Past Event

More Than A Choice

A Progressive Vision of Reproductive Rights

2:00 - 3:30 PM EDT

Jessica Arons introduced the report and pointed out that although abortion is an important right, reproductive rights encompass more than just the right to an abortion. She argued for a broader, more inclusive vision of reproductive rights based on four cornerstones: the ability to become a parent and parent with dignity, the ability to determine whether or when to have children, the ability to have a healthy pregnancy, and the ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships.

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez spoke of his experiences as a young doctor, where he began to understand the circumstances and morality surrounding the important life decisions women make about whether to have children and when to have children. He described performing abortions and delivering babies in very close proximity to one another — literally on either side of a thin partition. What he realized was that the women on both sides of the wall were one in the same. He went on to affirm every woman’s right to be her own moral agent. He also urged progressives to reach out to a broader group of people but to “consider your audience” and use a variety of messages when arguing in favor of abortion rights.

Dr. Rhonda Waller focused on the obstacles that women face in having a healthy pregnancy and noted that “a lot of things are needed for a healthy pregnancy.” She cited the difficulties that young, pregnant women face without adequate resources, care, or knowledge. She emphasized the importance of encouragement, relaying a story of one young woman who had not been congratulated once during her whole pregnancy until the staff of Healthy Babies did so at the birth of her child. Waller argued that pregnancy support must be central to a broadened definition of reproductive rights and made available and accessible to all women.

Malika Saada Saar discussed both the “magic” and “danger” of parenting that makes parents feel vulnerable and the concept of “parenting with dignity.” She defined “parenting with dignity” as parents having the supports they need to attend to their children’s basic needs so that they can be happy, feel safe, and know that they are loved. On a policy level, that translates into a living wage, access to health care, affordable day care, and decent shelter. She also discussed in depth the barriers women struggling with addiction confront when trying to parent because most drug treatment programs do not allow children. Saar also observed that it is easier for women to end up in jail than in treatment, and that substance abuse is the most common reason child welfare removes a child from the home.

The Reverend Debra Haffner attributed Americans’ cultural confusion about reproductive health and rights to our larger discomfort with human sexuality. She believes our sexuality and spirituality are intimately connected and it is moral to help people treat each other with love, dignity, and respect. She criticized the moderate “erotophobia” in this country that allows for the exploitation of sex while denying comprehensive sexuality education. She also criticized the erotophobia of progressive religious leaders who avoid addressing pressing issues of sexual and reproductive health and the “religiophobia” of reproductive and sexual rights leaders who shun all-faith communities when only some are hostile to those rights.

The panelists called for a new language of debate to win back public support. They agreed that the reproductive rights encompass many things in addition to abortion, including adequate healthcare, family planning, a living wage, and education.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006
2:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Admission is free

Center for American Progress
1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Map and Directions
Nearest Metro: Blue/Orange Line to McPherson Square or Red Line to Metro Center




Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress. She also is a member of the Center’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. Most recently, Jessica served as a staff attorney fellow with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. Prior to working at the ACLU, she practiced labor and employment law at James & Hoffman, P.C. Following law school, she clerked for the Honorable Elizabeth B. Lacy on the Supreme Court of Virginia. She also worked at the White House and on the 1996 Pennsylvania Democratic Coordinated Campaign prior to law school. Jessica is an honors graduate of Brown University and William and Mary School of Law. At William and Mary, Jessica was an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Law Review, Managing Editor of the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, and a Board Member of the William & Mary Public Service Fund.

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the co-founder and director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing ( A sexologist for more than thirty years and the chief executive director of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States for twelve, Rev. Haffner was ordained in 2003 as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She is the author or co-author of five books, the endorsed community minister at the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, and offers more than 50 lectures each year on the relationship of sexuality and religion.  She writes a daily blog at

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez is a 20-year veteran of the reproductive rights struggle. He provided medical testimony before the Senate for the passage of the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) law and was the lead plaintiff in the case against the so-called “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” in Rhode Island. In addition to being the CEO of Women’s Care, Inc., he is the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of RI, Associate Professor of OBGYN at Brown University Medical School, and Associate Chief of OBGYN at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, RI. He was recently elected incoming chair for the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and has been a board member of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the National Abortion Federation, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. He is currently host of “Nuestra Salud” a daily reproductive health radio talk show in Spanish.

Malika Saada Saar, Esq. is the Founder and Executive Director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and advocacy organization for families struggling with the intersecting issues of economic marginality, substance abuse, access to family-based treatment, and the child welfare and criminal justice systems. The Ford Foundation recently honored The Rebecca Project for Human Rights’ achievements with the “Leadership for Changing World” award. Ms. Saada Saar and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights’ co-director Imani Walker were also selected by Redbook magazine for the Mothers and Shakers 2005 Award. Ms. Saada Saar is the founder of “Crossing the River,” a written and spoken word workshop for mothers in recovery from substance abuse, and the former director of Family Rights and Dignity, a civil rights project for low income and homeless families in California. She has been featured in Essence Magazine, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Redbook magazine. Ms. Saada Saar received her B.A. from Brown University, M.A. in Education from Stanford University, and JD from Georgetown University in 2001.

Rhonda Waller, Ph.D. is the former executive director of Healthy Babies Project, Inc. in Washington, DC, an agency dedicated to decreasing infant mortality in the District of Columbia and empowering parents and parents-to-be through health education, parenting education, home visitation, and supportive services. Dr. Waller recently ended her tenure as executive director of Healthy Babies Project, Inc. in Washington, DC and founded ADURA, LLC an organization that provides services such as grant writing, organizational development, leadership development, program planning and evaluation, and advocacy to and on behalf of organizations nationally.  Dr. Waller firmly believes in empowering families with the tools needed to advocate on their own behalf and to succeed in life.  Her passion for reproductive health rights, maternal and child health, and early child development, coupled with her ability to reach out to her clients, staff, and colleagues with genuine compassion and the desire to serve, contributes to her history of success with non-profit community based organizations.   

Melody Barnes is the Executive Vice President for Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund where she coordinates and helps to integrate all of the Center’s policy work, from the policy departments, fellows, and the Center’s network of outside policy experts. From December 1995 until March 2003, Ms. Barnes served as chief counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. As Senator Kennedy’s chief counsel, she shaped civil rights, women’s health and reproductive rights, commercial law, and religious liberties laws, as well as executive branch and judicial appointments. Ms. Barnes’ experience also includes an appointment as Director of Legislative Affairs for the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and serving as assistant counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. During her tenure with the Subcommittee, she worked closely with Members of Congress and their staffs to pass the Voting Rights Improvement Act of 1992, which was signed into law. Barnes began her career as an attorney with Shearman & Sterling in New York City and is a member of both the New York State Bar Association and the District of Columbia Bar Association. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of The Constitution Project, EMILY’s List, The Maya Angelou Public Charter School, and The Moriah Fund. She received her law degree from the University of Michigan and her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she graduated with honors in history.

The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”