Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Oasis of Sanity: The 2013 NFPRHA Conference

Lady Justice statute outside of
Albert V. Bryan Courthouse in Alexandria

With all the anti-choice events and rhetoric I report on for Republic of Gilead, it's refreshing when I can spend time around people who support reproductive justice. Before I share more about the Hilltop Conference, I'd like to highlight a conference of a different kind that took place this week. The 2013 National Conference of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA) conference took place on April 28th to May 1st at the Westin Alexandria in Alexandria, Virginia. I had the pleasure of manning an exhibit table for my workplace at the conference, where I met some amazing people who champion reproductive rights.

NFPRHA, based in Washington D.C., provides advocacy and education to professionals who work in the reproductive health care field. According to its website, "NFPRHA members have shared a commitment to providing high-quality, federally funded family planning care - making them a critical component of the nation's public health safety net." The organization advocates for publicly-funded family planning programs, insurance coverage of contraception, access to abortion, and comprehensive sex education, among other issues.

Safe sex educator kit
at one of the exhibit tables

The 2013 NFPRHA National Conference featured dozens of exhibitors from the reproductive health field, including reproductive health care providers such as Planned Parenthood, safe sex initiatives such as Bedsider, pharmaceutical companies, and anti-violence organizations. The workshop schedule featured talks on practical concerns such as funding, billing, and and coordinated care, as well as dynamic advocacy for reproductive justice. Workshops such as "Legal Attacks on Contraceptive Coverage" and "The Power of Strategic Communication to Shape Conversations on Family Planning" confronted right-wing attacks on reproductive rights and highlighted ways that activists are striving for social justice. Other workshops such as "Serving LGBTQ Patients in the Family Planning Setting" drew attention to a previously neglected population.

Most of my time was spent manning an exhibit table, but I did have the opportunity to attend "The Power of Strategic Communication to Shape Conversations on Family Planning". The panel discussion featured RH Reality Check editor-in-chief Jodi Jacobson, National Women's Law Center director of outreach Thao Nguyen, and Momentum Analysis founder Margie Omero.

Jacobson, a long-time observer of right-wing attacks on reproductive rights at RH Reality Check, argued that the right-wing has undertaken a "systemic effort" to undermine public support for basic health care. The American right-wing has created an extensive network of messages that promote discrimination and misinformation, such as rape myths and victim blaming attitudes. Jacobson delved into how anti-woman rhetoric, as part of a larger war on women, shaped the 2012 presidential election. She showed a video compilation by Think Progress of egregious right-wing comments about women, including Rick Santorum's comments about women in combat, Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut", and Fox News commentator Liz Trotta's dismissive comments on sexual assault in the military.

Jacobson complained that the mainstream news media has blurred news, opinion, and feelings, lamenting that people who come to the media with facts are labeled as advocates and seen as less credible. Convincing the media to report facts is becoming increasingly difficult, but it remains an important task.

Many people receive their news from social media, Jacobson reminded the audience, and thus social media can serve as a vital tool for disseminating information, initiating action, and prompting a rapid response. As an example of the power of social media, she cited campaigns against bills in several states mandating transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions.

Everyday people are not as immersed in reproductive justice issues as professionals and activists in the reproductive health field, she observed, and so informing them and "fighting the national narrative" is key. The majority of Americans are pro-health care and pro-decision making, making them a force that reproductive health advocates must tap into. Most people care about doing the right thing, and thus advocates should use social media to reach people where they are, Jacobson concluded.

Thao Nguyen explored the role of social media in depth with her discussion of the This Is Personal campaign, launched in late 2012 as the presidential election approached. This Is Personal was aimed at a millennial audience (ages 18-35) with no prior involvement in the reproductive health movement. Nguyen showed a video from the project, in which people read egregious quotes from public figures on sexual assault, birth control, and women's health, followed by snarky jabs. Without using the word "vote" or supporting a particular candidate, the video encouraged viewers to use their voices to protect their reproductive rights.

Nguyen discussed some of the strategies that contributed to This Is Personal's success, such as strong interaction with the target audience, correct tone, and a steady stream of fresh content. The campaign was a resounding success, she reported, adding that their audience had no "intensity gap" for the issue. When their audience was given information about reproductive rights, they responded passionately, she revealed.

Finally, Omero discussed how female voters and women's reproductive health issues shaped the 2012 election. 2012 was the first election since 1996 in which a candidate won by securing women's votes and losing men's votes, she asserted. The gender gap among those who voted for President Obama was wider in 2012 than in 2008, she added. Was this gap attributable to the war on women? Omero's answer was complex.

Focus groups with mothers revealed that few had ever heard of the war on women, and abortion was not one of the top issues motivating their vote. However, a candidate's stance on issues such as abortion served as a cue to whether or not these voters felt that a candidate truly understood them. "Does either party understand me?" is the chief question in voters' minds, Omero argued, and voters will evaluate campaigns on whether or not they believe a candidate understands their situation.

Reproductive health issues did play a role in the 2012 election. The majority of voters are pro-choice, Omero observed, and women's health and health care coverage are not only important issues, but also serve as cues as to whether voters feel a candidate understands them. This sheds light not only on President Obama's 2012 victory, but on how reproductive health matters impact politics.

In conclusion, the NFPRHA conference was both eye-opening and invigorating. Right-wing attacks on abortion, emergency contraception, public funding for family planning clinics, and insurance coverage for contraception are all too real. Fortunately, there are also progressive voices calling for rights, health, and facts. As anti-choice forced try to undermine reproductive rights for women and men, reproductive justice groups such as NFPRHA are defending those rights. As much as the far right tries to take reproductive choices away from citizens, a well-organized and devoted movement of reproductive rights activists continues to resist them. After wading through the insanity of Religious Right attacks on choice, it was rejuvenating to be among unabashedly sane people.

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I explored Alexandria in my free time, finding it to be clean, sterling, and full of surprises. The Westin Alexandria was located across the street from the Albert V. Bryan Courthouse, where a statue of Lady Justice hovered over the entrance. Justice Delayed, Justice Denied read the inscription, a perfect reminder to those attending a reproductive health conference. Green parks and ponds waited around corners, and an unexpected trellis covered in flowers captivated me.

That charm was exemplified by King Street, Alexandria's main street stretching the width of the city. Lined with restaurants, gourmet shops, bookstores, and boutiques, King Street was worth the walk. I sampled exotic olive oils and salts at Olio Tasting Room, eyed the Ganesha and bodhisattva statutes at an ethnic Tibetan store, admired tea decanters at a Moroccan shop, and picked up some used books at an inviting bookstore.

Freakin' ostrich eggs
For lunch one afternoon, I swung by Whole Foods, taking in the produce, beers, wines, and spices it sold. A basket of ostrich eggs for sale caught my eye, and I was so stunned that I took a photo. They're the size of #@%$ pummelos! I thought, disappointed that I had no means of cooking one during my stay.

In short, Alexandria (particularly King Street) is a great tourist destination for those visiting the Washington D.C. region. NFPRHA chose a great city in which to host its conference.


  1. Replies
    1. Sherry -- Good news is always rejuvenating.

  2. I hate to rain on your charming adventure in the DC region, but the CEO of Whole Foods is a virulent anti-Union advocate. That would put him on the side of the people who are working at cross-purposes with the causes the author holds dear.


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