Q&A With Our New Director of Public Policy, Jodi Liggett

jodiOn January 6, Jodi Liggett joined Planned Parenthood Arizona’s team as the director of public policy. She will work with communities to advocate for reproductive health and rights, and will collaborate with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona to reach out to voters and legislators to advance a vision of greater access to comprehensive sexuality education, family-planning services, and abortion care. In a state where lawmakers are so hostile to these objectives, Jodi has a lot on her plate!

“The most effective thing we can do is advocate for comprehensive and accurate sexuality education.”

In the following Q&A, Jodi addresses the recent controversy regarding comprehensive sex education in Tempe high schools, and names some of the bad bills that have already been proposed so far in the 2014 legislative session. And, with the gubernatorial elections slated for later in the year, she talks about her hopes for the future — an Arizona government that actually reflects the will of Arizonans, the majority of whom support Planned Parenthood’s mission.

Welcome aboard, and I hope your first month with us has been a positive experience! Please tell us a little about your background and what makes you so passionate about protecting everyone’s access to sexual and reproductive health care.

I am thrilled to join the Planned Parenthood family, and feel like this role is the culmination of many years working on behalf of Arizona’s women and vulnerable populations. When I graduated from law school in the late ’90s, I worked as legislative staff on welfare reform — a huge policy change that affected tens of thousands of poor single mothers struggling to raise their children. Later, I worked in Gov. Jane Hull’s administration as her policy adviser for human services. In both roles, my biggest successes came from finding common ground, avoiding partisan posturing, and working from the middle.

I spent some time in the private sector lobbying for health care organizations, and then joined the Arizona Foundation for Women as their director of research and public policy, eventually moving up to CEO. While at the Foundation, I published two reports on the status of women in Arizona — and our rankings on women’s health, education, and social justice measures were truly troubling.

Immediately before joining Planned Parenthood, I was senior policy adviser to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, leading initiatives on homelessness, education, domestic violence, and child trafficking. What I’ve observed throughout my career is a common thread: Whether the issue is poverty, health, education, or equal pay — a woman’s ability to control when and whether she has a family is critical. Arizona has a huge high school dropout problem; the No. 1 reason girls drop out is teen pregnancy. Arizona has terribly high rates of teen pregnancy, including repeat teen pregnancy. Teen motherhood and lack of a high school diploma is a virtual guarantee of poverty, and poverty is related to poor health outcomes — you get the picture.

Planned Parenthood represents the solution to these problems: access to comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education, preventive services, and the full complement of women’s reproductive health options. I’m proud to be a part of the solution!

Here in Arizona, we recently celebrated a victory when the 20-week abortion ban was struck down. What remaining restrictions on access to abortion and contraception would you like to see reversed in Arizona?

Certainly, any remaining barriers to our constitutionally protected abortion rights: waiting periods; so-called “informed consent” provisions that require a doctor to deliver scripted information; in-person, new restrictions on medication abortion that require us to comply with outdated FDA protocols; etc.

These provisions in rule and law are not about women’s health and safety. Indeed, in practice they imperil women’s health by placing roadblocks between women and their medical providers — interfering in the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship. In addition, they make the provision of some health services unwieldy, expensive, and, in some communities, downright impossible. That’s by design. If our opponents cannot outlaw abortion outright, they will use any means to prevent as many women as possible from accessing services — including family planning and contraceptive care.

Arizona is classified by the Guttmacher Institute as “hostile to abortion rights.” Now that the 2014 legislative session has begun, do we anticipate any bad bills coming our way?

Unfortunately, yes. Right now, HB 2284 is being assigned to committee. This bill would permit unannounced inspections of abortion clinics by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

SB 1062 greatly expands the “exercise of religion” in a way that allows any one or any entity to discriminate, or otherwise ignore the law, by claiming that their religious practice or beliefs require it.

We also expect more restrictions will be attempted, such as requiring that abortions be performed only in hospitals after a certain point, bills funding “crisis pregnancy centers” via tax credits or other means, expansion of “informed consent” requirements, and others. The important thing for us is not to get down “in the weeds” on regulation or legal hair-splitting — these bills are not being run out of concern for women, they are run to control women and dictate their choices.

There was recently a controversy when Vicki Hadd-Wissler, Planned Parenthood Arizona’s director of education, gave a presentation on comprehensive sexuality education to Tempe Union High School District. There seems to be a lot of misinformation flying around, including that Planned Parenthood will be “promoting dangerous sexual behavior” to Tempe students, and teaching a curriculum that advocates for abortion over adoption and parenthood (in violation of SB 1009). Can you set the record straight?

I’m happy to! First, as a parent who actually lives in the Tempe Union High School District, I can assure you that a majority of parents want their kids to receive medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education. In fact, most folks assume this is already happening!

A few facts:

  1. TUHSD has already voted to implement comprehensive sex ed in their schools. The only question is what particular curriculum will be used. That’s what the meeting was about — examining sample curricula to move toward a final decision on how (not whether) to deliver this education.
  2. Vicki and Planned Parenthood’s role at the meeting was to provide subject matter expertise. We are so fortunate to have the state’s leading expert on sexuality education, Vicki Hadd-Wissler. TUHSD invited Vicki, as the leading authority on the subject, to provide analysis and lead discussion on sample curricula, none of which was Planned Parenthood’s.
  3. As mentioned, none of the curricula under consideration are ours, and Planned Parenthood will not be providing the instruction. In fact, Vicki’s role was to help the committee determine whether and how the prospective programs complied with Arizona law — meaning they must emphasize abstinence as the only sure method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and must provide information about all options available to those facing pregnancy.

It is unfortunate that our opponents chose to spread misinformation and disrupt the work of the TUHSD board. Those of us actually living and raising children in the district can think for ourselves, thank you very much!

Last November, Planned Parenthood Action Fund announced that they were “going on offense” with the Women’s Health Protection Act. Are there any plans for proactive legislation in Arizona? What kind of beneficial legislation would you like to see, and why do you think it’s so important to fight for it?

In the long term, I think the most effective thing we can do is advocate for comprehensive and accurate sexuality education. Nationally, teen pregnancies have fallen to record lows, but we know, based on data from the Guttmacher Institute, that the decline is uneven across the country. New Mexico had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, followed by Mississippi, Texas, Nevada, Arkansas, and Arizona. What do these states all have in common? Inconsistent or nonexistent sex education in schools, and poor contraception use among teens. States with higher teen pregnancy — especially Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas — do not require sex ed at all. That’s got to change.

We would also like to see a rollback of the most objectionable barriers to abortion care put in place over the last few years: reinstating nurse practitioners’ and physician’s assistants’ ability to prescribe and administer abortion medication, for example — at least in rural areas. Repealing the “in-person” requirement for informed consent disclosures, which requires an additional in-person visit currently. And, finally, allowing maximum access to contraception, especially emergency contraception.

What opportunities for progress do you foresee during the upcoming election season?

From our perspective, the governor’s race is the single most important race in the upcoming election. Although there are a few swing districts in play, we will not be able to effect a wholesale change in the makeup of our Legislature. Focusing on maximizing votes in the Senate, which can function as a brake on extreme and destructive legislation, will be important. However, having the absolute backstop in the executive branch is critical. We know from experience that an executive willing to wield his or her veto pen on our behalf is invaluable. We know that a majority of the public believes in protecting a woman’s right to make health care decisions for herself. We need to make sure those folks understand which candidates support their beliefs and … get them to vote!