Barbara Bush and the Battle for Women’s Health
Barbara Pierce Bush (W’s daughter) is taking a very active role in improving conditions here and around the world.
The Clintons? Democrats.
The Kennedys? Ditto—to Massachusetts extreme.
The Kochs? Republican, with Libertarian bent.
The Romneys, as in former governors/presidential candidates George and Mitt? GOP icons for sure.
The Bushes? Well, there’s a trickier family to pin down.
To wit: Barbara Pierce Bush (W’s daughter) will appear in Naples this month as the keynote speaker for the Choice Affair, the signature fundraising event for the Central and Southwest Florida branch of Planned Parenthood.
The father won accolades from the National Right to Life organization, but the daughter may be more like her grandparents—her namesake grandmother who called abortion a “personal thing” and her grandfather, George H.W. Bush, who was once nicknamed “Rubbers” for his ardent support of family planning.
To the family’s anything-but-unified voice, the young Ms. Bush says simply this: “I’m raised by parents that I adore and love, and they very much raised us to be ourselves, as clichéd as it is.”
Bush spoke to Gulfshore Life in advance of her Southwest Florida appearance in an interview that focused on her think-for-yourself upbringing, her passion for health care access and advocacy, and the role that young people can play in spearheading change. Some of those messages echo in Sisters First, a new memoir written by Bush and her twin, Jenna Bush Hager, released just after this interview.
Bush, 36, is the CEO and founder of Global Health Corps, a leadership development organization that operates much like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. It embeds young, promising leaders with nonprofit health care and social service organizations in four African nations, plus the United States, to work on issues from improving nutrition to preventing disease to increasing access to care.
“(My parents) gave us the freedom to be curious and explore the world and figure out what I was curious about,” she says. “There was no right path to take. It was the path that was right for you.”
She discovered hers on a trip to Uganda in 2003 with her father’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) organization. “There were millions of people who were dying because they were HIV-positive, simply because they weren’t born in the right place,” she remembers. “It wasn’t because the drugs didn’t exist. That was what blew my mind. We (Americans) were living in a world where there were tools to keep people healthy and alive and to turn what was a death sentence into a chronic illness, and yet if you were born in the wrong place, you didn’t get those tools. That was such a clear inequity.”
She saw the disparities at home, too, between the poor and uninsured and those who had the means to stay healthy and seek treatment. “Health is a backbone of our ability to live a full life and allow us to grow into what we want to be, regardless of circumstances,” she says.
Global Health Corps fellows are assigned to work everywhere from a shelter for runaway and trafficked youth in New Jersey to a faith-based HIV/AIDS organization in Uganda.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge we have major disparities in our country, and they don’t look that much different from other countries,” she says. “The truth is we’re part of the globe, and we need to acknowledge that health issues here are also global health issues.”
Representatives from the local Planned Parenthood chapter had heard Bush speak at a similar Planned Parenthood event in Texas and invited her to appear here.
“We think it’s time we understand women’s health globally,” says Craig Jones, who is chairing the Choice Affair event. The board also hoped Bush might offer hints as to how to navigate the collision of reproductive health and abortion politics.
To that, Bush chuckles. “I would love to have the answer! I think the important piece to remember is there are a lot of terms that are loaded in the United States. I hope everyone can agree that a woman and her child should be able to live a healthy and dignified life. ... So really acknowledging what that means for women is lost in the dialogue because the dialogue is quite divisive around women’s health.”
Nevertheless, even she treads lightly over the question of whether she supports all of Planned Parenthood services, including abortion. “I’ll say I support Planned Parenthood, but everyone can decide what services are best for them. I support the fact that they are working with women on a full menu of services, and that (includes) a lot of work with pregnant women and their soon-to-be-born babies. That’s critical. ... I think that’s often left out of the conversation. It’s such a critical time; the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can really dictate what their future will be like in terms of their health.”
She’s similarly cautious about entering the fray over the Affordable Care Act and whether it had made strides in improving access to care—the backbone of Global Health Corp’s mission. “I’m not totally sure what my opinion is in terms of what’s happening in the United States, largely because it doesn’t seem like we know what will happen. I’m trying to be transparent about that.”
She adds, however, “I do think it’s obvious in the United States that based on the dialogue people don’t feel they are being fully served by our health care system. A lot of the work our fellows do is working with people living below the poverty line or who may not speak English as a first language.”
Bush says she tries not to hear the critics, though she knows they are out there and their rhetoric magnified because she is who she is (in response to her Texas appearance, evangelist Franklin Graham declared that fundraising for Planned Parenthood was like “raising money to fund a Nazi death camp.”)
“Global Health Corps is a leadership organization,” Bush says. “We work with young leaders, and as a leader it’s important to use your voice on the things that matter to you. I do feel that responsibility.”
And that means not just talking but also taking action. That’s something, she says, her parents have always stressed—regardless of whether their daughters’ actions fall in line with presidential legacies or not.
“It’s not just about using your voice; it’s figuring out the work behind it,” Bush says. “I think you have to follow through, do the work, and not just use your voice to add an opinion. That’s what really matters to me.”