Far too many people caricature the Republican Party and individual Republicans when it comes to reproductive rights. Because of the stance taken by the party leadership, the public assumes that there is some inherent contradiction between being a member of the GOP and supporting reproductive choice. While research shows that this is not the case, recent legislation proposed at both the federal and state levels has certainly done little to counteract this idea.
On October 2011, Catholics for Choice and the Republican Majority for Choice convened a roundtable conversation with prochoice Republicans about reproductive health issues and the party—past, present and future. An edited transcript follows.
|Suzie Bassi is a Catholic and a former Illinois state legislator where she served for 12 years. Before that she was a high school teacher and served as a district school board member.|
|Susan Bevan is the national co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice. She is also a lawyer who has practiced in California, Illinois and New York and has served as an active board/advisory board member for many organizations..|
|Bob Carpenter is the vice president of American Viewpoint and has worked in state party management, campaign management and legislative affairs in several states.|
|Kellie Ferguson is the executive director of the Republican Majority for Choice where she oversees all PAC and C(4) aspects of the organization. Prior to joining rmc, she was the chief of staff and campaign advisor to State Senator, Lt. Gov. and Gov. Jane Swift (R-MA).|
|Amy Kaufman is the director of government relations for the Republican Majority for Choice. She is a former president of Saint Louis University College Republicans and Vice President for the State of Missouri College Republicans.|
|Rosemary Mulligan is a Catholic and an Illinois State Representative for Des Plaines. First elected in 1992, she is currently serving her ninth term in the Illinois General Assembly.|
|Candy Straight is the national co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice and a co-founder of the WISH List. She has also worked with former Gov. Christine Todd (R-NJ), Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NY).|
|Patti Miller (Moderator) is a former editor of Conscience. She has written extensively about the role of Catholicism and abortion in US politics.|
Patti Miller: Why are you a prochoice Republican and what Republican values inform your position?
Rosemary Mulligan: This is my 19th year as a state legislator in Illinois—I ran as a prochoice Republican, and I represent a pretty conservative district. To me, being prochoice means that you have the ability to make decisions on your own, and the government should not tell you what to do.
This next session is one of the few times during my time in the legislature that we’re going to have fewer prochoice people there than we’ve had before, even though we have Republican leaders who are considered prochoice. But the antichoice lobby is really going after new people that are elected, and they’re beating them up. Cardinal Francis George is a real activist against us.
Suzie Bassi: Rosemary and I served together for 12 years. I also ran as a prochoice Republican, and recently lost in the primary on the choice issue. To me, true Republicanism is smaller, smarter government; it takes care of those who need to be taken care of. And it’s about personal responsibility—keeping the government out of our private lives and our bedrooms, period.
Candy Straight: The Catholic church in Newark, New Jersey, headed by Arcbishop John J. Myers, is just as strident as what you describe in Illinois. The “we’re right, everyone else is wrong” attitude of the hierarchy has gotten to the point where most people ultimately ignore them. But some of my Catholic friends are put in a very difficult position.
Suzie Bassi: The hierarchy can really affect a politician—had I been in one of the other parishes in my district, I might not have lasted 12 years in the legislature. I had a Democratic colleague who is leaving the Illinois legislature partially because she was almost ostracized from her church due to her votes on choice.
Patti Miller: The classic Republican position on individual responsibility and liberty is clearly aligned with reproductive choice. Why is it so difficult to get that position heard?
Susan Bevan: I’ve heard it’s because the party has evolved. I say the party has devolved. The party isn’t what it was when I became a Republican 50 years ago. Now, there are no exceptions for individual belief. “Republican” is often conflated with the rejection of choice.
Kellie Ferguson: Things started to change within the Republican Party under the Reagan administration. During a convention there was a clear political spin on this issue that carried with it a large bloc of antichoice or far-right mainly religious voters who you could count on. A majority of mainstream Republicans look at the economy, they look at jobs—choice is an issue, but is not the only reason to vote.
Candy Straight: Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, who is antichoice, is too liberal for the Republican Party because he believes in exceptions allowing abortion for rape, incest and life of the woman. He doesn’t fit the stereotypical Republican position on those three issues and some Republicans say this is unacceptable. And this relatively small group of people believes it speaks for all Republicans, when really it’s just loud and noisy and persistent.
|During the debates over the federal budget and family planning funding, a policymaker’s stance on reproductive health issues was often reduced to a litmus test—Republicans rejected family planning, while Democrats had a much better chance of being supportive of choice—though the parties were far from unanimous on the issue. We at Catholics for Choice are familiar with this type of political shorthand that would characterize all Catholics as antichoice.
In reality, Republicans are much more diverse on choice issues.
Clearly there are Republicans who believe, as Richard Nixon did, that “if family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.” It’s a simple conviction that has far-reaching consequences for policy, but can still tolerate diverse political views. What do these policymakers and voters feel about their fellow party members who claim to speak for them when they speak against reproductive health access?
Bob Carpenter: When they say that they’re the voice of the Republican Party, they are, in fact the voice of the Republican Party. They’re the ones who vote in primaries. They’re the ones who elect the party central committees and the state central committees. We’ve allowed them to do that, because moderates don’t turn out as reliably at the polls as people with more extreme positions do. On a cold, snowy Monday night in Iowa in January, it’s a tried and true fact: a rock-solid, conservative Republican is going to trudge through the snow to sit in a damp church basement, whereas a moderate is going to find 10 other things to do besides going to a caucus.
Suzie Bassi: Moderates are moderates because they don’t get all fired up about some of these right-wing issues. Instead they care much more about the economy, they’re much more focused on jobs and infrastructure and on taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves.
The fact that the antichoice Republican movement has begun to encroach into the territory of family planning and emergency contraception is actually a huge opportunity.
Rosemary Mulligan: The other issue is, in order to get them out there you have to raise inordinate amounts of money. So you have to have a good following already, or a good ability to raise money.
Patti Miller: Why do you think it’s still important to stick to the prochoice position in the face of this opposition?
Kellie Ferguson: Our prochoice Republican approach to platform issues like spending on family planning and prevention is to find a way to leverage private resources to couple with public resources. Then the full burden is not on the taxpayer. We have a different approach to a myriad of issues that make us both Republican and prochoice. Some people say, “You’re prochoice; just become a Democrat.” Well, if we did that we wouldn’t be holding true to the values that we believe in. And we believe that the prochoice position is very much in line with the history of the Republican Party. I think one of the problems is that some people say, “Let’s just leave this to the Democratic Party to solve.” The parties are defined as Republicans versus Democrats, with Democrats as prochoice and Republicans as antichoice, even though the polling doesn’t say that. These oversimplifications have really held back reproductive health legislation.
Susie Bassi: I’m not a Democrat. Fiscal responsibility is critical, and that’s part and parcel of solid Republicanism. But so is the right of the individual to make their own choices. Many of us have really struggled with that. But just because I happen to believe in the right of the individual to make their own decisions does not mean that I should be shifting to the Democratic side of the aisle.
Patti Miller: The Tea Party, with its focus on the economy, has been very successful. But the reality is that antichoice laws have a huge economic impact, both on individuals and families and on taxpayers. Why is fiscal responsibility not given more weight in terms of reproductive choice?
Susan Bevan: I could be wrong, but I think the whole issue of contraception, particularly the move to defund Planned Parenthood, is because much of Planned Parenthood’s clientele is poor, and I don’t think the Tea Party cares about the poor. By attacking Planned Parenthood, they’re really attacking family planning services for the poor.I have a friend who was very incensed by one of our news items because it said something about how we should be supporting Planned Parenthood and the provision of contraceptives to those who can’t afford them. My friend said, “Well, they don’t pay for my Lipitor.” And I said, “No, they don’t, but they pay for their Lipitor, and there are a lot of health expenses that you pay for that you might not want to pay for.”
Kellie Ferguson: In the recent fight in Congress over Title X family planning funding, the Republican Majority for Choice took a long look at the numbers and tried to come up with statistics to help us talk to Congress and to the general public about the economic impact of some of this legislation, which is based on very short-term thinking. The federal government saves money by maintaining clinics that use a combination of state and federal funding.
Amy Kaufman: It’s tough right now because there are leaders throwing out such strong and misinformed antichoice arguments. Yet there are also Republican legislators on the Hill who understand our message and the realities behind the rhetoric. The point is, though, that we need to put those numbers out there because it’s amazing how many of these legislators do not know the realities of what’s in a given bill, or the numbers that show how preventive services are a key part of the solution.
Suzie Bassi: There’s so much misinformation going around. When we tried to address sex education in the legislature there were those who totally mischaracterized it and said we shouldn’t be giving contraceptives to kindergartners. In reality, we were working on age-appropriate sex education. But it took 12 years to get the legislation passed.
I say the party has devolved. The party isn’t what it was when I became a Republican 50 years ago. Now, there are no exceptions for individual belief.
Rosemary Mulligan: There are a lot of issues that are side-stepped because it still comes down to local control. For instance, in Illinois, local school boards decide about sex education—the legislation we pass doesn’t override their decision.
Candy Straight: It’s gotten to the point where one sector of the antichoice movement doesn’t care what they say. For example, Michele Bachmann made that comment linking the HPV vaccine to mental retardation.
Suzie Bassi: She later qualified the remark by saying someone else had told her that, but to make a patently false statement like that on a national scale, that’s outrageous.
Susan Bevan: There’s a physiological reason why that sort of thing works. An article I read said that humans are designed to retain a certain amount of information, which we do pretty efficiently. We only remember the core of this information, so finding out later that a statement like Bachmann’s is false doesn’t usually penetrate into our memory of it. So even though she’s retracted what she said, the inflammatory statement sticks with people. That’s why negative advertising is so effective in campaigns.
Patti Miller: Can you pinpoint when you started to see this shift? Was it a particular election where you remember that all of a sudden logic was no longer effective in reasoning with other Republicans?
Susan Bevan: I grew up in Washington State. My parents were precinct committee people, and my mother, who was a nurse for an OB/GYN and very prochoice, recalled single-issue lobbying even then, back in the ’70s. She said the antichoice faction would come into the state legislature and they would push, push, push on their issue. And then as soon as their issue was off the board they left the state house; they didn’t care about any other topic.
Rosemary Mulligan: In 1989 we had one of the first prochoice congresswomen for the state of Illinois, Mary Jo Arndt. She was one of the first prochoice national committeewomen for the Republican Party and was backed by many people who believed in choice. Today, some of the groups that she founded have been infiltrated by antichoice people, and it’s suddenly not as important to have prochoice candidates. We had a big fight on our hands protecting those values in places where they were once not questioned, and if you didn’t have money, it made the task very difficult.
Candy Straight: When Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, that was a seminal moment obviously, and then we had Pat Buchanan in ’92. But specifically I think it was in the 1980 convention in Detroit, where the party adopted an antichoice platform. On that occasion Mary Dent Crisp, the co-chair of the Republican Party, clashed with her counterpart, saying that adopting an antichoice position would be a slippery slope for the party. It was at that point that she broke off and started the Republican Prochoice Coalition. Since then, changing a word of the antichoice language within the platform is virtually impossible. As Bob said, the folks that are elected as delegates to the convention—and specifically to the platform committee— are the more socially conservative or socially extreme members. They will give up just about any other issue to ensure that the antichoice platform within the party remains.
Kellie Ferguson: Over the last 20 or 30 years the antichoice movement has taken small but focused steps to make this issue ingrained within the party platform. It worked because they weren’t willing to let any other issue trump it.
Pharmacy Refusal Clauses
Rosemary Mulligan: I think there is a big problem with the professional regulations that oversee pharmacists—I have a big argument with them. I don’t think pharmacists should be allowed to use conscience to opt out of filling a prescription for either contraceptives or emergency contraceptives, unless there is someone else in the pharmacy to fill the prescription
For emergency contraceptives in the case of rape— I passed a law on that issue—you have 72 hours in which the medication will be effective. And the first hours in that period are more critical.
Eventually we had to force Catholic hospitals to comply with the rules mandating that they provide the emergency contraceptives to women who had been sexually assaulted. If you’re an employee of a Catholic hospital, the policy was that you could not tell a rape victim about emergency contraceptives. I had a big problem with that. Finally we were able to set a standard that required employees to share this information. They had to be able to tell patients where they could get emergency contraception within the 72-hour window, even if it was midnight.
This is only one example of the conditions that exist in the reproductive health world that are detrimental to women’s health. But as a Catholic I do believe in the right of conscience. You should have a right to make those decisions yourself; you should not be dictated to by the church.
Susan Bevan: My husband is Italian, and we have an Italian cousin who is a pharmacist in Rome. I asked her what would happen if, as a Catholic pharmacist in a Catholic country like Italy, she told somebody that she wasn’t going to give them birth control. And she said, “I would lose my job. I couldn’t do that.”
Candy Straight: At the platform committee in 2000, then-candidate Bush wanted to get elected. He was willing to change the platform to put in an addendum that said something to the effect that people of good conscience can disagree on abortion. I was on the platform committee and Tommy Thompson was the head. The future Governor Thompson and I worked on the platform text late at night, and we put in the addendum without anybody ever seeing it. It went in, but if the whole committee had voted on the addendum, it probably wouldn’t have passed. That’s one of the last times I know of anybody trying to push for prochoice language in the party platform.There was one other time I can think of: a member of the platform committee at another convention offered an amendment to add a couple of words. They essentially said that we accept and respect that members of our party may have differing opinions on social issues, and it passed.
And this relatively small group of people believes it speaks for all Republicans, when really it’s just loud and noisy and persistent.
As far as I know that is the last time that anything has ever been changed. This amendment didn’t take out any of the existing antichoice language, and in fact, this “accept and respect” language was put in as a preamble, not specifically within the choice section of the platform. And there was even a fight over those few words, “accept and respect.” A number of delegates on the platform committee said they might respect their counterparts, but they won’t accept the position. In the end, we were successful, and the amendment was accepted, but I think that’s the last time that we’ve had any sort of language that somewhat welcomed choice in a Republican platform.
Patti Miller: How has it damaged the larger prochoice movement to not have a viable Republican voice on these issues?
Suzie Bassi: Part of the problem is that we don’t have a spokesperson, someone who’s high enough up in the Republican Party to say, “Hey, this antichoice position is not part of Republican values.” Barry Goldwater said the individual has the right to his or her own personal responsibility, but now Republican leaders are trying to tell party members what to believe and how to live.
Patti Miller: In terms of building local support, are there some constituents who don’t see choice as an issue that’s important for them—particularly younger women?
Suzie Bassi: My daughter is 36 years old, and it’s a very important issue to her, but it’s not something that she’s willing to go out and campaign on. She’s got young kids; she’s working. One of the things that I’ve seen over the last few years, the older folks are getting tired, they’re tired of fighting the battle. The younger ones are too busy to fight it and they take their reproductive choice for granted.
Susan Bevan: Right. They don’t believe it is going to hurt them. They don’t believe that they could lose it.
Rosemary Mulligan: I’m going into my 19th year in the general assembly and I can’t help but think—I’m a pretty loud Republican prochoice person, and who will take over for me? Yes, I think it is harder to get prochoice women there; the antichoice ones are more vocal. One of my colleagues, a young gentleman who was on our staff, was targeted by the antichoice people, who posted a video of him making statements that would put him in jeopardy with prochoice constituents.
Suzie Bassi: A number of people who might have been interested in running for office have seen the kinds of campaigns that I went through and have said, “I won’t put myself or my family through that.”
Patti Miller: How does that bode for the future approach of Republicanism? Are you an endangered species at this point?
Kellie Ferguson: The question that comes up over and over is, “If you are prochoice, then why don’t you just become a Democrat?” I think the prochoice community has sort of adopted the viewpoint, “Well, Democrats are just better on these issues. So let’s just elect Democrats.” The problem is, politics is cyclical. Even if you work well with the Democrats while they are in power, Republicans will eventually take control at the federal level and many of the state levels. If you don’t do anything to educate the Republicans, when that party is back in control, this isn’t an issue that they are inclined to be friendly on. Democrats and the prochoice movement in general need to create a better argument focusing on economic issues and on the realities of the long-term impact of this antichoice legislation that has been passed recently.
Reproductive health needs to be a two-party issue. And I’m not saying that we are ever going to have a majority of Republicans that are elected as prochoice. You don’t need a majority. You need a bloc of Republicans who understand the real implications and who can talk to the leadership to prevent this small, extreme group from trying to zero out family planning funding. As a community, by not supporting the middle-of-the-road, maybe not 100-percent, but 80-percent prochoice Republicans, I think we’re missing a big opportunity.
I am a Young, Prochoice Republican
By Amy Kaufman
I am 25 years old and have always considered myself politically aware. I have always identified myself as a Republican because I firmly believe in limited government, free markets and a strong national defense. My stance as a prochoice Republican stems from my conviction that the government does not have the constitutional authority to legislate private behavior. My support for family planning and reproductive health is based on my belief in limited government and fiscal restraint, rather than on a feminist ideology or emotional considerations.
Working at the Republican Majority for Choice (RMC), I feel very strongly that prochoice Republicans are leaving the party because a fringe movement is currently screaming the loudest, spreading a falsified version of reproductive choice issues. RMC’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill have revealed that a significant number of legislators have failed to fully investigate bills like the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” Legislators need to be educated on reproductive health basics like the Hyde Amendment, cost-saving analyses and the additional services provided by health clinics that offer abortion care. The antichoice wing of the party has tried to preempt access to choice through their rhetoric and misinformation. Legislators must be exposed to the common-sense realities associated with women’s need for accessible reproductive health services, and this must be done well before campaign season. We must be proactive and persistent in educating legislators on the financial, political and social benefits of choices.
For instance, Virginia’s state legislature recently passed a bill to impose restrictive structural requirements on abortion clinics. The financial implications of requiring specific models of sinks, certain measurements for hallways and regulated temperatures for exam rooms are likely to force many of the state’s clinics to close for long periods of time, if not for good. This will force many women and families to utilize state-run health facilities. Since many Republicans denounce reforms to our healthcare system as well as socialized medicine, their attacks on choice are ironically assuring that more people will depend on federally funded services. Moreover, decimating the number of clinics will drive up states’ costs as the majority of clinics embrace public-private partnerships to subsidize costs for low-income patients.
In reality, antichoice Republicans are ratcheting up the cost of health services while they renege on the promises made by their anti-healthcare reform platform. Recently, a GOP candidate for president reminded voters that the healthcare system that has taken shape under President Obama would extend the waiting periods that exist before a healthcare provider interacts with patients. They further stated the dangers of this system by using a cancer diagnosis as an example because such a condition’s treatment protocol is time-sensitive. However, the same can be said for reproductive health services, for instance, the treatment windows for providing emergency contraception and detecting conditions such as sexually transmitted diseases or cervical cancer.
Because of what my principles and my common sense tell me, I remain a prochoice Republican. I believe these arguments and facts should be brought to legislators well before antichoice bills are introduced and political campaigns launched. Policymakers would have more time to be educated before they vote, and they would do so knowing they would be held accountable for the real-world implications of their choices, instead of resting on rhetoric.
Suzie Basssi: I agree. Republicans have to be willing to work with people who agree with 80 percent of the prochoice position. The Democrats seem to do a much better job of that but both the prochoice and antichoice movements tend to feel like if you are not 100 percent with them, then you are against them. And I think that is really dangerous, and that is where you lose the moderates and the independents.
At the platform committee in 2000, then-candidate Bush wanted to get elected. He was willing to change the platform to put in an addendum that said something to the effect that people of good conscience can disagree on abortion.
Susan Bevan: The problem is, many Planned Parenthood supporters are Democrats, and most people that are at the top of the Planned Parenthood food chain are Democrats. They have ignored Republicans and have not invested in trying to build some kind of moderate Republican constituency because these people may not be 100 percent with them on every choice issue.
Rosemary Mulligan: I think it also depends on who’s running your local Planned Parenthood. Our down state people, as well as the women from Planned Parenthood who lobby in our capital, are much more open to talking to people who may not totally agree with them. The prochoice lobbyists in our capital, the women that lobby from Planned Parenthood, are much more open to discussing with people, and I always feel that once you bring them into the fold, you still have time to work on them to make them more cooperative on other boards or to sell them on the issues they’re not ready to change their minds on. And if we were to do that and were able to move away from this demand for 100 percent agreement, then I would hope that we could expand our movement. Perhaps we could bring some women back into the fold, those who are so turned off by the extreme views of the people at the top of the party right now.
Candy Straight: I believe that the issue that they want to go after now is whether or not Planned Parenthood commingles funds. Many facilities, but not all, do provide abortions, but the question they keep asking is whether the funding streams are commingled. Planned Parenthood has never been criticized about their accounting practices by the federal government. The right wing is going to go after Planned Parenthood’s financial practices in a big way, and they are going to make a very big issue of it. I hear moderate Republicans begging me to beg Planned Parenthood to divide into two organizations: one that only provides family planning, and then the other organization that provides abortion. They see this as a way to convince everyone who doesn’t believe the funds are not in some way commingled. I believe this will be the next big issue we have to face. We have to be careful with what happens and how those potentially divisive issues go forward, and what we let go forward. We tend to be reactive and the antichoice people are more proactive in going after goals. I think we need to develop a more proactive position about contraception, preventing unintended pregnancies and other areas where substantial support already exists within the party.
For more information:
Republican Majority for Choice
Republicans for Choice
Kellie Ferguson: On our side, I think that the fact that the antichoice Republican movement has begun to encroach into the territory of family planning and emergency contraception is actually a huge opportunity, because we know that the vast majority of Americans are supportive of birth control and family planning. The fact that some antichoice legislators are creating these extreme bills to begin to chip away at these basic services gives us an opportunity to say, “This is all part of the choice debate; choice is not just about abortion. ”These attacks on choice show what we have said for a long time: once the antichoice community passes restrictions on abortion and abortion-related negative legislation, they are going to move on to birth control. I once believed it was not going to happen. It is happening. And that may be a way for us to wake people up: not only can choice really be gone someday, in terms of the right to abortion, but accessing birth control can become even more difficult. That hits people a little closer to home—more people use birth control than need an abortion. So it gives us a larger audience and shows how extreme the antichoice movement and organizations have become.