Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The problem with rape and incest

There are so many things I have been wanting to write about.

The folly of more U.S. intervention in Iraq, of thinking that we can control the sectarian violence we spent years and billions fomenting.

The irony and the ecstasy of Eric Cantor.

Tony Kushner’s play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide toCapitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which I saw last weekend.  The play is even longer than the name.

But when I looked at this morning’s New York Times, the phrase that called to me was this one, “even in cases of rape and incest.”

The article in question was a call for women in the Peace Corps to be able to use their federally funded insurance to pay for abortions when pregnancies result from rape or incest or when their lives are endangered by the pregnancies.  No controversy from me.  I did not actually know, but was glad to read, that women who are raped in federal prisons have the right to federally funded abortions.  Seems like the least they can do, given that any pregnancy that occurs while a woman is in prison is going to be a result of rape, since the only men in women’s prisons are staff.  In trying to find out how many incarcerated women have actually benefited from this regulation, which I could not find, I did learn that “The governors of Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona have informed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that they won't try to meet the standards required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”  Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the requirements were too expensive.

Honestly, I didn’t even know that there was a Prison Rape Elimination Act until I heard the aforementioned interview with Nell Bernstein, who aptly raised the question, “Why do we need a special law to stop guards from raping inmates?”

Why indeed?  An interaction during that interview illustrates the why.  The interviewer, Dave Davies, kept trying to soften the language and Bernstein, with incredible poise, kept resisting.  So he kept talking about “detention,” “custody” and “child welfare services” and she kept saying, “prisons.”  She told one story about a girl who had been a prostitute, whose counselor demanded that she “reenact” her sexual experiences with him.  A guard walked in on one of these “sessions” and the girl thought he was going to help her but instead, he apologized to the counselor and left.

Davies:  “[He walked in] while they were having sex?”
Bernstein:  “I would say while he was raping her.”

What that interaction shows is how hard women have to work to show that they are blameless for sex before they are entitled to any protection.  This was the message that #YesAllWomen was trying to get across.  And it’s exactly what’s wrong with the “rape and incest” clauses.  Is it more traumatic to have a child resulting from rape than to have one you can’t afford?  One resulting from a one-night stand you regret or can’t remember?  One resulting from failed birth control, or birth control you didn’t have access to or ran out of or didn’t know how to use?

Maybe, maybe not.  For sure, a pregnancy and a child will always remind you of your rape, but I assure you, every rape survivor remembers the rape very well.  That’s why defense lawyers always insist their testimony was coached, because you go over every detail again and again in your mind for years.  You try to think about how you could have done things differently, not taken that ride, not gone to that party, not had that drink, not worn that dress, not kissed that guy.  I’m sure that’s also true for women who got pregnant with a broken condom.  You imagine not having sex, you imagine choosing a different condom, you imagine being more careful, you imagine using more lube.

What about the trauma of having a child when you’re sick?  Or maybe you were raped or battered but not the day you got pregnant.  How much do you need to suffer before you have a right not to have a child?

The vast majority of our social welfare policy is about punishing women for having the wrong kind of sex.  You only have to look at attacks on welfare, marriage incentives, denial of contraception, criminalization of addicted pregnant women, lesbians of color and sex workers, and on and on.  Of course, it’s also about punishing women for being the wrong kind of women – especially African American, Latina and poor.  But the demographic objectives of the right – to preserve a white majority, at least among the voting public – would be better served by promoting abortion and birth control among women of color and immigrant women.  (The Israeli army does exactly that; they have a fund to help Palestinian women get abortions.)  Their obsession with denying women access to those forms of health care only makes sense as a means of making women pay for the crime of sex.

By that logic, if you can show that you got no pleasure from the sex, you have the right not to be further punished, but otherwise, you don’t.  That’s why you get people like Todd Akin, talking about “legitimate rape” and the body shutting down.  If your body didn’t shut down, that proves you must have enjoyed it, QED you did not suffer enough. That’s why as feminists, as people who believe that health care is a right and a woman’s health care should be her own damn business, we should expunge that clause, “even in cases of rape and incest,” from our rhetoric.

It’s very tempting to use it.  It’s the icing on the cake, it proves how unreasonable our opposition is and inversely, how reasonable we are.  But by using it, we give legitimacy to the idea that some women deserve abortion more than others.

Sex is not a crime.  Women are people.  Abortion is health care.  Health care is a right.


Friday, September 28, 2012

An Anarchist's Yom Kippur - If Not Now, When?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What does a Jewish pagan atheist do on Yom Kippur?
I fast, for a complicated series of reasons – tradition, memory, connection with a community, and because I look forward to the spacey, open, vulnerable feeling at the end of the day.  A friend and I begin and end the 25 hours with services but don’t spend the whole day there as I did when I was a kid.  Usually in the early part of the day I read.  I pull books off my shelves and look at them, reading snatches of this and that.  Sometimes one catches my interest and I read it for a few hours; other times I just keep browsing my own library.  It’s another way of reconnecting.  Last night I pulled out a book called Reconcilable Differences:Confronting Beauty, Pornography and the Future of Feminism.  I don’t think I ever read it closely, but I can see that I kept it on my bed for a while because the cover is all chewed up (meaning my cat gnawed on it for quite a while).  It’s interesting, trying to grapple with some of the issues that have divided feminists over the decades.  This morning I picked up Of Woman Born, motivated no doubt by the death of Adrienne Rich in the last year.  It’s still so powerful after so many years.  It’s a document of the early Second Wave women’s movement, yet still feels alive and relevant.
That made me start thinking about something I’ve been increasingly preoccupied with: the apparent disconnect between social progress and technological progress.  Watching all the recent shenanigans to disenfranchise poor people and people of color through carefully crafted photo ID requirements, limits on early voting and same-day registration, I keep thinking, “How is this possible?  People died for the right to vote in the fifties and sixties – we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  How can we be headed back where we started?”
I’m sure union activists are wondering the same thing about the attacks on the right to organize, and certainly abortion rights champions have been facing this rollback for a long time.  We thought we had won those victories, but the people who opposed them didn’t think they had lost them.
It’s been well documented that the minute Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land, the Church and the right wing started organizing to overturn it.  The same, of course, was true of labor rights.  Capital did not simply accept the Wagner Act once it was passed in 1935; they started looking for ways to weaken it (Taft-Hartley, 1947), get around it (JP Stevens 1960-74, Pittston Coal 1989), crush it (Phelps Dodge Copper 1983, Hormel Meat 1985), or effectively destroy it through anti-union appointments to the NLRB.
At the same time, the women who had fought to legalize abortion and provided underground abortion access got busy building their clinics.  They incorporated and got grants and built huge fundraising networks.  They took ads in the phone book and the newspapers, letting women know about all the wonderful services they could provide.  They built international empires like Planned Parenthood, or community-controlled women’s health centers like the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective.  The more radical among the activists fought medical schools to teach abortion techniques, and sued for publicly funded abortion.  Some continued to do policy work, trying to block the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated all federal funding for abortion.  When that failed, women established the National Network of Abortion Funds, to try to make abortion accessible to poor women.
The union leaders focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts.  That’s what unions are for, right?  They built strike funds and trained stewards.  After Reagan and PATCO, when they realized they were losing (perhaps not realizing they had already lost), some hunkered down and concentrated on how to keep from losing any more, while others branched out, aggressively trying to organize more and more sectors.  They looked at the unorganized low-wage workers and explored new organizing models (community campaigns, worker associations like the Asian Immigrant Workers Alliance) that would be less threatening to workers and raise fewer red flags with employers.
The civil rights leaders of the sixties ran for Congress, became ambassadors, wrote books, won Pulitzers, got teaching jobs, started poverty programs.  Some started institutes to spread what they had learned to other oppressed communities and movements.  Some helped to organize anti-nuclear or anti-war campaigns.  Some became progressive ministers, serving their communities in myriad ways, speaking out on a range of social issues.
I’m not trying to blame feminists, civil rights activists or unions for the backlash against them.  But because technological progress is linear – steampunk aside and barring a cataclysm, I don’t see anyone giving up their iPads for stone tablets – we imagine that social progress is also.  Social progress often flows from technological progress.  Agrarian families needed more kids to work the fields, while wage laborers need to be able to limit the mouths they have to feed.  Industrialization made slavery unprofitable.  But that doesn’t mean that society keeps pace with technology.  People continue to hunger for the bygone eras, even as I hunger for the well-read books on my bookshelves.
When I was in college, “new institutionalism” or “new structuralism” was in vogue.  Under this analysis, structural or institutional change leads to cultural change, rather than the other way around.  Thus, if you want to change society, you change institutions and “hearts and minds” will adapt to the new reality.  It’s the basis for policies like integrating the military through executive order, which worked relatively well (though Danny Chen’s family might not think so).  It’s also the basis for things like forced school integration through busing, which has worked notoriously badly.  That seems to cast some doubt on the soundness of institutionalism as a premise, which might explain the predicament we are now in.
Of course, feminism, civil rights, labor did capture people’s hearts and minds.  Very recently, over 50% of unorganized workers said they would join a union if they had the chance.  77% of the electorate believes women should have the right to an abortion.  For whatever self-interested reasons, 43% of white Americans, and a majority of those under 30, voted for a Black president in 2008.  The minds of the people most hostile to our goals are always going to be hardest to change, and can’t be our focus.  But the anti-abortion movement was able to change the discourse in the country, so that abortion is now widely seen as a tragedy rather than a medical option.  If we had been as organized as the right wing, they could not have done that so easily.  (The most ironic expression of this is that the numbers of people identifying as pro-choice are going everlower, while the numbers who support the right to abortion stay relatively constant.)  There would not have been more than twenty years without a single television character choosing abortion and going through with it.  The anti-union establishment can foment anger against public sector unions because the vast majority of those private sector workers who would like to join a union never had the opportunity to do so.
Okay, but if we have to keep fighting every battle even after we’ve won it, how can we ever move on to anything new?  There are only so many active feminists, so many civil rights activists, so many union organizers.  Someone had to set up the clinics and the fundraising networks, train the doctors and organize the workers and negotiate the contracts, fight discrimination in schools and housing and employment, take on the prison-industrial complex.
Ultimately, the cultural shift – however you make it – is the key.  If all women understood that reproductive rights are core to their ability to be free, there would be enough of us out there to keep the clinics functioning AND fight the right.  We would be adding new voices and new talents all the time.  If we – and I say “we” loosely, because I was never really part of this – had kept doing consciousness raising through the seventies and eighties and nineties, we would have a whole lot more engaged feminists now.  We would not have lost a generation of women who gladly took the gains feminism had won but didn’t identify with the movement, didn’t even see that they wouldn’t be able to be a lawyer-mom, a lesbian fire fighter or a woman boxing champ without those humorless, dowdy feminists everyone loves to hate.  They would have passed the values of the movement on to their daughters, instead of haranguing them about their weight and offering them boob jobs and facial surgery for their sixteenth birthdays.
The movement itself would have evolved too.  We would have grown bigger and broader, deeper and stronger.  Working class women and women of color would not feel (or be) invisible in the movement, and Wal-Mart wouldn’t be as easily able to exploit and underpay them.  We would have helped women in China and Vietnam organize for higher wages so offshore sweatshops wouldn’t have been such easy tool to break U.S. unions.  Sisterhood would truly have been Global and Powerful.
The theme of a lot of the Yom Kippur liturgy is that it’s never too late.  On this day we acknowledge our shortcomings, atone and renew our commitment to what’s right.  It would have been good never to have stopped doing consciousness raising and transformative cultural work, but it’s not too late to start again.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Abortion is back, but only on television

I was behind on my television watching – all those marches and blockading Wells Fargo (pictured here, my four and a half hours wedged into a revolving door) got in the way – so I just saw the episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” where Cristina has the abortion.  The whole way through, I was waiting for Owen to talk her out of it, or for her to suddenly realize, oh, I’m not too focused on my career to be a mother, I have always wanted a baby, Meredith’s right, let’s stay home and raise our kids together while our husbands save lives.  I expected her to get called in to help on some emergency surgery on a child, and see the mom stroking the baby’s head and burst into tears, maybe even go running out of the room in a very un-Cristina-like way.

Of course they kept us in suspense for the whole show; last five minutes, she’s there on the table with Owen standing next to her and the doctor says, “I have to ask you one more time, are you sure you want to do this.”  I thought, okay, this is it, she’s going to shake her head.  I had a tomato in my hand, all ready to throw at the screen (and a cloth ready to wipe it off).  She nodded.  The doctor said, “All right, let’s get started.”  The vacuum aspirator whirred to life along with the closing music and voiceover.

This was not the first television abortion I’ve seen recently.  In the penultimate season, Becky had one on “Friday Night Lights.”  That was even more surprising, because she was a teenager in Texas.  And she didn’t die or slide into depression.  She didn’t regret it.  She even got her boyfriend back.  Tami (the principal, who told her to talk to her mother and sent her to an options counselor) got fired over it, but that seemed pretty true to life and she got her old job as a guidance counselor back.

Is it possible that abortion is no longer “television’s most persistent taboo,” as Kate Aurthur wrote in 2004?  Aurthur was talking about a show I never watched, “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian teen drama where a character also had an abortion and did not regret it.  But “Degrassi” was a cable show, and Viacom, which owns the channel that shows it in the U.S., opted not to air the episode until three years later.  She referenced all the episodes where a strong, feminist character walks out of the clinic in the nick of time with her fetus intact – Andrea on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Miranda on “Sex in the City,” some others I never saw but I could add Susannah on “Thirtysomething.”

My personal favorite was “Party of Five,” where Julia miscarried just minutes before she’s supposed to leave for the clinic.  I was volunteering on a women’s health hotline at that time, and I groaned, imagining all the girls sitting around waiting for their miscarriage instead of scheduling their abortions.  Of course, I’m not a soap opera watcher, or my favorite would certainly be Erica’s reversed abortion on “All My Children.”  And people said “The X Files” was creepy.

“Is abortion no longer too taboo for TV?” wrote Entertainment Weekly's JenniferArmstrong after yet another character on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” decided not to have the abortion.  It does seem like the fear of backlash that kept the networks from portraying abortion as a legitimate option for 30+ years has waned.  Observers have noted that the “Friday Night Lights” and “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes have drawn little fire from the right-wing.

So does the fact that the floodgates are now open mean that the political climate has shifted?  Yes, but not in the way we might think.

The networks have not exactly been silent on the abortion issue since Bea Arthur’s “Maude” took the plunge in 1972.  CBS did choose to air an implicitly anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl, over the profuse objections of pro-choice activists.  Cop shows have done numerous shows dealing with clinic bombings.  Some have been pretty good, others ranged from stupid to offensive – often it turns out that the bombing was not politically motivated but was some desperate father’s way of preventing his wife or girlfriend from having an abortion – but all have been “balanced,” offering ample opportunity for the anti-choice people to expound.
One of the best, not surprisingly, was on “Cagney & Lacey” in 1985.  The episode challenged assumptions by having Mary Beth Lacey, who was Catholic and pregnant with her third child, talk about having had an abortion at 19 (in Puerto Rico, since it was still illegal in New York).  “Carol Altieri, CBS vice president for program practices, said her department took ‘special care’ to ‘flesh things out so that all points of view were prominent.’ Much of the right-to-life viewpoint is posed by actress Fionnula Flanagan, guest-starring as a pro-life activist,” reported the LA Times.  Even so, the producers were so worried about backlash that they enlisted feminist organizations to help in a preemptive publicity campaign.

Ten years later, even a show like that would have been unthinkable on major network television.
In the aftermath of the “Cagney & Lacey” episode, Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman complained, “his week, officers Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey let down their audience by enlisting in the campaign to preserve abortion rights.  The episode, revolving around the bombing of an abortion clinic, could have done justice to the opposing partisans and to the demands of television entertainment. Instead, it offered shrill propaganda….”

After a 2009 episode of “Law & Order” based on the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, the National Right to Life Committee’s website boasted, “In the end [the killer] is found guilty of the murder; but over the course of the episode a host of the arguments and issues surrounding abortion are covered in a manner unusually sympathetic to the pro-life cause... virtually every pro-life argument you knew you would never hear on a network program is a part of ‘Dignity’ [the episode’s title].

The fact is that by now the anti-choice battle has been nearly won.  When “Maude” aired its controversial episode in 1972, abortion was legal in New York but not in most of the rest of the country; Roe v. Wade was about to be decided.  In 2010 Gallup published a piece entitled, “The New Normal on Abortion: Americans More "Pro-Life.”  For two years in a row, they reported, more respondents considered themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” after decades of the reverse.

But it’s not only, and not most importantly, in matters of public opinion that the anti-choice movement is secure.  88% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and a whopping 97% of non-metropolitan areas.  More than two-thirds of states do not allow public funding to be used for abortion, and the rising cost and economic crisis puts it out of reach for most women who need it.  Frivolous lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions set up byanti-abortion activists discourage new doctors from becoming abortion providers.  Most states have parental notification laws for women or girls under 18, and many require parental consent (in some states, parents must be notified but do not need to consent - it's unclear, however, how many girls are able to access abortion over their parents' objections).  Some states, including Texas, require the woman to see the fetal heartbeat on a sonogram before getting an abortion.

The anti-choice movement doesn't need to worry that teenagers who see "Friday Night Lights" will decide to end their pregnancies.  If Becky were a real teenager in a small Texas town like Dillon, it's far more likely she would end up getting a sonogram at a fake abortion clinic (a clinic run by an anti-abortion group masquerading as an abortion provider) than that she would have actually gotten the abortion so easily.

No wonder there hasn’t been a big outcry over Cristina’s or Becky’s abortions.  Television characters can get abortions now, but most real women cannot.