A Pro-Choice Mayor vs. a Mayor Who is Pro-Choice

With Chris Romer’s volley questioning rival Michael Hancock’s pro-choice credentials, much “he said, he didn’t say” has made its rounds through Denver’s political Web sites and news outlets. The crux of the “discussion” has focused on three main points:

  • Hancock’s self-identification as “pro-family planning” on a Planned Parenthood candidate questionnaire, the only major candidate who did not self-identify as pro-choice;
  • Hancock’s and Romer’s equivalent 100% scores on said questionnaire; and
  • Hancock’s statement that during a recent community forum, no attendees raised the
    issue of choice — suggesting a woman’s right to choose is not something about which Denver
    voters care when considering the next mayor.

    However Hancock explains the admittedly less-than-effusively pro-choice positions highlighted by the Romer campaign, voters will actually receive little clarity about whether
    either candidate would be a pro-choice mayor, versus simply a mayor who is pro-choice.

    Given Denver’s political dynamic, a mayor who aggressively advances pro-choice policies, rather than maintaining the status quo on issues related to reproductive health care, would face little repercussion come re-election. Speculation should quickly turn then, to what the candidates’ future political ambitions are, and how those ambitions could be compromised by staking out unabashedly pro-choice positions on abortion and reproductive rights policy.

    Denver is home to regional Catholic political and policy power Archbishop Charles Chaput,

    who, as the Ritter administration could readily confirm, is hardly a shrinking violet when

    it comes to declaring The Church’s preferences on things abortion and GLBTQ rights — and

    veiled implications for spiritual retribution should elected officials fail to heed his

    wishes. A mayor who is pro-choice likely would avoid public tussles with the

    religious leader, whereas a pro-choice mayor could credibly challenge the rigidity with

    which his flock adheres to the pro-life dogma. Organizations like Catholics for Choice will

    tell you that while Church figureheads like Chaput spout hard-line theology, average

    Catholics not only regularly use birth control and think that health insurance, including

    taxpayer-funded insurance programs like Medicaid, should cover contraception, but have

    abortions at equal rates as their non-Catholic counterparts and are less willing to judge

    their friends and neighbors for having an abortion than The Church would like. A pro-choice

    mayor would strongly espouse his conviction that whichever religious deity an individual

    subscribes to endowed women with the moral agency to determine the most appropriate actions

    for themselves, their bodies, their health, and their lives based on their own belief

    systems.

    Both Hancock and Romer have pointed to Denver schools as an area in need of reform. What

    neither candidate has emphasized is the correlation between teen pregnancy and drop-out

    rates. Among all age groups, Denver’s teen birth rate far exceeds state rates. Consider the

    following data compiled by Colorado

    Youth Matter:

  • Among teens aged 10-14, Colorado’s teen birth rate (births per 1,000 females) was 0.6

    between 2006-2008; in Denver, the rate was 1.1 for that age group

  • Among teens aged 15-19, the state birth rate was 38.1, compared to 61.8 for Denver
  • Among 15-17 year-olds, the rate was 22.3 statewide, compared to 40.8 in Denver

    Why is this significant? National research shows that teen pregnancy and parenting are among

    the top reasons youth drop out of school. A report issued

    by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies confirmed that teen mothers are more

    likely to drop out of school and live in poverty, while “the rates of both infant and

    maternal mortality and illness are higher because teens have more complicated pregnancies”

    marred by premature delivery, “significant anemia,” “placenta previa” and preeclampsia.

    Moreover, compared to children born to adult women, children of teen mothers “are more

    likely to have developmental problems, live in poverty, live in a single-parent household,

    experience abuse and neglect, enter the welfare system, and become teen mothers if they are

    girls or be incarcerated if they’re boys.”

    But the issue of adolescent sexual and reproductive health is hardly limited to discussion

    of teen pregnancy. It also extends to sexually transmitted infections, an area where Denver

    also falls short compared to statewide data. Also from Colorado Youth Matter, we know that STI

    rates (infections per 100,000) in Denver were 3,454 for chlamydia for teens ages 15-19 in

    2007, compared to 1,504.3 for the state; 739 for gonorrhea compared to Colorado’s rate of

    223; and 14 for HIV compared to 3.1 statewide.

    While Denver’s teen pregnancy and STI rates are striking on their own, what cannot be

    ignored is the fact that Denver youth are sexually active — and not always engaging in

    responsible sexual behavior that has been proven to prevent pregnancy and the

    spread of STIs. To the extent Denver schools fail to aggressively implement teen-pregnancy-

    and STI-prevention initiatives and programs to support pregnant and parenting teens,

    pregnancy-related dropouts and challenges associated with managing an STI diagnosis will

    continue to affect Denver youth’s ability to complete their education and position them for

    success later in life.

    Denver’s next mayor has an incredible opportunity to prioritize adolescent and sexual health

    by, among other things, continuing the Denver Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program established

    by former Mayor Hickenlooper. A mayor who is pro-choice should at least maintain the

    program. A pro-choice mayor should push for community-wide buy-in to implement best

    practices to address the issue, including use of comprehensive sex education that discusses

    the health benefits of abstinence and contraception; contraceptive counseling and

    distribution through school-based health centers; and even taking a page from New York Mayor

    Michael Bloomberg’s playbook by rolling out a free condom campaign.

    Of course, preventing unplanned pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections

    cannot focus only on adolescents. The majority of individuals who experience unplanned

    pregnancy or test positive for an STI are adults. As such, Denver’s next mayor can clearly

    distinguish himself as as a pro-choice mayor by working with City Council, Denver Health,

    and community health care providers to ensure low-cost or free access to birth control and

    STI screening. While attempts to strip funding from Planned Parenthood garnered headlines

    nationally and in Indiana, Colorado and elsewhere, Republicans’ obsession with women’s reproductive rights included an effort to completely eliminate the nation’s Title X family planning

    funding stream, which enables eligible clinics to provide free or low-cost birth control to

    millions of Americans. As home to several Title X

    clinics, a Republican success on this front could have a devastating impact not only on

    Denver families’ ability to plan their families and prevent unplanned pregnancies, but on

    individuals in surrounding communities who use the Denver facilities. Whereas a mayor who is

    pro-choice may remain silent when Congressional Republicans take aim at the Title

    X program, a pro-choice mayor would lock in “no” votes not only from Diana DeGette, but also

    from each of Colorado’s remaining 6 members of congress by leveraging the power of his office to lobby

    his counterparts statewide to protect their communities’ Title X access.

    The same holds true for state-level efforts to deny Medicaid reimbursement to any health

    care facility that provides abortions. While the amendment ostensibly targeted Planned

    Parenthood, any health care facility that provides abortions and also provides pap smears,

    birth control, prenatal care, and other obstetric and gynecological services to Medicaid

    patients would be barred from contracting with the state. As the county of residence for

    thousands of adults and children who qualify for Medicaid or CHP+, Denver could ill afford

    to lose doctors who choose to withdraw as a Medicaid provider rather than refuse to provide abortion. It’s easy to dismiss the ability of a mayor who is pro-choice to

    affect the outcome of debate on state law, but a pro-choice mayor would make damn sure that

    his community didn’t lose physicians who treat low-income Denvervites because of an

    ideological power play.

    You’ll notice this diary mentions very little about abortion, which was intentional: It’s

    largely true that banning or restricting abortion are actions where authority rests with the

    people by way of ballot initiatives, state Legislatures and governors, Congress and the

    courts. But a pro-choice mayor has significant power to pursue policies that reduce the need

    for abortion all while upholding a woman’s fundamental right to choose abortion — and

    access it without being subject to harassment — and a health care professional’s ability

    to provide the procedure to women who choose it without facing threats to their lives and

    overly burdensome regulations aimed at making the cost of doing business too high to

    continue to provide the service.

    Which begs the question laid out at the beginning of this diary: Will either Hancock or

    Romer act as a pro-choice mayor willing to leverage the power of the office to profoundly

    affect the reproductive health outcomes of Denver and beyond, or simply be a mayor who is

    pro-choice and who pointed to his position during the campaign but was willing to settle for the

    status quo once in office>?

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