Planned Parenthood president pans Detroit debates for ignoring reproductive rights

Pro-choice rally | Senate Democrats photo, Flickr

As most of the political world descended upon Detroit last week for the Democratic presidential debates, new acting Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson was in Lansing meeting with abortion rights activists.

Alexis McGill Johnson

McGill Johnson takes the helm as abortion bans are sweeping across the county — with two ballot measures in the pipeline in Michigan — as anti-abortion supporters hope the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in generations will soon overturn Roe v. Wade.

The wide-ranging first debate Tuesday night covered trade, tariffs, health care, immigration, manufacturing, the Flint water crisis and more.

On Wednesday, the Michigan Advance asked McGill Johnson, who heads up both the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, if she was disappointed in the lack of time devoted in the debates, thus far, to reproductive rights and women’s health.

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McGill Johnson said yes, “particularly last night,” noting there was a lengthy exchange on health care in the debate of 10 hopefuls that featured U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and author Marianne Williamson.

“They talked 45 minutes about health care with no mention of women’s health care, sexual reproductive rights. So yes, very disappointing,” McGill Johnson said.

She noted that Planned Parenthood hosted in June in South Carolina the “We Decide” forum with 20 presidential candidates.

“We got them on the record talking about these issues,” McGill Johnson said. “I think part of what I was hoping for, not just in the debates that we sponsor, is … we know there’s uniform agreement that the Democratic nominee must be pro-choice, but we still need to understand our plan for how they are going to defend and protect the access to care. Because there will be a lot that a president can do, but we still have a court and a congress and state legislators that have to be inspired to do the right thing. So I really would hope that that conversation gets picked up more strongly.”

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The Advance followed up with McGill Johnson about the issues after Wednesday’s debate, which included U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, businessman Andrew Yang, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Once again, abortion rights was not a major issue, although Harris did raise the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions and McGill Johnson noted particularly impacts women of color, people with low-incomes and young people.

She also noted that the President Donald Trump administration has restricted the Title X family planning program serving about 4 million people annually. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in March announced the state was joining 20 other states in suing over the “gag rule” making it illegal for Planned Parenthood and other providers to refer their patients for abortion.

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McGill Johnson said Planned Parenthood is the only Title X health center in Detroit, where the debates were held, and argued voters “deserve better.

“This is more than a health care issue. It is a matter of economic justice, racial justice and reproductive freedom,” she added. “We cannot talk about equal pay without discussing a woman’s ability to control her own body. It is impossible to address gender equity without a plan to ensure every person can access the health care they need to pursue their fullest dreams. And we’ll never achieve racial justice without dismantling the barriers to care marginalized communities experience day in and day out because of racist and discriminatory policies.”

The Advance will have more from the interview with McGill Johnson in future stories.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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