. Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this interesting post, Jos. I understand your criticism of a silo-ed movement that protects organizations above broader, shared goals. And your frustration with online organizing that doesn’t really make a political difference but acts as a list-building exercise for organizations. That said–I wonder if you could elaborate on your argument that the rally/lobby day for PPFA were just political theatre. This was in-person contact with Congress which seems out of step with your critique of e-activism. If neither e-activism nor in-person lobbying and rallying works, what do we have left? (That’s a genuine question; having participated in pro-choice lobby days in DC myself I have to admit they seem to have little impact.) The other question–yes, Senate members may have been pledging to block the ban on Planned Parenthood funding, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to let up pressure. Right? I’m not so sure that, had PPFA not defended itself, those elected officials would have come through in the same way. The pro-choice movement tried to play along quietly and nicely in healthcare reform and that many critiques have argued that set the stage for their downfall.

    PPFA has been incredibly successful in fighting back right-wing attacks in a way that ACORN simply wasn’t, and I admire them for that. I was very disappointed to see no mention of the DC abortion funding ban when PPFA sent out its “we won!” email, I totally agree there. But I’m not sure the intensity with which PPFA defends itself merits criticism. Anyway, not sure we actually disagree, I just wonder if you can elaborate more.

    • Posted April 14, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Thank you Emily for your comment/question. The same question weighed heavily on my mind after reading the post by Jos. This type of repetitive criticism demands that a viable alternative model be put forth. What would the critics have – that low income women get thrown under the bus should Planned Parenthood health centers have to close due to lack of funding?

      The threats against Planned Parenthood’s family planning funding are real and will continue to be real. The organizing effort to give voices and faces to the reality of women’s lives was absolutely necessary and made a huge impact on elected officials and the American public.

      And Emily, re your comment about Planned Parenthood’s public statement following the budget vote, Planned Parenthood did indeed mention the travesty that was the DC decision. See same link that Jos posted http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/statement-cecile-richards-president-planned-parenthood-federation-america-regarding-budget-deal-36692.htm

  3. Posted April 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I admittedly just skimmed here, ’cause it’s long.

    From my vantage point, progressives in general got the short end of what is already a shrinking stick. At least for the past decade (and particularly during the last 4+ years when they’ve actually had some measure of power), the Democrats as a whole have shown little political will. Granted, the Republicans benefit from a stronger political structure (thanks to support from non-party institutions), but the Democrats in DC generally still lose when the numbers are either a draw or are in their favor. The party controls both the Senate and Executive and the Republicans control the House. Democrats should be able to do better than give up spending cuts (which generally affect programs they care about) without making the Republicans give up or pay much (taking on higher but progressive taxes and cutting corporate welfare can hand financial responsibility to those most capable of handling it, and we can gain greater control of the national debt without cutting valuable social programs).

  4. Posted April 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    There is a small bright side to all of this. Donations are through the roof.

  5. Posted April 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I am in the process of establishing an org and would like to avoid , at least, some of the pitfalls of the organizational structures you mentioned. You mentioned phone calls to Representatives being favored over petitions, but could you elaborate on what organizational structures, plans, and actions you favor? I believe myself, and many, many organizers, volunteers, and activists who frequent feministing would greatly benefit.

  6. Posted April 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I was also at the pro-choice lobby day/rally, and I agree with Emily–NARAL’s efforts in particular seemed really ill-coordinated and ineffective. (I will say this, though, they’d planned it at least a month in advance, so it’s unfair to claim it was organized in reaction to the budget battle.)

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