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NARAL's New Leader Ilyse Hogue Aims to Change the Way America Talks About Reproductive Rights

Hogue: It's time to make women's reproductive rights into an issue that candidates win or lose on.

When Planned Parenthood announced it would no longer use the term "pro-choice" back in January, the Internet was abuzz with mixed reactions. Some thought the organization was needlessly bending toward a demographic that would rather shirk politically charged terms than take a strong stance on the issue. Others agreed with Planned Parenthood's campaign video, which asserted that the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" limit discussions of the complex factors involved in each individual's reproductive health decisions.

I thought I had heard the full range of opinions until I attended a panel at CPAC, where a young woman who identified herself as an abortion abolitionist celebrated Planned Parenthood's decision as a victory for the pro-life movement.

In an recent interview, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, laughed about this interpretation of Planned Parenthood's campaign.

“If I had a nickel for every time the extreme right called a victory out of defeat; they're like, 'we lost...but we won!'”

Hogue took the helm at NARAL in February after former president Nancy Keenan stepped down in order to open up the position to a younger leader.

Prior to NARAL, Hogue served as a senior adviser at Media Matters for America, director of political advocacy and communications at Moveon.org, and program director at Rainforest Action Network. Her range of experience gives her a sharp sense of the ways in which reproductive rights connect to other issues, positioning NARAL as an important voice in a national dialogue that is catching up to the popular opinion that reproductive rights are more complicated than the term pro-choice conveys.

Planned Parenthood took its cue from polls that reveal a nation with a complex relationship to abortion. While 40% of respondents said their personal view on abortion depends on the situation, an overwhelming 66% said abortion should remain legal. Among respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, the number of people who support legalized abortion is slightly higher, at 69%. So while many people may not be comfortable identifying as solidly pro-choice or pro-life, the majority agree that women have a right to decide what's best for themselves.

Hogue is ready to have the deeper conversations that these statistics demand.

“Women live in very different realities based on geography, based on class, based on race,” Hogue told AlterNet.

“There are some women who have never had access to the rights afforded to them by Roe v. Wade, and there are  other women who have never had to think, ‘Oh god, what would I do if I had an unintended pregnancy?’”

Just as access to abortion is often limited by race and class, so too, says Hogue, is the option of having a family.

“I think there has been a sort of lag time in acknowledging that just like being able to choose not to have a family, choosing to have a family is too often a privileged position. There is no reproductive freedom without economic security.”

Hogue's analysis of economic security as integral to reproductive freedom is situated within the framework of reproductive justice. Activists in women-of-color health organizations developed the concept beginning in the 1990s. Their purpose was to articulate how different forms of oppression related to race, class, immigration, the environment, incarceration, militarism, sexual orientation, and healthcare limit women's reproductive health choices. Pro-choice, they argued, does not reflect the complexity of these realities. When Planned Parenthood dropped the term, RJ advocates hoped it would make room for the reproductive justice framework in mainstream messaging.

Hogue does not take issue with the term pro-choice. “It's our middle name,” she says, “There is a legacy behind it that we are proud of.” 

At the same time she acknowledges the need to “knit together”  the experiences of women from across different communities.

Hogue says NARAL has been doing more work with reproductive justice organizations. She cites partnering with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum last year to oppose legislation that would have targeted Asian American women seeking abortions.

“There are all these racist stereotypes embedded in reproductive legislation, and part of our job as a historically white organization is to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore and that we stand in solidarity with all of our allies.”

Another NARAL initiative is encouraging legislation that addresses a range of issues that affect women on multiple levels. Hogue points to Andrew Cuomo's proposed Women's Equality Act which would take measures to strengthen pro-choice laws, close the wage gap, stop sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, and bolster laws that support survivors of domestic violence.

Advocating for such measures is part of Hogue's plan to take an offensive stance on reproductive rights at the state-level. In the first three months of 2013 alone state legislators introduced 694 measures pertaining to reproductive health and rights, 47% of which sought to limit access to abortion.

In her last speech as NARAL's president, Nancy Keenan observed that the pro-life movement has an upper hand, in part because it's easier to mobilize activists around fighting for change rather than fighting to keep something the same.

Hogue thinks that while a big part of NARAL's work is to defend Roe v. Wade from incessant attacks, the organization also needs to advocate for state-level changes that would improve access to abortion and other forms of reproductive healthcare.

One way NARAL may take an offensive strategy is by “meeting ballot measure with ballot measure.” Hogue is interested in working with lawmakers to craft ballot initiatives that affirm women's rights to decide when, how and with whom to start a family, much in the same way that pro-life groups have used ballot initiatives to try to pass personhood measures.

Another is focusing on gubernatorial races. With 36 governors up for election in 2014, Hogue wants to elevate reproductive rights as an issue that candidates win or lose on.

Yet conservative candidates have shown that they are willing to risk losing elections in order to frame the dialogue on abortion over the long-term. Framing the dialogue, Hogue contends, is as important as the legislative facet of NARAL's work.

“We have to start from the perspective that we are the mainstream,” she says, “and we need to share our stories.”

“We don't know own our history in the same way that other movements do.  We don’t know the names of the women who fought and the women who died before Roe. We need to commemorate those stories, we need to memorialize them.”

At the same time, Hogue warns of creating a false dichotomy between the experiences of the pre and post-Roe generations.

“The stories and memories and experiences of women who lived pre-Roe are still too often the experiences of women in this country today. It's important to tell stories about the challenges women have getting contraception at the pharmacy, but not at the expense of women who are driven to desperate measures today because of lack of access to the medical care they need.”

Choice Out Loud is a new platform NARAL has created for women to share stories illustrating what choice means to them, whether it's about having access to abortion, the economic stability to start a family, or a more complicated set of factors. In this vein, NARAL is among those engaging in a more nuanced conversation about the intersections of the personal and the political in reproductive health. This is a conversation that doesn't fit into the binary of pro-life vs. pro-choice, and it has some radical conservatives convinced they are winning even as they are being left behind.

Anna Simonton is a filmmaker, freelance writer, and a spring 2013 intern at the Nation magazine.

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