Over the last two years, as women’s healthcare access has evolved into a deeply partisan issue, Planned Parenthood has become a lighting rod in the national war on women. In Illinois, two bills in the House threaten to interfere in the relationship between a woman and her doctor, and to place undue financial burdens on women’s health clinics–including six Illinois Planned Parenthood health clinics.
A frequent speaker on these issues, Salon.com Editor-at-Large Joan Walsh, will address the urgency of the war on women at the Planned Parenthood of Illinois Generations Gala on Thursday, April 19. “I really do believe that what Planned Parenthood does on health issues is so important,” Ms. Walsh says. “Women need to be public about supporting the organization. I think what’s happened in the last year and a half, with women doing just that, has been really crucial for Planned Parenthood, but also for women’s activism generally.”
In anticipation of next week’s benefit, I spoke with Ms. Walsh via phone about the importance of the 2012 elections for women’s rights and how well the media has reported on the war on women.
TCW: When you speak to groups that are most likely already informed about these issues and hold similar viewpoints as you, such as at the Planned Parenthood Generations Gala, what is the most important message you want to deliver?
Ms. Walsh: One important message is to remind them how much public opinion is on their side. I feel like right wing Republicans have really succeeded in puffing themselves up and promoting themselves as the voices of middle America. Planned Parenthood actually speaks for many, many, many more women than right wing extremists do. In a recent Pew Poll, Planned Parenthood polled much better than the NRA, and we think of the NRA as being invincible. When I talk to liberal audiences in general, but women’s audiences in particular, I think it’s really important that we remember that we are the mainstream and they are not. They are the extremists.
Arthur Brisbane wrote a post for The New York Times about whether Times reporters should be “truth vigilantes” and “challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” In your opinion, what is the media’s responsibility in clarifying the facts in these often controversial and always complex women’s issues?
I’m pretty impressed this week by the mainstream media’s refusal to just accept the “war on the war on the women.” I’ve seen a lot of reporters debunk the idea that the Obama administration has cost women hundreds of thousands of jobs.
I understood what [Mr. Brisbane] was getting at, in the sense that you can imagine a way of reacting to claims that are false that’s really sneering and also partisan. I don’t think it’s necessary for mainstream media reporters to say, “Romney says that Obama apologizes for America…which is a lie.” I would like to see more, “In fact, x-newspaper has looked into this,” and then a real statement of what the facts are. I do think that too many extreme claims get reported as fact or merely as a “he-said she-said” debate, when it’s really our job to get closer to the truth.
Overall, how do you think the media has been doing in reporting these issues around women’s healthcare access?
I think that partly because of Republican extremism on these issues, the media have gotten much better. I also think that social media is playing a really incredible role in a lot of this. I got really engaged around the time that one of the first actions of the new House GOP leadership was to defund Planned Parenthood. There was this spontaneous outpouring on Twitter of women sharing their experiences with Planned Parenthood and quickly bringing out the numbers of breast exams and pap smears and the overall numbers of basic women’s healthcare provided by Planned Parenthood. That had an influence on the media narrative. It showed that there was another side — and that’s always important — but also that there were actual numbers that you can use to show that Planned Parenthood is a full provider of women’s healthcare. A kind of push back started then, and the media began to cover this in a more in-depth and balanced way.
There are a lot of criticisms of the 24/7 news cycle in that it can create a panic around things that aren’t really that consequential. In your view, how important are the 2012 elections to women and women’s rights?
I think they’re crucial. At the Federal level, if you look at the importance of the Supreme Court in protecting our rights, whether it’s Griswold [v. Connecticut] and contraception or Roe v. Wade, it would be a disaster to lose the White House. That’s not the only reason, but I think that it’s no exaggeration to say it would be a major setback for women. I think Mitt Romney yesterday said maybe he’d maybe sorta kinda hold onto the Lily Ledbetter Act, but we know Republicans are against that. We saw Gov. Scott Walker repeal Wisconsin’s equal pay protections last week.
We’re winning the battle for hearts and minds in a national way, and yet we’re seeing states do ever-more horrible things restricting women’s health access, whether it’s transvaginal ultrasounds or Mississippi selectively trying to shut down its one clinic that still provides abortions to women. It really is at the state, county and local levels that they’re managing to restrict a lot of access. A good turnout in 2012 helps women all across the board.
Tickets to the Planned Parenthood of Illinois Generations Gala are available at www.ppil.org/generations.