In the raging legislative battle over women’s reproductive rights, progressive groups have turned to a tactic that for years has helped spread anti-abortion measures – model legislation…
In many ways, the use of model legislation by women’s rights groups has helped reshape the contour of the abortion debate, deepening the divide between progressive and conservative states as they push to both adopt widely divergent policies and jockey for legal position in the event that a more conservative Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The group leading the women’s rights counterattack is the Public Leadership Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has developed a 190-page handbook, “A Playbook for Abortion Rights,” that contains 29 model bills.
The handbook, first released in 2015, has policy goals that run the women’s rights gamut — from stopping anti-abortion harassment and ensuring insurance coverage for abortion to codifying women’s reproductive rights in state laws and repealing decades-old statutes criminalizing abortion to protect women’s reproductive rights.
“The Playbook is a way to really show people that we’re not going to take it anymore — we’re not going to stay on defense,” said Gloria Totten, president of the Public Leadership Institute. “We are going to affirm women’s right to abortion, no matter what the other side puts into the legislative mix.”
Following the handbook’s release, the number of abortion-rights bills introduced in statehouses nationwide nearly quadrupled, from 22 in 2015 to 81 in 2016, and then shot up to 133 in 2017 and 146 this year, according to the Public Leadership Institute.
Totten is quick to point out that not all bills were based on the handbook. Still, the Public Leadership Institute has had a hand in many — including more than 100 of the measures introduced in 2017 — by providing assistance to lawmakers and local women’s rights groups. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity’s computerized bill tracker found that nearly two-thirds of the 134 abortion-rights bills introduced this year also contained provisions similar to model legislation.
“We’ve been able to create a sense within the reproductive-rights movement that they needed to be proactive,” Totten said. “But there is still a lot of cleanup and a lot of work that needs to be done in the states in order to make sure that women actually have access to abortion.”
‘We’re done playing defense. It’s time to play offense’
Prior to founding the Public Leadership Institute in 2015, Totten spent 14 years running Progressive Majority, a PAC that recruited and trained progressive candidates for state and local offices. What she learned there, she says, was that progressive lawmakers often lacked a coherent legislative agenda.
“We were electing progressives into office — but, once there, they would say, ‘What’s the agenda? What are we going to do?'” Totten said. “Meanwhile, the other side was like a firehose, throwing things out to them, so they were constantly on the defense.”
That’s the problem Totten set out to solve at the Public Leadership Institute — and tackling the women’s rights issue was at the top of her agenda.
Totten and colleagues then reached out to nearly two dozen like-minded women’s rights groups to solicit ideas — and discovered that some didn’t think the handbook was a good idea.
“There was a real genuine fear that, if we put things out there, we create openings for them to do more bad stuff that has a real tangible impact on women’s lives,” Totten said.
But Totten and her colleagues plowed ahead and eventually settled on 29 model bills. Totten then sought input from Michigan state Rep. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat, who used to head abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Michigan.
Warren proofread the handbook and gave her feedback: Its language needed to be more inclusive and frame the issue more broadly. “We should be making the lens a little bit bigger — to be about women’s health care broadly, so that we could get more bipartisan support,” she said.
After incorporating Warren’s input, the Public Leadership Institute released the final version of the handbook in December 2015 and has since distributed nearly 5,000 hard copies to state and local lawmakers.
The institute has also been offering a menu of support to lawmakers and local women’s rights groups, such as providing advocacy training and talking points, as well as conducting legislative analysis to see which model bill might be the right fit for a given state.
To sustain its work, the Public Leadership Institute now raises about $1.4 million a year in foundation grants and contributions — including from the Democracy Alliance, a liberal collective founded by wealthy funders like George Soros and Tom Steyer.
Warren said the reaction to the handbook was decidedly positive among her like-minded Michigan colleagues, so much so that she helped orchestrate a simultaneous introduction of 10 bills — all inspired by the handbook — in 2017. In the end, the bills failed to get any traction in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, but Warren said taking such a proactive step was cathartic.
“After so many years of playing defense, it was very empowering as a pro-choice caucus in the Michigan Legislature to say, ‘This is our line in the sand. We’re done playing defense. It’s time to play offense, to be unapologetic about what we care about,'” Warren said.
The handbook has found champions even in some deep-red states.
This year, for instance, Texas state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Democrat, sponsored a measure based on a model bill, “Keep Bosses Out of the Bedroom Act,” that would prohibit discrimination against employees based on their reproductive health decisions.
Though Rosenthal’s bill eventually stalled, Aimee Arrambide, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said it got an important hearing. “We didn’t win in a traditional sense, but it allowed us to have a venue to testify. That’s a small win,” she said.
Totten added that, in states controlled by conservatives, “you might as well put your boldest idea forward because then at least you’re creating a North Star that other people can kind of drive toward.”