Monday, June 27, 2011
Queer Democrats Warned About Threats to Reproductive Choice
Also Hear Presentation on Likely Strike by Grocery Workers
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom:
Left to right: Vince Hall, Jenn Kish, Matt Stephens
Evan McLaughlin and Herman Ramirez
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club heard two presentations at its June 23 meeting: a report on the likely strike by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) against southern California’s three largest grocery chains — Ralph’s, Albertson’s and Vons — and a warning about the potentially devastating effects of Republican and radical-Right policies against women’s rights to reproductive choice. Though the struggles of women to maintain safe and legal access to contraception and abortion may seem to have little in common with those of workers for decent pay, access to health care and other benefits, speakers on both issues noted how the radical Right has effectively linked them in the service of a paternalistic agenda that regards workers as mere cogs in a capitalist economy, and women as mere vessels for giving birth to the next generation.
The panel on reproductive choice was introduced by Jacqueline Palmer, the club’s membership chair, who said that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives “rejected the idea that people have the right to control their own bodies” when they voted overwhelmingly last February to bar all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “In their attempts to gut Title X funding [the basic federal funding for women’s health clinics, ironically signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970], House Republicans voted to let more people die of breast and cervical cancer and AIDS. Right-wing attacks on collective bargaining rights, same-sex marriage and reproductive choice are part of a united campaign.”
Palmer’s arguments were seconded by the three speakers on her panel, who linked all those issues to the Right’s vision of America’s future and explained how they are connected. The speakers were former Assembly candidate Vince Hall, vice-president of public affairs and communications for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest; Matt Stephens, partner in the Progressive Law Group, former chair of the City of San Diego’s Human Relations Commission and board member of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center and the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and Jenn Kish, a recent graduate of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law who founded a chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice while she studied there.
Hall recalled that when he started working for Planned Parenthood in 2004, the organization was facing the first of three initiatives in California that would have required girls under 18 to notify their parents before having an abortion. All of these were sponsored and largely bankrolled by San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman, and though Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice activists were able to defeat them at the polls, they sucked up millions of dollars these groups would otherwise have been able to spend on women’s health services. “With the election of Obama, I thought I might get an opportunity to play offense,” Hall said. “That was fleeting because 2011 has been the most challenging year in the history of our organization. The attacks have been on multiple fronts, and the attackers have been all too familiar.”
Citing three areas in which the pro-choice movement has had to struggle — “political, social and legal” — Hall said that the votes on the parental notification initiatives did not necessarily follow partisan lines. Heavily Democratic districts were as likely to support them as heavily Republican ones, Hall said — and, he added, that was equally true of the anti-marriage initiative Proposition 8. Reproductive choice and marriage equality did best, according to Hall, in “more moderate areas where people were more educated and there were more decline-to-states” — California election-speak for voters who don’t affiliate with a political party. “The elected officials from Democratic precincts are generally for marriage equality and reproductive choice, but when there’s an initiative on the ballot the dynamics change,” Hall warned.
According to Hall, the central value of the movements for both reproductive choice and Queer rights — and the principal reason the radical Right opposes both — is the concept of privacy. “We believe the government has no role in our churches and doctors’ offices,” Hall said. “The people who think they should are attempting to arrest social progress and hold us to a time when their superstitions and mantras governed our civil rights. People in this country fought very hard for abortion rights and women’s health care, including family planning and contraception. The people who are against marriage equality are also waging an all-out war against contraception in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.” Hall joked that there are now three litmus tests by which Republicans judge the fitness of their potential Presidential candidates: whether they reject the idea of evolution, how many guns they have and their commitment to defunding Planned Parenthood.
Aside from contradicting the Republicans’ repeated insistence that they believe in “limited government,” Hall argued, attacks on Planned Parenthood and women’s health care in general actually go against their stated goals of saving the government money and limiting the number of abortions. He cited a report by the Guttmacher Institute, whose Web site states its mission as “advancing sexual and reproductive health worldwide through research, policy analysis and public education,” that eliminating Title X funding for family planning clinics would result in a 34 percent increase in the number of abortions and a 37 percent increase in teenage pregnancies.
“The only way to reduce abortions is to reduce unwanted pregnancies,” Hall said. “Once there were Republicans who actually understood that, but now the Republican Party has become a suspension of the application of logic and reason. The consequences of the 2012 election are enormous. We must re-elect President Obama and [preserve] a Democratic blockade in the Senate.” Hall praised Obama for refusing to compromise when Republican House Speaker John Boehner demanded cutbacks in family planning funding, and warned that, unable to end Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, the Republicans are instead working through the states and, in states with Republican governors and legislative majorities, are pushing an agenda “ to defund Planned Parenthood, eliminate the tax deductibility of health insurance plans that cover abortions, and impose onerous new building requirements on Planned Parenthood’s facilities.”
As a result, Hall said, Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana are already turning away patients, and unless a federal judge halts the state’s new laws by June 30, they will likely have to close down altogether. “This is the most substantial dismantling of women’s health in history,” Hall said. “We provide cancer screenings and STD testing and treatment. We will never shrink from our commitment to women’s health care.” He described the Republicans and the radical Right as having an agenda not only to “end legal and safe abortion” in the U.S. but to eliminate women’s access to health care and family planning that might help them avert the unwanted pregnancies that can lead to abortions.
Civil Right or “Undue Burden”?
Many Americans believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 guaranteed women an absolute right to reproductive choice. Not true, said Matt Stephens, who in an impassioned presentation demonstrated just how limited women’s rights over their own bodies are even now, with Planned Parenthood still in existence and family planning services other than abortion still federally funded. Under Roe, Stephens explained, “Women only have the right to terminate pregnancies in the first trimester. In the second trimester it’s a ‘shared choice’ between women and the state, and in the third trimester it’s not her choice at all. This is how far we’ve come from [Planned Parenthood founder] Margaret Sanger, who said in 1916 that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy should be absolute.”
Since Roe, Stephens said, the courts have steadily chipped away at the whole idea of women’s right to reproductive choice. The key decision, he explained, was the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, which challenged five restrictions the Pennsylvania legislature had put on women’s access to abortion. They were a so-called “informed consent” law requiring doctors to lecture women about the health risks and possible complications of an abortion; notification requirements that minors had to tell their parents before they could have an abortion, and married women had to tell their husbands; a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed; and reporting requirements for hospital and clinics performing abortions.
Though the court in Casey split wildly and no one opinion commanded a majority of the nine justices, the opinion that ultimately became settled law was written by the Court’s first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. It held that state restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional only if they imposed an “undue burden” on women. The opinion defined “undue burden” as “the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.” According to Stephens, O’Connor’s opinion upheld four of the five restrictions in Pennsylvania’s law as not constituting an “undue burden.” The only one she invalidated was the one that married women notify their husbands — and that, she said, was an “undue burden” because of the possibility that men might beat up their wives if they heard their wives say they wanted an abortion.
In other words, said Stephens, the current Supreme Court has held that the government may do anything it wants to restrict abortion as long as the restrictions don’t put women seeking abortion at risk of being victims of physical violence. In the Court’s most recent major decision on abortion, Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007), Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion upheld a law making third-trimester dilation-and-extraction abortions — referred to in radical-Right propaganda as “partial-birth abortions” — illegal on the ground that the ban did not impose an “undue burden” on women. In that ruling, Stephens said, “Congress was given the right to decide what is medically necessary for a woman.”
Stephens also talked about how the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions potentially affect Queer rights in general and marriage equality in particular. He said that the entire legal argument for Queer rights rests on the assumption that the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual right to privacy. Even though there’s nothing specific in the Constitution that says that, the Supreme Court in the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut — which ruled that married heterosexuals had a constitutional right to access to birth control — said the Constitution’s guarantees of individual freedom created a “penumbral” right to privacy, a holding that was later cited as a basis for Roe v. Wade. The radical Right has consistently rejected the whole idea of a legal right to privacy as liberal “judicial activism” — and, Stephens argued, Justice Kennedy’s Carhart opinion has given the Court a precedent by which they could also limit Queer rights based on an “undue burden” test.
What’s more, Stephens said, attacks on women’s access to abortion are also attacks on women’s equality in general. “It is now accepted that women have autonomy to determine their life’s choice and their equal status, and that autonomy is dependent on her ability to control her reproduction,” he argued. “The attack on reproductive choice is not just an attack on women’s health but an attack on women’s ability to participate in society and in the workforce. When are we going to start saying this is an attack on women workers, on women’s citizenship? The legal fight only gets us so far. We have to put ourselves out and want the whole right and nothing but the right. What can you do to make sure that women get their full rights as citizens in the U.S.? That requires you to talk to your representatives, support Planned Parenthood and write letters to the editor to support women’s rights. All of us in the LGBT [Queer] community will benefit because it’s about our equal right to privacy and liberty, and it’s up to you to protect that.”
The Demographic Time Bomb
After a short presentation by Kish that was mostly a list of pro-choice organizations with which people can work on the issue, the club then opened the floor to audience questions — mostly centered around the polls showing that the younger Americans are, the more likely they are to support government restrictions on abortion rights. This has troubled a lot of pro-choice activists, not only because it suggests it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. has a stable anti-choice majority but also because it’s the opposite of the message from similar polls about marriage equality. Why would young people be more progressive than older ones about same-sex marriage but less so about women’s rights? The panelists came up with several answers to that question.
“Younger people have grown up in a different media culture in which homophobia makes no sense,” said Hall. “But they also don’t know what went on before Roe v. Wade. They don’t know that before 1973 each major big-city hospital had a special ward just for women suffering from the effects of botched illegal abortions. Voters who support marriage equality are not morally conflicted about it, but everyone has complex feelings about abortion. Younger people are more likely to say abortion should be regulated because they don’t have enough information to separate those public policy issues from their personal confusion about abortion.”
Stephens had a different explanation: he blamed the radical Right’s success in virtually eliminating fact-based sex education from schools and imposing “abstinence-only” programs. Young people, he said, “don’t have a base of information” on which to base sound public policy judgments on how to deal with sex and its consequences. “Also, we’ve lost the legal high ground, and those students don’t have the perspective that [women’s reproductive] rights should be absolute,” he added. “We also don’t educate students, including medical students, about this. Medical students don’t have access to training that includes reproductive health care, including abortion, and they need it.”
One audience member raised the point that not only do polls show young people less likely to support reproductive choice than older ones, but young women are less likely to support it than young men. Hall said that it’s precisely because the issue is more personal for young women that they’re less able to consider it as a public-policy question than young men. “We need to make young people understand that it is not about what they would decide, but it’s about what public policy should be,” Hall explained — to which long-time club activist and former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner grimly joked that young men may be more likely to be pro-choice than young women simply because they think they’ll get more sex if women’s reproductive choice is guaranteed.
Hall also critiqued media coverage of the issue, particularly the annual Gallup poll, taken in May, which asks people whether they consider themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life” on abortion. “This is a debate between two terms that no longer have any meaning, except to political activists,” he said. Hall recalled that when one reporter asked him for an interview on the Gallup poll, he asked her if she’d read the other question on the report — the one that asked, “Do you think abortions should be legal under all circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal under all circumstances?” She admitted she hadn’t, and so Hall read the results to her. In May 2011 27 percent of Gallup’s respondents answered “always legal,” 50 percent “sometimes legal” and only 22 percent said “always illegal” — so, he argued, less than a quarter of Gallup’s sample endorsed the bottom-line position of the anti-abortion movement.
Club members asked questions on a number of other aspects of the issue, including the economic stimulus effect of family-planning funding and the insulting attitude towards women underlying many anti-abortion laws — the assumption that women are too immature to make decisions about their bodies and their pregnancies without help from a paternalistic state. Jenn Kish reported that the radical-Right legislative majority in Texas is already considering bills to outlaw legal access to birth control, and longtime club member Elaine Graybill said that young people who can’t imagine what it was like when abortion was illegal also can’t conceive of a time when they wouldn’t have birth control available.
“What is at stake is privacy rights,” said Stephens. “We’ve already had specific debates on the ‘morning-after pill.’ We have to change the terms of debate. Our youth are not familiar with where we have come from. There have to be ‘Take Back the Night’ marches where women 50 and older come forward and say they terminated a pregnancy. We have to take away the moral shame we’ve been put in about sex in general and pregnancy in particular.”
The Grocery Strike Situation
The club also heard from Herman Ramirez of Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the largest private-sector labor union in San Diego County, and Evan McLaughlin, political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, on the situation between the union and the three largest supermarket chains in southern California: Kroger, which owns Ralph’s; Supervalu, which owns Albertson’s; and Safeway, which owns Vons. In 2003 the three chains forced a labor confrontation that resulted in a 5 1/2-month strike widely regarded as a crushing defeat for the union. They had to agree to a “two-tier” wage structure so newly hired workers would be paid less than previous employees, and were hit with major cuts in health care and pension benefits.
“The core issues” of the 2003-2004 strike “were fabricated” by the chains, Ramirez said. “They were just trying to get givebacks from us on health care and pensions. This year the economic issues are real, and the companies have decided to deal with health care by just taking it away. It’s a cost shift of 80 percent to the members. We are on the road to a strike, maybe at the end of June, maybe in mid-July.” Noting that the grocery chains are nationwide companies and therefore “they’re not afraid of a strike,” Ramirez said the only real weapon the union has is to get people not to shop at the stores — and to that end he brought packets containing a list of unionized stores where people who want to support the strike can shop. Unfortunately, though the list includes drugstore chains like Rite Aid and CVS, it does not contain any major food outlets in the Hillcrest, North Park or Normal Heights areas, making it virtually impossible for people without cars to support the union.
Ramirez urged shoppers to go to the managers of local Ralph’s, Albertson’s and Vons stores and explain to them that they won’t be shopping there during a strike — or even after that if the final contract isn’t fair to workers. He said messages like that will get relayed to corporate headquarters and may have an effect on the stores’ negotiating strategies. Asked about the overall profitability of the stores, Ramirez said, “Yes, they are [making a lot of money]. The only store that’s not doing well is Albertson’s. They’ve never been able to recapture the market share” they had before the 2003-04 strike.
McLaughlin also talked about the 900-pound gorilla in the marketing world: Wal-Mart. In 2003 the grocery chains said that one of the major reasons they needed wage and benefit concessions from their workers was the threat of competition from aggressively anti-union Wal-Mart and the giant “Supercenters” they wanted to build throughout San Diego County and anywhere else that would have them. The San Diego City Council passed a bill to require an economic impact statement before Wal-Mart or any other company could build a giant store, but rescinded it after Wal-Mart successfully got enough signatures to repeal it in a referendum and the Council decided not to spend the $3 million it would cost for a special election to defend the ordinance.
Nonetheless, unionists, activists and Wal-Mart foes pushed the issue at the state level through SB 469, sponsored by San Diego-area State Senator Juan Vargas. McLaughlin announced that the State Senate has already passed the bill and it just survived its first committee test in the Assembly. McLaughlin urged club members to write their Assemblymembers and lobby in support of SB 469.
Both Ramirez and McLaughlin commented on the media coverage. In 2003-04, the grocery chains ran an effective P.R. campaign that got a majority of San Diegans to see the issues their way. Ramirez argued that labor will always be at a disadvantage with the media because “we don’t buy media time; the companies do. So it’s really difficult to get our message out. We have done interviews with the TV channels, and they’ll always edit them to put in the negative hit. When there’s a big problem with pensions, they attack the people receiving them.”
McLaughlin said that in order to win the P.R. battle, the union needs to focus on one message: health care. “A lot of people don’t have health care, or they’re losing access to it through higher co-pays or premiums,” he said. “These are 10,000 workers standing up for your access to health care.”
Eventually the club voted unanimously to “adopt” the three grocery-chain outlets in their core area — the Ralph’s in Hillcrest in the Uptown District mall (the same center where the club meets), the Albertson’s on University and Mississippi and the Vons on 30th and Howard — which means club members will join picket lines at those stores in case of a strike and the club will also educate its members and supporters about the issues and urge them not to shop there. The club also gave President Obama a “friendly incumbent” re-election endorsement and amended its platform to drop all references to supporting domestic partnerships or civil unions as alternatives to marriage equality.