Dem hopefuls pull few punches on choice

In speeches to Planned Parenthood, Obama, Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards slam the GOP, promise change.

Published July 18, 2007 4:24PM (EDT)

Thus far, much of the presidential campaign coverage has been about the campaign: money, staffing changes, who's ahead of whom where and by how much, who gets his hair cut where and for how much. So it's great to get a chance to hear candidates talk about actual policy. About reproductive health policy? Even better.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund invited all 2,971 presidential candidates to speak at its annual public affairs conference in Washington. Two and a half of them accepted: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Elizabeth Edwards on behalf of her husband. (Where was Gov. Bill Richardson, who has surely been talking the talk?)

Edwards' speech -- despite some grumbling that her husband's "Road to One America" tour apparently did not lead to one women's rights breakfast -- was "warmly received," according to Tapped's Dana Goldstein. (Transcripts of the speeches were not available from Planned Parenthood this morning.) While the New York Times coverage today is not specific about the policy content of Edwards' speech, Goldstein is: "Elizabeth tied John's women's health platform into his support for universal health care and the alleviation of poverty, assuring Planned Parenthood that it would be recognized as a service provider under her husband's plan, that all prescription drug coverage would include regular and emergency contraception, that pharmacists would not be allowed to refuse such drugs to women or girls, and even that abortion would be eligible for federal funding under an Edwards administration. This would mean a Congressional-backed repeal of the Hyde Amendment."

Goldstein did catch one "Come again?" caveat in Edwards' speech. She said, "John opposes any ban that does not include an adequate protection for a woman's health," she said. Wait wait wait. Shouldn't she have just stopped talking after "ban"? Let's keep an eye/ear out here.

Clinton, for her part, framed women's rights as "human rights," just as she did in her 1995 speech to the United Nations' fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. According to Goldstein, she got cheers and applause by vowing, "When I am president, I will dedicate my very first few days in office to reversing [Bush administration policies harmful to women]. Starting with the Global Gag Rule and going from there, I will not rest until we once again protect women's health." (Of course, our penultimate president rescinded the gag rule on his third day in office; another reversal would be a nice Clinton 2.0 coda.)

Finally, according to Goldstein, Obama was good on the big picture, fuzzy on the policy particulars. He argued for "expanding the terms of the pro-choice debate beyond access to abortion, contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education and into a larger discussion about family planning and work-life balance for women [including] pay equity, paid maternal leave, and longer school hours that make it easier for mothers to work." (My take: To be sure, these matters are all of a piece and need to be understood that way. But nuance is also key. The challenge: Can we expand the debate in this way without overlooking or shying away from the reality that women need access to abortion, abortion, abortion?) Though Obama, appropriately -- and "elegantly," says Goldstein -- placed abortion in the context of race and class ("If we reduce teen pregnancy, we can also reduce poverty"), he apparently didn't go much farther on policy than to say he'd support the Freedom of Choice Act.

Meanwhile, an ABC blog reports that on key abortion legislation discussed in the Illinois Senate, Obama voted "present," as opposed to "yes" or "no" -- with the blessing of Planned Parenthood. As Illinois Planned Parenthood Council CEO Pam Sutherland told ABC, the strategy was designed to "'give cover to moderate Democrats who wanted to vote with us but were afraid to do so' because of how their votes would be used against them electorally." Huh. Baldly practical strategy, or cowering? Whatever it was then, pleading the Fifth may not work so well now for candidates courting the women's-issues vote. According to new polling data from the National Women's Law Center, more than half of voters say the country's headed in the wrong direction on issues of reproductive healthcare.

In that department, it seems from Goldstein's accounts that it was Elizabeth Edwards who really threw down. "I know the art and theater of politics. There are times when you have to position yourself just to be heard," she said. "But there are also issues that are so important ... that to try and position yourself out of it is to lay down the mantle of leadership. Women's lives are at stake, and our lives are not fodder for compromise."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

MORE FROM Lynn Harris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Broadsheet Health Hillary Rodham Clinton John Edwards Love And Sex