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Democrats Are Still Compromising Away Women's Rights -- What's Wrong with the Pro-Choice Movement's Strategy?

After the Obama administration's decision to overrule the FDA on the morning-after pill, activists are asking yet again, what went wrong?

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But as the dust settles, the question remains: With a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic woman in charge of HHS, why are contraceptives and reproductive rights still a bargaining chip to be traded away for mythical swing voters who never seem to materialize? Why are groups that supported the president (NARAL endorsed Barack Obama while Hillary Clinton was still in the race, a move that was sharply criticized by EMILY's list and others) still sending in petitions after the fact, caught unawares that they were about to be undermined yet again by a theoretically pro-choice administration?

Planned Parenthood's Sye said, “In lots of other realms on women's health issues, the Obama administration has been strong. President Obama stood up to Boehner and said no deal on sacrificing Planned Parenthood on the government shutdown.”

But plenty of prochoice activists, bloggers and writers are wondering if Planned Parenthood and other organizations are too close to Democrats to really pressure them. After a fight around private insurers covering abortion during the healthcare reform debates, Megan Carpentier reported for  RH Reality Check that prochoice groups had actually cut their lobbying budgets when Obama took office, while antichoicers had ramped theirs up.

In 2011, Planned Parenthood  spent $901,256 on lobbying, including at the department of Health and Human Services. That number was up from $588,862 in 2010, but not to its Bush-era high of $990,246 in 2008.  NARAL's lobbying budget has decreased each year since Bush left office—from $240,073 in 2008 to $110,000 in 2009, $80,000 in 2010 and $70,000 this year despite ramped-up attacks from a right-wing Congress. ( Its revenue, meanwhile, went up in 2010 from 2009.)

Steph Herold, reproductive justice activist and founder of the  I Am Dr. Tiller Project, told AlterNet, “I'm not a policy strategist. I don't know what the experienced political buffs at Planned Parenthood, NARAL, etc. are saying about strategy. But it's clear that even with our supposed 'friends' in office, we are losing. Are we just going to repeat the healthcare reform disaster ad infinitum? Hope that Democrats have our back, and then act shocked when they don't? Meanwhile, more and more Americans can't afford or access the healthcare they need--whether it's family planning services, abortion or prenatal care. When are the prochoice lobby groups going to hold Democrats accountable?”

A December 14 email from the group EMILY's List, which donated $2,795,627 to female Democratic candidates, read in part, “We need prochoice Democratic women from coast to coast, up and down the ballot to run and to win to change our country.”

Yet we had a prochoice Democratic woman in charge of the House of Representatives and a handful of intransigent Democrats were able to hold the healthcare reform bill hostage over abortion coverage. We have a prochoice woman in charge of the department of Health and Human Services and we saw the FDA's scientific recommendation overridden. It should be clear by now that electing prochoice politicians is not enough—we need to pressure them constantly. And that requires organizing on the outside, not just conversations with an administration that seems perfectly willing to shut out its allies when it sees political advantage. 

Loretta Ross of SisterSong, a national organization of women of color and allied reproductive justice groups, told AlterNet, “My position is that we on our side have done a fairly poor job of showing our power. In meetings I've had with the Obama administration they say 'I agree with you, show me the votes.' We're doing a less-than-stellar job of showing them those votes, putting pressure on the Congress, putting pressure at the state legislatures.”