February 20, 2018

Beyond ‘Women’s issues’: Finding our footing in divided discourse

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Janice Magracia

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It’s been three years since I began work for NM Political Report focused on politics and what are often referred to as “women’s issues.” It’s phrasing I reflexively shy away from, as there are few issues not relevant to women. Areas like reproductive health and access relate to everyone, regardless of background and gender identity—they’re relevant to every family, no matter their composition or belief systems.

Yet many public policies have disproportionate effects on women and families with children. Protections for pregnant workers, for example, were among the proposals I followed in 2015 and were among the many which failed to garner enough support from lawmakers. I also covered public policy and discourse related to abortion, which bears heavy baggage in simple utterance of the word.

Then, the local atmosphere surrounding abortion felt both disconcertingly polarized and exhausted. My hometown of Albuquerque had recently been declared a new “mission field” of deeply committed anti-abortion activists, including some recent arrivals who labeled New Mexico the “late-term abortion capital” of the country. Their concentration in the state exposed fissures in a Republican coalition otherwise unified on many matters. (For one, activists parked a truck plastered with graphic imagery outside the house of Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief strategist Jay McCleskey, who was not pleased.) Delving into news clippings from past legislative sessions made it clear that much of the same heated rhetoric cycled through public conversations as it has, almost continuously, since the Roe v. Wade decision.

As the 2015 state legislative session wound down, I turned my attention as a reporter elsewhere, still watching from a distance as abortion and reproductive health activists, as well as Martinez’s administration, focused on a public hospital with a reputation as one of the top-rated facilities in the country for primary care and rural medicine instruction. Controversy stemmed, in part, from the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center’s working relationship with Southwest Women’s Options, a private clinic that provides later abortions and has also donated fetal tissue for medical research. I read along as Protestants, Catholics and other faith community members continued to find themselves grappling with conflicts of messaging, strategy and priorities.

New arrivals who’d declared New Mexico a battleground termed themselves as part of a movement counteracting what they and their allies termed “mass slaughter” and an abortion “Holocaust.” A lack of funding impacted Planned Parenthood’s range of service provision and two clinics closed their doors. A man who’d declared himself “a warrior for the babies” fatally shot three people at a clinic in Colorado Springs, leaving nine others wounded. Congressman Steve Pearce joined forces with out-of-state anti-abortion leaders, including Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, to raise funds and scrutiny of an Albuquerque abortion provider that has donated fetal tissue for research at the University of New Mexico. It’s been evident to me that many of my neighbors, in a dizzying span of ways, have felt upended, fiercely protective, even threatened.

A cascade of major upheavals in my personal life, including a nearly two-year relocation to Washington, D.C., meant my return home in October had me feeling even more acutely aware that this is not an easy place to feel sheltered or heard, especially in times of heightened public polarization.

It was just over a year ago I feebly offered words of comfort to a friend mourning his childhood friend’s three murdered children, after her ex shot them and himself in northeast Albuquerque. Colleagues have reported too many harrowing stories of cruelty and neglect of children, in some cases their own mothers weaponized against them. No place is immune to horrific events, and ours is a beautiful place in all forms. Yet New Mexico families face deprivation and hardship that are exceptional in the U.S., while prosecution of crimes like rape and assault languish for years, even decades.

Families wrapped up in our criminal justice system struggle uphill to stay whole. One incarcerated woman, 26-year-old Erika Hamilton, sued the state last month for confining her in shackles while she gave birth, and another, 33-year-old Monique Hidalgo, had to win her own court battle to be allowed to breastfeed her baby.

I also returned in time to witness several rounds and many hours of public testimony of neighbors who thwarted the Sandoval County Commission’s effort to open the county to oil and gas extraction. It was testimony that included tribal members referencing the confrontation over tribal sovereignty and water conservation at Standing Rock. They spoke of traditional spiritual beliefs that land we inhabit is maternal in nature, that proposals of elected leadership too often constitute forcible invasion of those beliefs.

All of these issues illustrate the widespread polarization of our political discourse, grown in some ways even more inflamed than what I observed in 2015. And there are few issues in which the polarization is so deep and rancorous as abortion and reproductive rights.

It’s on that basis that I seek to approach this new phase in my work as an ongoing exercise in promoting more civil discourse. In addition to the Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics, my goal for this upcoming series is to draw on demonstrably effective guidance in the course of public interest reporting, using language of a public conversations project that helped diffuse tension in another community rife with fractious, often harmful, confrontations.

Among the practices (paraphrased from the aforementioned guide) I plan to draw from:

  • Encourage my sources to reflect upon and share the complexities of their views
  • Deepen readers’ understanding of the issues being discussed
  • Explore connections among what are conventionally framed as “oppositional” views and experiences
  • Foster a better understanding of the values, hopes, fears and assumptions at the center of convictions held by people in my stories
  • Seek deeper understanding of how factions in these debates are stereotyped by their so-called “opposition”
  • Seek clarification and context for slogans, shorthand, and buzzwords that tend to oversimplify issues and which may actually mean different things to different people

While I carry my own personal feelings and perspectives with me in my work, both in first-person commentaries like this and reported stories, accompanying them is a will to direct those clear from my retelling of what others share about their feelings and perspectives.

Margaret Wright is a contributor to NM Political Report. Email her at margaret.wright@protonmail.com