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I’m going back to writing about student stuff after this, I promise. Thanks for your patience.

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On Twitter last night, my buddy Malcolm Harris declared that

“The abortion rights argument for Obama is such a big red herring.”

He went on to say that Roe v. Wade is showing no signs of getting overturned in the Supreme Court, and that Obama isn’t doing anything to expand on-the-ground access to abortion in states where there are few providers.

I pretty much agree with Malcolm’s follow-up tweets. The Republicans have had plenty of chances to put together a Supreme Court majority against Roe, and their continuing failure to do so has long looked more like a decision than a fumble to me. And no, Obama hasn’t been anywhere near as aggressive in expanding abortion access as I’d like.

But reproductive freedom is one of those areas where presidents get to make a million small decisions, many of them invisible to the average voter, and those decisions add up to a lot. Let’s review Obama’s record.

  • In 2009 the president rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which restricted US government funding to overseas NGOs which provided abortion services. A 2011 Yale study found that the policy had had a devastating effect on access to reproductive health services in poor countries.
  • The administration has acted aggressively to punish states which have attempted to cut off Medicaid funding to abortion providers, and those which have attempted to eliminate Medicaid funding for abortion in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
  • Obama supports expanding abortion access for women in the military under the Shaheen Amendment, which was blocked by House Republicans this summer.
  • The Obama HHS ended a grant to a Catholic organization working against human trafficking because of the group’s refusal to provide women with abortion referrals, directing the money to groups that would do so.
  • And although Roe is unlikely to be overturned, that doesn’t mean that new legislative or judicial restrictions on abortion are impossible. In 2003 Congress passed (and George W. Bush signed) the Partial Birth Abortion Act, and in 2007 the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional. A second Obama term means a likely veto of similar legislation and likely confirmation of new Supreme Court justices who would vote to strike it down.

And of course reproductive freedom isn’t just about abortion. Around access to contraception, the Obama administration has also done good in all sorts of ways.

  • The administration rolled back a Bush-era expansion of the so-called “conscience clause,” which granted federal protection to healthcare providers who refused to supply women with birth control and family planning assistance.
  • Obamacare famously imposes new requirements that private insurance plans cover contraception.
  • Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs by two thirds.
  • The Obama Department of Defense issued an order in 2010 mandating that all military healthcare facilities worldwide carry Plan B.
  • The Obama FDA approved Ella, a “morning-after” pill with a five-day window of effectiveness.
  • Obama supports, and has protected, federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Romney opposes it.

Now, Obama’s record on reproductive rights is far from perfect. There’s a lot more he could be doing, even given congressional Republicans’ opposition. But to say that it makes no difference to abortion rights whether he wins in November or not is just false. It’s just not supportable.

This is what I was getting at in my post office post last week. The deeper you dig into the specifics of policy, the more the differences between the players reveal themselves. They may not be huge differences, and they may not reflect the kinds of dramatic contrasts some of us would like to see being drawn, but they’re there. They matter. They have a real impact on real people’s lives, and a disproportionately powerful impact on the lives of those with the fewest resources.

There are some victories that I doubt we can win through electoral organizing. There are some ways — some excruciating ways — in which Obama and Romney are essentially identical. I don’t condemn anyone who refuses to participate in electoral politics — there’s plenty of vital work to be done outside the political system, and there are lots of crucial struggles that can’t be waged inside it.

But the decision to opt out can’t be made on the basis of the false premise that nothing of consequence will be lost if Mitt Romney wins this election. Make the strategic argument that the gains aren’t worth the price, if you like. Hell, make the argument that Obama is in some ways more dangerous. I can respect that.

But that cost-benefit analysis isn’t legitimate unless you also tally up the costs.

Three days after causing a huge uproar by calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut,” a “prostitute,” and a “feminazi,” Rush Limbaugh has apologized. But his statement makes clear that he has absolutely no clue what Fluke said in her testimony to Democratic members of Congress, or what her arguments on the subject of contraceptive coverage actually were. Either that, or he’s intentionally smearing her again by misrepresenting her position.

Here. Take a look. Judge for yourself:

Limbaugh: “I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress.”

Fluke made no reference to her own sexual history in her congressional testimony. She spoke not on the basis of her own personal experience of birth control use, but in her position as past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Limbaugh: “I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities.”

Fluke was not advocating for public financing of contraceptives, but for a policy mandating “contraception coverage in [the Georgetown] student health plan.” There was no contemplation of a government contraceptive entitlement program in Fluke’s testimony, or in the Obama administration proposal she spoke in favor of.

Limbaugh: “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line?”

As Fluke made abundantly clear, coverage of contraceptive services is a matter that affects students who do not use the prescriptions for birth control. She spoke movingly and at length of a friend at Georgetown who “has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries.” Her insurance claim “was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted the birth control to prevent pregnancy,” despite the fact that she is a lesbian.

Limbaugh: “If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?”

Again, the question at hand is not what “taxpayers should pay” for, but what services will be covered under insurance plans established by institutions for employees, students, and other beneficiaries. There’s no issue of taxpayer funding on the table at all.

Limbaugh: “In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom…”

Actually, Mr. Limbaugh, you not only discussed Ms. Fluke’s sex life — a subject which she had made literally no reference to in her testimony — at length and in graphic detail, you also demanded that she “post the videos online so we can all watch.”

This is worth underscoring. Sandra Fluke made no reference to her own sexual behavior in her congressional testimony. She said nothing to indicate that she has ever had heterosexual sex in her thirty years on the planet. Mr. Limbaugh’s extensive, repeated, prurient allegations and speculations as to her history and her proclivities had literally no basis in anything she had said to the members of Congress she addressed.

Limbaugh: “…nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.”

The president’s February 10 announcement of his contraceptive coverage policy made no reference to anyone’s sexual behavior. In fact it, like Ms. Fluke’s testimony, emphasized the importance of contraception “as a way to reduce the risks of ovarian and other cancers, and treat a variety of different ailments.”

The president also recognized the significance of prescription contraceptives as a method of birth control, of course, but given that — as he noted — “nearly 99 percent of all women have relied on contraception at some point in their lives” — the prudent course for those who are uninterested in public discussion of “what is going on in anyone’s bedroom” is to make contraception universally available to those who need it.

Limbaugh: “My choice of words was not the best…”

“She must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception … she’s having so much sex, it’s amazing she can still walk.”

Limbaugh: “…and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

Cool story, bro.

April 2013 Update | A federal judge this week ordered the Obama administration to end its opposition to over-the-counter Plan B. In response, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated the administration’s position.

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February 2012 | President Obama’s daughters are just thirteen and ten, but the guy just can’t stop talking about the possibility they’ll be romantically inclined someday, and about how much that fact freaks him out.

Just yesterday, when he was visiting the Master Lock factory in Wisconsin, Obama joked that the company’s industrial “super locks” might “come in handy” for him as “the father of two girls who are soon to be in high school.” For now, he added, he’s “counting on the fact that when they go to school there are men with guns with them.”


And this isn’t the only time he’s made that kind of joke.

Two years ago, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he told the Jonas Brothers  that his daughters were “huge fans.” He then warned the singing group not to “get any ideas” because he controls an arsenal of predator drones.

Last year, speaking at a Tennessee high school’s commencement, he noted that the school’s principal’s daughter had chosen to go to a different school because she “was worried that the boys would be afraid to talk to her if her mom was lurking in the hallways.” Because of this, he said, he’d decided to announce that his “next job will be principal at Sasha and Malia’s high school — and then I’ll be president of their college.”

A few months later a reporter, noting that he’d given the girls a puppy when he first won the presidency, asked what he’d get them if he won re-election. He replied that he’d “be getting them a continuation of Secret Service so that when boys want to start dating them, they are going to be surrounded by men with guns.”

These jokes are freaking creepy. Set aside the fact that Obama’s predator drones are estimated to have killed more than a hundred innocent children. Set aside the fact that Obama was joking about three men aged seventeen, twenty, and twenty-two “getting ideas” about girls who were then eight and eleven years old. Set aside the inappropriateness of a father meddling in the romantic decisions of his college age kids. (And set aside as well the casual, ugly assertion that his daughters will be interested in, and only interested in, “boys.”)

The biggest problem with all these jokes is that at their core they’re not really jokes.

When the Obama administration overruled the FDA’s scientists and policymakers on expanding morning-after pill access for teenagers last December, he said he endorsed the decision “as the father of two daughters,” and claimed that “most parents” would agree with him. Though he claimed that the decision was based on the possibility of “a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old” being able to “buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect … alongside bubble gum or batteries,” the fact is that drugstores are filled with over-the-counter medications far more dangerous than Plan B, any one of which any ten-year-old can buy without restriction.

What makes the morning-after pill different is that it allows teenage girls to take control of their own sexual decisions and those decisions’ consequences. The mentality that says that “most parents” would want to deprive their daughters of that agency is the mentality that assumes that most parents fantasize about being the gatekeeper of who their daughters talk to in high school and college. It’s a mentality that jokes about using violence and the threat of violence to keep your daughters from becoming sexually active.

These jokes aren’t benign. With them, the president is normalizing a patriarchal, sexist, adversarial take on parenthood — and on fathering daughters specifically. (It’s not an accident that Michelle Obama doesn’t make these jokes, or that she instead jokes approvingly about her daughters’ crushes on the Secret Service agents who protect them.)

If Obama’s children were sons, he wouldn’t be talking about using industrial super locks on them when they got to high school. He wouldn’t be musing about his plans to keep his kids from talking to girls when they got to college. He wouldn’t be threatening Selena Gomez with predator drones. He just wouldn’t.

Being the father of daughters is complicated. It can be difficult. But a father’s job is to help his daughter to develop a strong, healthy sense of her own desires and her own boundaries, and the confidence to express them. A father’s job is to teach his daughter that she can and should be brave, and fearless, and take risks. A father’s job is to let his daughter know that he’s got her back. A father’s job is to let her know that what she’s going through is normal, and appropriate, and isn’t going to be a barrier to him continuing to be there for her. His job is to make it clear that his desire to protect her and keep her safe doesn’t mean that she needs to sneak around behind his back, to make it clear that she doesn’t need to stay a child forever, that she can and should and must go out and explore the world for herself.

I suspect Obama is a pretty good dad. But his blind spot on this stuff is doing real harm to other people’s daughters, and quite possibly his own.

He should cut it the hell out.

Note: Multiple updates on this post. Scroll down to see them all.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation released a statement moments ago that many are greeting as a reversal of their decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. On Twitter, the Breaking News feed called it a “pledge to continue funding Planned Parenthood,” while Glenn Greenwald called it “an amazing, Internet-driven victory.”

But it’s not.

The new statement does not pledge Komen to reverse its funding decision, and it does not promise Planned Parenthood any new funding. Let’s look at the relevant passage (emphasis mine):

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.”

Komen had never intended to renege on its existing grant commitments to Planned Parenthood, as PP themselves noted in their press release announcing the break between the two organizations (again, emphasis mine):

“In the last few weeks, the Komen Foundation has begun notifying local Planned Parenthood programs that their breast cancer initiatives will not be eligible for new grants (beyond existing agreements or plans).

Komen’s statement that Planned Parenthood will be “eligible” for new grants is a new development, but it commits Komen to nothing. There’s no reversal of the funding cutoff here, and no promise to reinstate Planned Parenthood funding.

This isn’t a victory. Not yet.

Update | I want to be really clear about what’s going on here. Obviously, Komen has taken a huge amount of heat in the last few days, far more than they’d anticipated, and they’re scrambling to contain the damage. They’re in disarray, and trying to keep this from becoming an even bigger problem for them than it already is. This statement is a reflection of that, and in that sense it’s a good sign. But what they’re hoping this will do is take the spotlight off, and if it has that effect, they’ll have a lot of room to maneuver later. So folks who want to see Planned Parenthood refunded need to be extremely skeptical, and extremely loud in voicing their skepticism, in the near future. Keep the pressure on, keep pushing for concrete concessions. That’s the next step.

Second Update | Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has released a response to the Komen announcement. An excerpt:

“In recent weeks, the treasured relationship between the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Planned Parenthood has been challenged, and we are now heartened that we can continue to work in partnership toward our shared commitment to breast health for the most underserved women. We are enormously grateful that the Komen Foundation has clarified its grantmaking criteria, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with Komen partners, leaders and volunteers.”

Richards is claiming victory, in other words, without suggesting that PP has been given any specific assurances on funding. All the more reason to keep the heat on.

I’ll be sticking with this story as it develops. Feel free to follow me on Twitter for all the latest.

Third Update | A little more explication. First, on the eligibility question: yes, Komen has restored Planned Parenthood’s “eligibility” to apply for grants, but all that means is that PP can submit a request for funding. Without knowing what criteria Komen will use for evaluating those grant requests, and whether they’re actually committed to restoring the PP revenue stream, it’s impossible to say what significance this has. Again, yes, it’s a victory, but so far it’s a victory of spin and messaging, not of actual dollars and cents.

Second, there’s the question of whether the new Komen position indicates that PP is likely to be reinstated as a Komen grantee. I don’t have any particular inside info, but from where I sit, yes, it’s likely, particularly given the media (mis)reading of the statement as well as PP’s (very savvy) response. It seems clear that cutting off PP down the line would be a PR disaster for Komen, and my guess is they’d rather put this behind them. But likelihood isn’t certitude, and things can change. We just don’t know what Komen’s plans are. All we have is what they’ve said. And what they’ve said so far is carefully crafted to leave the option of defunding PP very much alive.

Fourth Update | The president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute calls Komen’s statement “nothing new. We have known and have reported that they are continuing five grants through 2012. This is a reference to that. The second clause about eligibility is certainly true. Any group can apply for anything. It does not mean they are going to get anything.”

Fifth Update | It’s worth remembering that according to one Komen staffer, the group’s new “grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood.”

Sixth Update | Greg Sargent of the Washington Post got a Komen board member on the phone, and he said that “it would be highly unfair to ask us to commit to any organization that doesn’t go through a grant process that shows that the money we raise is used to carry out our mission. … Tell me you can help carry out our mission and we will sit down at the table.”

“It would be highly unfair to ask us to commit to any organization.” That’s pretty cold, particularly in contrast with Cecile Richards’ “we look forward to continuing our partnership.”

Seventh Update (Saturday morning) | Several commenters have suggested that it would be inappropriate for Komen to promise to restore funding to Planned Parenthood, given the nature of their funding process. A few things about that.

First, whether Komen should have made such a pledge or not is a separate question from whether they did, and many in the media are still incorrectly reporting that such a pledge was made. Right now, for instance, the front page of the New York Times website declares falsely that “the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation apologized for its decision to cut grants to Planned Parenthood for cancer screening and said it would restore the funding.”

Second, there’s plenty Komen could do short of making a formal commitment to circumvent the application process to indicate that their intention is to work to restore the funding. They could say “we look forward to supporting Planned Parenthood’s work in the future.” They could say “our relationship with Planned Parenthood remains important to us.” They could say number of things, none of which they’ve said so far. In fact, and I think this is worth underscoring, their initial statement yesterday included nothing positive about Planned Parenthood at all. Not a word. As far as I’m aware, no subsequent official statement has either.

Eighth Update | Lindsay Beyerstein and John Aravosis respond to this post.

At last night’s CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate, Texas governor Rick Perry was slammed for his 2007 support of a state program vaccinating girls against Human Papilloma Virus — a sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

In the debate itself Michele Bachman described the vaccine as a “government injection,” and Perry’s decision as “a violation of a liberty interest.” She also accused Perry, whose chief of staff was a former lobbyist for vaccine manufacturer Merck Pharmaceutical, of pushing the program as payback for campaign donations from Merck.

But after the debate, in a CNN interview, she took it to a really weird place.

One objection to the HPV vaccine is the idea that it might encourage promiscuity by reducing the risks of sexual activity. In her interview, for whatever reason, Bachmann chose to hint at this objection rather than state it openly, and the result was a truly bizarre depiction of mandatory vaccination as — and there’s really no other way to put this — Uncle Sam raping your daughters with needles.

Here. Look:

“When you have innocent little 12-year-old girls,” she said, “that are being forced to have a government injection into their body — this is a liberty interest that violates the most deepest personal part of a little child. … A little girl doesn’t get a do over — once they have that vaccination in their body, once it causes its damage, that little girl doesn’t have a chance to go back.”

That’s just … wow. I don’t … I can’t …

Update | When I first posted this, I was gobsmacked by the language itself — the use of such heavily loaded molestation imagery to describe a non-invasive, voluntary medical procedure. But a little while ago a friend reposted it on Facebook, and two friends of his quickly commented to point out something else.

You know what, if anything in this discussion, “violates the most deepest personal part” of you? You know what “causes its damage,” and doesn’t give you “a chance to go back”?

Cervical cancer.

Second Update | I’ve asked the women who commented on my friend’s Facebook page for permission to repost their notes, and they’ve graciously given it. They sum this all up far better than I could:

Jeannette Elizabeth: “Someone should maybe describe for Bachmann, in intimate detail, the violation of lying in a hospital room, knees shaking, legs spread wide, having cancerous cells scraped from one’s cervix.”

Melinda Kersha McDonald: “I couldn’t agree with Jeanette more. I’ve been there and done that. I have scars that can’t be seen and complcations that will haunt me for the rest of my life. This vaccine could have saved me from that. Making cancer a thing of the past can never be a bad thing.”

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n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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