The Global Problem of Child Marriage

Imagine being 23-years old and a promising science student studying on scholarship in England. Then imagine that having lived in the UK for half your life you are being forced by the government to return to your country of origin because your father demands that you marry your older cousin. Imagine that if you refuse, you will likely be killed.

 

That is the horrific story unfolding today about an aspiring astrophysicist whose identity is being protected by The Independent, which told her story last month. It’s a story that is repeated regularly for countless women in many countries who have no place to run. In this case, officials in England claim there is insufficient evidence that this young woman is at risk, despite the fact that she has reported frequent physical and mental abuse by her father and asserted that she and her siblings along with their mother fled to the UK. Her story should not be unbelievable; one in five murders in her native Pakistan are attributed to honor killings committed by fathers and brothers.

 

Now imagine that you have been betrothed at the age of eight, and then married off to your abusive first cousin, aged 34, at the age of 13. That’s what happened to Naila Amin in New York state and it was completely legal. Today Naila, who runs the foundation that bears her name, fights to ban child marriages in New York, which often occur because of loopholes and exceptions in the law.

 

According to a report earlier this year by the Associated Press, the U.S. has approved thousands of requests by men to bring child adolescent brides into the country. The approvals are legal because the Immigration and Nationality Act doesn’t set minimum age requirements. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and whether the marriage is legal in the state where the petitioner lives. Naila Amin, like the astrophysicist, was from Pakistan, and a victim of that system.

 

According to a UNICEF report, worldwide there are more than 700 million women alive today who were married before their 18th birthday. More than a third of them were married before the age of fifteen. USAID claims that in the developing world one in three girls are married before age eighteen. Some are as young as eight or nine years old.

 

The minimum age for marriage in most U.S. states is eighteen. But every state has exceptions, including “parental consent” and judicial approval. The founder of the nonprofit organization Unchained at Last, herself a child marriage victim, told the New York Times, “Shockingly, 91 percent of children married in New Jersey were [found to have been] married to older adults [in a study she conducted], often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory rape charges, not a marriage license.”

 

The Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that protects immigrant women and girls who find themselves in the United States in arranged and abusive marriages, provides legal services and advocacy in courts, communities and Congress. It points out that “there are very few laws and policies in the U.S. that are specifically designed to help forced marriage victims.”

 

The District of Columbia and some states have statutes that criminalize forcing someone into marriage in “certain circumstances” the center says, but “these laws seem designed for other purposes than to prevent parents from forcing marriage or to punish them for forcing their children into marriage. The majority of state criminal statutes arise in the context of laws against abduction, prostitution, and/or ‘defilement.’”

 

Unchained at Last estimates that “given the size of the various communities in the U.S. that are known to practice arranged or forced marriages, which include Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh, Asian, African, Hmong and other communities, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are in arranged/forced marriages.”

 

The story of a woman named Syeda puts a human face on the plight of immigrant women in forced marriages living in the United States. Forced into marriage in Pakistan at the age of sixteen, she first lived with her parents while continuing her studies.  When she was twenty-five her family moved to Boston. Her husband joined her there, moving in with her family. She was immediately subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse which she endured for months until her family threw her out of the house because she refused to return to Pakistan with her husband. Syeda fled to a women’s shelter and has since taken control of her life. She has earned a college degree, has a job and lives independently. With the help of Unchained she is getting a divorce.

 

Syeda was lucky. But for thousands more children, here and abroad, the nightmare of forced or arranged marriage continues. Clearly, states need to step up their efforts to save these children. All of us need to realize what is happening to them, and to advocate on their behalf.

 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

 

Women Pay the Price in More Ways Than One

It isn’t just the crisis surrounding Draconian measures aimed at controlling our reproductive health, privacy, autonomy, and indeed our lives, that threatens women everywhere. Globally, women continue paying the price of hideous policies and actions devised and implemented by dictatorial men, whose devaluation of women and the human rights for which they advocate, is stunning.

The injury to women activists in a great many countries is often invisible, especially outside their own nations, despite torture, imprisonment, and death. Women suffer atrocities simply because they have had the courage to confront injustices perpetrated by powerful men threatened by women’s voices and acts.  These women need to be recognized and honored for their bravery and sacrifice.

Among them is Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, recently sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh has advocated on behalf of Iranian women prosecuted for removing their hijabs in public. In 2010, she was convicted of conspiring to harm state security and served half of a six-year sentence. Last June she was rearrested on an array of dubious charges and tried in secret. Charged with seven crimes and given the maximum sentence for all of them, with five additional years added from a 2016 conviction in absentia, the sentence was severe even by Iranian standards.

More recently, Mena Mangal, an Afghan journalist, was killed on her way to work in Kabul because of her work on behalf of women’s rights, and in May a promising Russian feminist journalist, Margarita Virova, 25, died after “falling” from an eighth-floor apartment window which Moscow Times reported as not suspicious.

After the Saudi Arabian government jailed several prominent female activists, many of whom had fought for women’s right to drive, media reports revealed that the incarcerated women had been subjected to torture, including electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual abuse in detention. One woman was made to hang from the ceiling. Another tried to commit suicide.

Joining Saudi Arabia, Sudan has threatened the death penalty against women who resist their own oppression. Last year, Sudanese prosecutors sought the death penalty for Noura Hussein, a teenager in a forced marriage who killed her abusive husband after multiple rapes. Saudi Arabia wants to execute Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims.

In Iran, Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, has been targeted by authorities for her anti-death penalty position. First arrested in 2014, she is currently serving a seven-year sentence for criticizing executions and human rights violations on social media.

There are many more stories of women who survive the discrimination and violence they live with daily because of their activism. But many women do not survive. Among them was Mariello Franco, a leading voice for poor people living in Rio de Janeiro before she died at the age of 38. Gay and black, she was serving a term on the city council when she and her driver were killed. No arrests were ever made.

Elisa Badayos, a human rights activist who worked on behalf of poor people in Cebu, Philippines trying to find disappeared family members, was murdered along with two colleagues in 2017. She is survived by four children. Again, no arrests were made.

Guadalupe Campanur Tapia, a Mexican activist who worked on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous people, was 32-years old when her body was found on the roadside. In a similar story, Juana Raymundo, a 25-year old Guatemalan nurse who also worked for indigenous rights was tortured before being murdered.

In Iraq, Su’ad al-Ali, president of a human rights organization focused on women and children, was leading a protest in Basra focusing on rising unemployment and corruption when she was shot in the head getting into her car. She was 46 and left behind four young children.

And who can forget the image of Razan al-Najjar, 21, the Palestinian volunteer medic in white shot dead last June when she ran toward a border fence in Gaza to help an injured person? Her last Facebook post read, “I am returning and not retreating.  Hit me with your bullets, I am not afraid.”

All these remembrances represent only a few of the tragic stories of women around the world who have been grievously harmed, or have given their lives, in the name of human rights and social justice. It is good and necessary to honor them and their sacrifices on behalf of multitudes of others.

But it is not enough. It is not enough to lay wreathes on their graves, or to say their names. It is not enough to allow such extraordinary women to remain invisible. It is not enough when the world continues to ignore the issues for which they fought. It is not enough, so long as men still have sufficient power to harm women and girls and to withhold from them their human rights. It is not enough when men can continue to harness female energy and action and silence female voices. It is not enough when men decide who among them shall live and who shall die. It will never be enough until every woman everywhere has the guaranteed right to decide her own course and to live her life freely and unafraid.

Girls and Young Women Will Suffer Most from Anti-abortion Madness

Reading Facebook posts these days has become an exercise in masochism for many of us. Daily horrific posts reveal various forms of violence against the least powerful among us.

Among the victims of such violence are young women and “emerging adult” females. A recent post referenced an eleven-year old girl in Ohio pregnant by rape. Given Ohio’s newly proposed anti-abortion legislation, she could be forced to carry the fetus to term. That’s nothing short of state-sanctioned child abuse. State after state, the same kind of cruelty could be repeated.

We have heard little about the full impact of Draconian measures aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade on women’s mental and physical health, but of this you can be sure: The impact will be more drastic the younger the girl or woman subjected to such measures.

It should be noted that research reveals having a safe, legal abortion does not pose mental health problems for women. According to Lucy Leriche, Vice President of Public Policy, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, “over 95 percent of women who have had an abortion report feeling relief that outweighs any negative emotion they might have, even years later.”

In contrast, a statement last month by the Activism Caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) makes clear the psychological damage that will be inflicted on girls (and women) from restrictions on their reproductive rights, none more so than the hideous laws Alabama and other states want to impose.

“Growing girls learn that in crucial, life-altering ways, the government has more control over their bodies than they do. This is important for many reasons, one of which is that a sense of control has been shown repeatedly in psychological research to be important to mental health and well-being,” write psychologists Paula J. Caplan and Joan Chrisler on behalf of the AWP. “Rape and incest are examples of extreme loss of control, and at least in some cases, making the decision to have an abortion after rape and incest are important parts of healing, which the Alabama law prohibits.”

Like domestic abuse and sexual assault, current proposed and passed laws are about power and control, and men’s fear of losing that power and control. The laws aim to remove any sense of agency from women, over their bodies and their lives. In their worst form, they are a manifestation of terrorism in which a women’s body is owned by the state, as it was in the chilling novel, The Handmaids Tale. Laws that attempt to incarcerate a woman for crossing state lines to have an abortion, laws that can send her or her physician to jail for life, laws that in the extreme could result in executing a woman for having an abortion reveal the pure evil underpinning these laws.

Let’s remember that the same men (and yes, some women) who want to torture girls and women in these ways are the same men (and women) who legislate against ensuring the health, safety, education, and well-being of the babies born of this unspeakable coercion, and who rabidly support capital punishment.

Even if these reactionary attempts to challenge women reproductive and human rights were to fail, “the blaming and shaming of girls and women who choose to use birth control measures or who choose to have abortions causes fear, self-doubt, low self-confidence, feelings of being unsafe, and beliefs that others consider [women and girls] unable to make major, or ethical decisions,” the AWP points out.

The truly heartbreaking thing is that once shamed, fearful, self-doubting, and depressed, it is almost impossible to regain a sense of personhood or control over one’s life. That kind of despair, in which it seems impossible to envision a way out, especially prevalent in the young, can easily lead to self-destructive behavior, including suicide.

Some years ago, when I worked in Romania on reproductive rights, I saw the damage done to girls, women, and children during the time of the dictator Ceausescu. His regime required all girls graduating from high school to undergo a pelvic exam to determine if she was pregnant. Every working woman was also subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces. These cruel practices were enforced to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. I saw the results of that grotesque policy in the Casa Copii – orphanages where unwanted babies were dumped. Many of the children were visibly impaired, physically and mentally. Others suffered in ways that can only be imagined. Very few of them, I’m certain, had any vision of a happy future. It was worse than Dickensian and it broke my heart.

What is happening in this country now is not far removed from the tragedies that have occurred because of pronatalist policies elsewhere. The lack of humanity, morality, and ethics inherent in such policies is stunning. It leaves one speechless. Incredulous. Furious. Grieving.

But it must not leave us silent.

We must march in unity, speak out vociferously, resist mightily, vote, and support the #SexStrike movement together. Most of all, we must refuse to sacrifice our young and our females on the alters of misogyny and in the chambers of violence. Our survival as sentient beings depends upon it.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

America's Shameful Maternal Mortality Rate

This being the month to celebrate mothers, it seems timely and important to ask, why is maternal morality so high in this country?

According to a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, American women have the highest risk of dying from pregnancy complications than in any other high-income country. Their report shows that we have 14 deaths per 100,000 births; the Centers for Disease Control puts it even higher at 18 per 100,000 births. Compare that to Sweden’s 4 per 100,000 or the UK rate of 9 per 100,000 and we are not so “developed” as we think.

Maternal mortality is “a death that occurs during pregnancy or within a year postpartum from a pregnancy complication, a chain of events initiated by pregnancy, or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiological effects of pregnancy.” In the U.S. it has risen to the level of social crisis from a public health perspective. Our maternal mortality rates have more than doubled in the last twenty years, with African American women suffering at the alarming rate of 40 deaths per 100,000. Some experts say it’s getting deadly to give birth here.

Several factors are at play, but one big problem relates to our high C-section rate. A third of American mothers are now delivering by Cesarean section, an increase of more than 500 percent since the 1970s. That’s an astounding figure even if surgery can be necessary sometimes. But what doctors, and moms who elect to have a section, often forget is that we’re talking about major surgery, not something as simple as a tooth extraction.

As the World Health Organization notes, C-sections are effective in saving maternal and infant lives, “but only when they are required for medically indicated reasons.” C-section rates higher than 10 percent, the organization says, are not associated with reductions in maternal and newborn deaths.

“We’ve designed the birth environment to resemble an Intensive Care Unit. Ninety-nine percent of American women deliver in environments that resemble ICUs, surrounded by surgeons,” Dr. Neel Shah, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told a New York Times reporter.

Midwives, who’ve been delivering babies for millennia, have known for a long time that woman-centered childbirth is basically a natural process that, with appropriate support, ends well; it is not routinely a medical emergency. Women who elect to have midwife-assisted deliveries, a practice that has grown since the 1970s thanks to women’s health advocates, know this too.

The midwifery model espouses a holistic approach to childbirth that includes affirmation and comfort as a woman experiences one of the most significant lifetime events. Midwives are highly trained professionals who call in a physician if the situation warrants, and research shows they have better outcomes than physician-directed births. In addition to skills and techniques that can avert an intervention, midwives have an abundance of patience. They understand that birth cannot be rushed, and they know that less medicalization is appropriate in normal births rather than more.

In most countries, mothers deliver their babies with midwives, who provide a relaxed but watchful environment. In this country, as research by Dr. Shah noted, a surgical delivery has less to do with health issues or particular physicians than with the hospital in which a mom delivers. “Your biggest risk factor is which door you walk into,” he says. That’s particularly true in urban cities and teaching hospitals. It’s also why women are now alert to “buyer beware birthing environments.”

Birthing centers like the one at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts are breaking new ground in woman-centered childbirth. A team of experts there committed to reducing the C-section rate have developed a model to reduce Cesarean sections in collaboration with Dr. Shah and others at physician-writer Atul Gawande’s Boston Ariadne Labs. Recently they made national news when the team delivered twins naturally, one of whom (at least) would have been deemed a section in most other delivery suites.

In 2017 the House of Representatives introduced the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act which directs the Department of Health and Human Services to offer a range of ways to reduce the maternal mortality rate, including Maternal Mortality Review Committees, at the state level. It also provides for public disclosure of information in state reports. Passed by the Senate, Donald Trump signed the bill into law in December 2018.

In the U.S., the C-section rate continues to vary from seven to 70 percent, while the CDC estimates that 60 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable. Those are shocking numbers, especially in a so-called developed country that reveres motherhood, at least rhetorically.

The lives of childbearing women in this country depend on the success – and implementation – of established and proposed legislation, especially to address structural inequities that put black, indigenous and rural families at disproportionate risk, making policy changes relating to Medicaid imperative. Several Democratic legislators have introduced such legislation.

For it to make its way through the labyrinth of public policy, people who care about moms, wives, and other American women, urgently need to advocate on their behalf.

What better time to start than on Mother’s Day?

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayne-clift.com

Women Beware! Birth Control, Abortion, and Your Healthcare Are at Risk

 

You’re a middle-class mom with two kids, a mortgage, a fragile marriage, and an elderly parent to care for when you find yourself pregnant. You’re a sexually active college student and because of a condom failure you’re pregnant. You’re pregnant with a wanted child when you learn your fetus has a serious anomaly and probably can’t survive outside the womb. You are a rural woman with limited income who gets routine healthcare at a Planned Parenthood now threatened with closure.

Variations on stories like these abound. For all kinds of women, and their advocates, they are terrifying, as federal and state legislators continue gunning for Planned Parenthood and vehemently resisting female autonomy, privacy, and decision-making.    

As a recent New York Times piece by the editorial board stated, “In its continuing assault on reproductive rights, the Trump Administration has issued potentially devastating changes to the nation’s nearly 50-year-old family planning program, Title X, which allows millions of women each year to afford contraception, cancer screenings, and other critical health services.”

To be clear, health clinics like Planned Parenthood have been barred from using federal funds for abortions, but they have been able to to offer non-federally funded abortions and other family planning services under one roof. Now the Department of Health and Human Services wants to make clinics that provide abortions navigate ridiculous regulations if they want to receive Title X funds. I mean ridiculous regs, like having separate entrances for abortion patients, or establishing an electronic health records system separate from their regular system. Providers will also be prohibited from making abortion referrals, or providing information that adheres to standards for “informed consent.”

In addition to threats at the federal level, more and more states are attempting to pass ridiculous anti-abortion laws, like requiring wider hallways or revamping janitor’s closets.

More Draconian is the unethical “domestic gag rule” that allows so-called “pro-life” staffers in Title X facilities to say a particular procedure doesn’t exist or to lie to patients about false risks of abortion.

As Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood, told The New York Times, “There will be many providers that will face an impossible decision: to participate in Title X and be forced to compromise their medical ethics, or to stop participating in that program,” a step that would lead to overwhelming demand for reproductive health care but not much in the way of supply to respond.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, states have been constructing a maze of abortion laws that codify, regulate and limit whether, when and under want circumstances a woman can have an abortion, as the Guttmacher Institute points out. Major provisions to states laws, some on the books, other in litigation or defeated, include requiring that abortions be performed in a hospital or set gestational limits on abortion.

One example is the attempt to ban abortions when a faint heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks, before a woman may know she is pregnant. Another is state restrictions on coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, and states allowing individual health care providers to refuse to participate in abortions. Some states mandate that a woman have counseling, including information on purported links between abortion and breast cancer, the ability of a fetus to feel pain, or long-term mental health consequences for the woman.

The Trump administration clearly wants to evict Planned Parenthood from the federal family planning program. It also hopes to ban abortion referrals. At the state level, early abortion bans called “heartbeat bills” are being proposed in several states. So far, five of them have advanced this legislation but every “heartbeat bill” passed to date has been overturned in state or federal court. With Judges Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, who know what will happen?

Five states have already passed preemptive “trigger laws” which would immediately ban abortion outright if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Several abortion cases are currently in federal appeals courts or pending litigation in various states. Lawsuits are challenging such issues as required waiting periods, required ultrasounds, 15-week bans, admitting privileges, abortions for minors, and Medicaid coverage.

The situation, not only for women seeking their constitutional right to abortion, but for women – and men - seeking appropriate, quality, accessible, affordable reproductive health care ranging from preventive screening and contraception to treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, grows ever more dire as the Trump administration, and state legislators attempt to control what should be women’s private, personal decisions.

The irony is that rules rooted in anti-abortion (and anti-sex education) feelings threaten access to contraception, which prevents unwanted or unintended pregnancy and consequently increases health care costs in a nation where the cost of care is already skyrocketing.  Can anyone explain why that makes sense? 

More importantly, perhaps, can anyone fathom what would happen without Planned Parenthood?

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

Will Afghan Women Pay the Price of a Peace Plan?

Khadija was 23-years old when she set herself on fire in December 2017. She had a three-month old baby but still she set herself alight. Such was the horror of her life as a young wife and mother in Afghanistan. A victim of domestic abuse, physically and emotionally, she survived third degree burns. “I am not alive, but I am not dead.” Khadija says. “Women are all handcuffed in this country.”

Her story, reported in TIME Magazine last December, is not atypical. Here’s another provided by an advocate in Kabul who says that because of her work she “could be killed at any moment.” Just before her 16th birthday, a young woman who was to be married to her cousin, tried to jump off a sixth-floor balcony. She said that her uncle – father of the groom - had been raping her since she was 10 years old.

These stories, and many others, illustrate why women attempt or commit suicide in such high numbers in a country where an estimated 3,000 people kill themselves every year, 80 percent of whom are women.

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world for women to survive. Many of them die in pregnancy or childbirth, 85 percent have no formal education and are illiterate, and their life expectancy is 51.  Forced marriage is the norm, usually before age 18. In 2012, 240 honor killings were reported but the real number is likely higher.

Under Taliban rule (1996 to 2001), women were controlled to such a degree that they were rendered invisible. They could be stoned to death for minor infractions of Taliban law. They could not leave their homes without a male relative, attend school, shop, or show their ankles. Widows were forced to beg, and then beaten for it.

Now, Afghanistan’s 2015 National Action Plan says it will offer equal rights for women, a commitment that Democratic senators are urging the Trump administration to ensure as peace negotiations proceed. 

A Taliban spokesman has said that “if peace comes and the Taliban returns, [it will not be] in the same harsh way as it was in 1996.” He added that while the Taliban weren’t against women’s education or employment, they wanted to “maintain cultural and religious codes,” adding, “we will be against the alien culture clothes worn by women and brought to our country.” Does that signal the return of blue burqas?

A Gallup survey conducted last summer revealed notably low levels of optimism in the country. While findings were not disaggregated by gender, we know that Afghan women suffer disproportionately in a country ranked the worst place in the world to be female.

“It hurts me to say this but the situation is only getting worse,” says Jameela Naseri, a lawyer at the NGO Medica Afghanistan, an arm of the German-based Medica Mondiale, which helps women and girls in crisis zones. She calls what happens to women in Afghanistan “a war on women.”

An Afghan diplomat promised anonymity told a journalist recently that “the government wants to say they’re prioritizing women, but they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption.”

Last February, Afghanistan passed a criminal code hailed by the UN Assistance Mission there as a milestone. But one chapter of the code was removed before the law was passed. It was the one penalizing violence against women.

In a recent piece on Radio Free Europe, reporter Frud Bezhan noted that, “With increased talk of peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban is projecting itself as a more moderate force….The Taliban said in a statement issued on February 4 that it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights – under Islam – and ‘in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.’”

 But in the same statement, Bezhan said, “the Taliban also suggested it wants to curtail the fragile freedoms gained by women since the U.S.-led invasion…prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners.”

That concern is legitimate. The Taliban has denounced “so-called women’s rights activists” and has said that “due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women’s rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women’s rights. Under the name of women’s rights, there has been work for immorality, indecency, and the promotion of non-Islamic cultures.”

No wonder Afghan women are worried. Says activist Samira Hamidi, “According to the Taliban, we are so-called activists who are responsible for poor health, lack of education, and violence against women.”

“We are not turning back,” promises Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament. “Anyone who wants to do politics [here] needs to respect the human freedoms, including the rights of women.

Adds Jameela Naseri, “Afghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us.”

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Let's Be Clear About Third Trimester Abortion

As a longtime women’s health educator and advocate, I was apoplectic when I read a recent commentary in my local newspaper by a “chaplain serving an elderly population” who is also “treasurer of the Republican Party” in my state and a “county party chair.”

The op.ed. proffered so many spurious and false assertions, often stated by others with far-right political views, that my hair was nearly on fire. Given where we are in this country regarding abortion, I felt compelled to address one of the egregiously uninformed views of the author, which I did in a Letter to the Editor.  It seems to me now important to share what I wrote for a wider audience, in the hope of reaching others inclined to make uninformed claims about a vital issue that affects so many lives and the culture in which we live. 

This is the claim that blew me away. It relates to a bill in my state proposing a law like ones in some other states protecting a woman’s right to abortion moving forward. “The bill goes far beyond Roe [v. Wade], guaranteeing unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy…” the author wrote. It’s a misleading claim that calls for revisiting the facts regarding the inaccurate use of the term “late term abortion.”

The first thing to note here is that abortion after fetal viability is a rare occurrence and usually involves a medical crisis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abortions after 21 weeks make up less than 1.3% of all abortions in the United States. Abortions that occur beyond 24 weeks make up less than 1% of all procedures. Exceptionally rare cases that happen after 24 weeks are often because a fetus has a condition that cannot be treated and and that renders the fetus unable to survive, regardless of gestational age or trimester.

Secondly, the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law, was vital to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The 14th amendment also protects the right to privacy and the Court held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within that statute. By a 7–2 majority the Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Importantly, the Court also determined the point of fetal viability as the “capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb,” hence the 24- week marker. The Court’s decision gave women a right to abortion during the entirety of the pregnancy, however, while defining different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters.

It’s important to know that, as the Guttmacher Institute points out, if a physician determines that the child is “non-viable” and/or the abortion is necessary for the physical or mental health of the mother, a woman can have an abortion from the moment of conception until the child’s birth. State laws restricting third trimester abortions are unconstitutional under the precedent of Doe v. Bolton, a case in which the Supreme Court overturned a Georgia law. (Numerous states have laws that ban or restrict abortions in the third trimester. Because these statutes remain in place or haven’t been contested in federal court, they may imply that they are allowed by federal law. But because federal law trumps state law, no restrictions can be enacted that do not also allow the doctor to determine if abortion is necessary for the health of the mother.)

Here’s another fact: Overturning Roe and Doe won’t end all third-trimester abortions. When the Supreme Court throws the abortion issue back to individual states, third-trimester abortions will still be protected in states that reiterate prior standards for “viability” or “health.”

But here’s the most important thing for everyone to know. No woman decides to have an abortion after 24 weeks recklessly or without a great deal of anguish. Perhaps she does it because of a serious illness she has, like decompensating heart disease. Maybe her baby has a delayed diagnosis of anencephaly, which means the fetus forms without a complete brain or skull. There are a multitude of medical crises that can precipitate a third trimester abortion. But the decision is never taken lightly. In most cases, there is deep grieving and a profound sense of loss, brought about because of medical necessity and the wish that a much loved and wanted baby not suffer.

That’s why people like the man who wrote the troubling commentary – claiming that he “doesn’t oppose or seek to diminish women’s rights” and that he “supports [women’s] right to their own body and right to choose” -- people who misunderstand not just the right to abortion but the reasons women choose it, at any stage of pregnancy, must move beyond facile arguments, misstatements of fact, and feeble justifications. They must somehow begin to recognize that for many women, the choices they face are devastating and immensely complicated.  

Most urgently, they must find it in themselves to be compassionate and to resist judging those whose experiences and viewpoints differ from theirs. 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

 

Why Are So Many Native American Women Abused, Missing and Murdered?

Savanna Greywind was a young woman in Fargo, North Dakota about to give birth in a few weeks when she was brutally murdered. Leona LeClair Kinsey was an older woman living in Oregon when she went missing eighteen years ago. She is still missing. RoyLynn Rides Horse, a Crow tribal member, died in 2016 after being beaten, burned, and left in a field to die.

These stories are all too common, but statistics about how pervasive the problem is are hard to find. Many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no centralized database exists in the U.S. government to track cases.

 According to the Indian Law Resource Center, violence against indigenous women in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.

“You really have to contact tribe by tribe, family by family, to really see the true impact,” one advocate says. “We are shoved under the rug by corruption even in our own homelands,” says another. “I’m here to say we will not be shoved under the rug anymore.”

At the heart of the problem is the longstanding indifference and hostility to Native Americans, especially Native American women, which can be traced back to the days when separating Native people from their families and homes and denying them their culture was a deliberate attempt to destroy Native beliefs, ways of life, even people.

Continuing racism and sexism contribute to the impression that indigenous women are assailable, says Barbara Perry, a profess at the University of Ontario. “It’s not unusual for women of color generally to be perceived as inferior to white people as a class and inferior white women as a subclass.”

The effects of these travesties remain present in unique ways for Native women. In addition to suffering sex trafficking, sexual violence, and the risk of being disappeared, they are often homeless, living in dire poverty, and totally disconnected from their families and communities.  

Now they face a new vulnerability from the flood of non-native workers into oil-rich regions or near reservations. Of particular concern is the workers who will lay the Keystone XL pipeline running from Canada through Montana, Illinois, and Texas, bringing many more workers into the “man camps” being built along the way. The problems that these camps bring is particularly acute in a region stretching across 200,000 square miles along the Montana-North Dakota state line. Attacks there on Native American women have increased dramatically as tens of thousands of transient oil workers have inhabited the temporary housing known as man camps.

Tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction over non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations, according to Cheryl Bennet, an Arizona State University professor. “If a white person commits murder or rape against a Native American person, the federal government would have jurisdiction over those crimes instead of the tribe or state government.” But when tribal law enforcement sent sexual abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of the cases, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

In recent months, the plight of Native women has begun receiving attention thanks to a growing activist movement that is being heard in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. Last year Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), defeated in the November mid-term election, introduced a bill to standardize law enforcement protocols relating to missing and murdered Native Americans. It attracted sixteen co-sponsors but didn’t make it out of committee.  

At the state level, Republican Rep. Gina McCabe introduced a House bill in Washington State that would bring the federal, state, and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone in the state who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location. The bill, now making its way through the legislative process, mandates that the State Patrol creates a list of missing Native American women in Washington by June this year, working together with tribal and non-tribal police agencies.

May 5, 2017 marked the first National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Twelve years earlier, the movement for the safety of Native women, largely spearheaded by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and other groups, had led the struggle to include a separate title for Native women, called Safety for Indian Women, in the Violence Against Women Act. It was a start in raising awareness of this national issue but much more needs to be done.

More than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including over a third who have been raped during their lifetime. That rate is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than for white women, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study.

As the NIWRC said at the first National Day of Awareness, “Before this crisis is sufficiently addressed, it must first be acknowledged.”

That means by all of us.

                                                            # # #

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

 

Women vs. Fetus: Is Social Control Out of Control?

Not long ago, a woman in late pregnancy suffering severe depression tried to commit suicide. She survived but her baby died. She was charged with murder. A pregnant woman who lost her unborn child in a car accident in New York state was charged with manslaughter. So was a woman in Indiana who gave birth to a stillborn baby.

 

Even in cases where a fetus hasn’t died, pregnant women have been charged with crimes in various states – for miscarrying, falling down the stairs, failing a drug test, or taking legal drugs during pregnancy, often prescribed by doctors.

 

These examples, reported in a recent New York Times series exploring “legislative intrusions into the womb,” reveal a paternalism that is not new, but is alarming, and growing in the Trump era. They are also reminiscent of other frightening autocratic and dictatorial eras. Hitler, for example, “recruited” German women to produce Aryan children. Under the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, assassinated in 1989, women were subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces while high school girls were routinely digitally raped by male doctors to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. In The Handmaid’s Tale, resurrected in the face of Trumpian resistance to reproductive freedom, forced insemination of those selected to be Mothers is assisted by designated Wives.

 

If all of this is disgusting to imagine it should be because it derives from a vile act of social control. Such control, still relatively rare but growing, is already occurring in America.

 

Here’s just one example.  Politicians in Ohio recently considered a bill that could have allowed abortions to be punishable with life sentences or the death penalty. The proposed law, would have extended the definition of a person in Ohio's criminal code to include the "unborn human." That meant that a fetus, from conception to birth, would be considered a person, leaving people who perform abortions or women who have them vulnerable to severe criminal penalties.

 

According to the ACLU, at least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, most of which relate to fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women. So-called pro-life advocates use laws like the Fetal Protection Act, the Preborn Victims of Violence Act and the Unborn Victim of Violence Act to argue that fetuses are persons, or “a child in uterus,” and need to be protected in all circumstances.

 

The ACLU argues that “a pregnant woman and her fetus should never be regarded as separate, independent, and even adversarial, entities. Yet that is precisely what some anti-choice organizations, legal theorists, legislators, prosecutors, doctors and courts have attempted to do in the past decade.”

 

Legislation designed to protect fetuses can take different forms, the ACLU points out. All of them endanger reproductive rights. States may amend existing homicide statutes to include fetuses as victims, they can pass statutes defining a fetus as a person, or establish a new crime category called “feticide” or fetal homicide. They can also permit civil suits against anyone who causes the death of a fetus, or enact new statutes to penalize injury to a pregnant woman that causes fetal death or injury. This law is aimed primarily at practitioners, which flies in the face of the constitutional right to choose, established by Roe v. Wade, which calls for abortion to be exempt from punishment when performed by “health care workers with the consent of the woman or in medical emergencies, and self-abortions.”

 

Clearly, fetal protection legislation fosters the policing of pregnancy, just as it did in Romania. It makes it more likely that practitioners will become overzealous, thereby complicating routine healthcare decisions. In Florida, for example, a woman was told by her doctor that he would send law enforcement to her home if she didn’t get to the hospital immediately for a C-section. A New Jersey mother lost custody of her newborn after refusing a surgical delivery.

 

All of this raises the larger, deeply troubling issue of social control, which usually comes at the expense of women. Writing in The Atlantic’s latest issue, editor Peter Beinart sounds this alarm: “Authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries [for various reasons, but] right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”

The question is why, and Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has this answer: “It’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: ‘Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.’ This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order.”

In other words, keeping women “barefoot and pregnant” is essential to patriarchy. Autonomous women liberated from childbearing, empowered with reproductive choice, unleashed into the marketplace, the academy, and government threaten male power. That reality has played out in various forms throughout history.

Seeing it happen in the 21st century is unacceptable.

                                                            # # #

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

Is It Really Silly Season So Soon?

January 1, 2019 and the horses were out of the gate, their hoofbeats assaulting our already over-taxed patience. The political horseplay began with a vengeance - before the new Congress set foot in Washington and before anyone had formally declared they were running for President next year. The new year promised the American public, and the world, a long and rocky race as all eyes, arguments, and predictions focused on the 2020 election.

 

Some pundits say the palaver is right on time. But most of us would probably concur that it’s way too early to begin the non-stop spewing and sputtering when we don’t even know who the serious contenders will be, or what they have to offer.

 

Still, the mainstream media dug in its heels and to the exclusion of reporting real and urgent news, they started having a field day. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece with this over-written, somewhat hysterical headline: "Rashida Tlaib’s Expletive-Laden Cry to Impeach Trump Upends Democrats’ Talking Points"!  "Expletive-Laden Cry"? She said one bad word at a private event and got caught on tape. The M-F- word, it seems, is enough to ruin a woman’s budding political career, but a guy who says publicly that he likes to “grab pussy” gets a pass and becomes president?


Dancing while Female?  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez danced, beautifully and joyfully, while in college, mimicking a famous movie dance scene. Someone taped it. A right-winger posted it, and hey presto, she's the bad "little girl."  


Elizabeth Warren went public first and she's immediately "unlikable." Sound familiar? Not only was Hillary Rodham Clinton tagged “unlikeable,” her headbands and hairstyles were scrutinized ad nauseam, as was Michelle Obama’s choice of sleeveless dresses, now the norm in women’s fashion.

 

Common denominator? Fear of powerful women, i.e., misogyny, and it needs to be called out every single time it rears its ugly head, whether in Congress, in conversation, or by TV pundits, social and print media, among the worst offenders for stoking this kind of sexist nonsense. Women like Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters know that game when they see it, and they aren't afraid to confront it, making them superb role models.


Moving on, how fair is it to be polling for favorite 2020 candidates and reporting on outcomes when most potential candidates have not yet declared? How in the world can anyone know who they are inclined to vote for until they hear what frontrunners have to say, never mind time to scrutinize their experience and policy perspectives?


It was nothing short of shocking to hear potential candidate Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia, do a self-serving pre-stump speech critical of the progressive agenda of the Democratic party’s left in which he revealed how out of touch he is with what just happened in the mid-term election. Similarly, California Senator Dianne Feinstein didn’t get what the Blue/Pink Wave was all about. With all due respect to Joe Biden, Sen. Feinstein, and Mr. McAuliffe, the election was not about same old white guy-driven policies and agendas that don't speak to the new generation of Democratic constituencies. It was about inclusivity, relevance, and effectiveness in a 21st century political world.

 

That world is culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse, moving toward progressive ideas and goals, deeply committed to social justice, the earth’s survival, a democratic future, and other critical issues of our time. People like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and others deserve their chance as McAuliffe, Feinstein and Biden have had theirs.

 

Messages about economic gains for the middle class (which means mostly white people) no longer resonate at a time when the U.S. government is caging and killing kids, when our water and food is no longer safe and children are dying because of rolled back regulations, when adults and seniors are dying prematurely because they can’t afford their medicines (like insulin) and can’t access health care, when Americans can’t earn a living wage, when people get killed just for being black and hate crimes are on the rise, when the planet we share is in real danger of dying, when ethical and moral behavior in Congressional offices and chambers no longer exists, and when we are on the brink of serious disasters, man-made and natural, with no one at the helm or in government agencies who understands or cares so long as their coffers are full.

 

This is not a time to be politically regressive. Our full attention, our intellectual faculties, our conscience and compassion have never been more important or more necessary. They must be exercised by each of us to the fullest degree if we are to survive as a nation and as citizens of a morally and physically safe world.

 

Everyone must commit to that effort, including those who have served as our political voice in the past, and those who want to find their way and use their voices to offer appropriate legislation and new, important ideas, knowing that they will be heard and that their ideas will be considered carefully, not judged on what they say privately, what they wear, or how they dance.

 

                                                            # # #

 

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

 

A Deeper Look at What the ME TOO Movement Can Teach Us

 

It’s been some time since the Harvey Weinstein revelations opened the floodgates of personal stories about sexual harassment and assault. Still, women’s stories keep coming, and so they should. We must bear witness if things are going to change, not only in the halls of Hollywood studios and Capitol Hill offices, but everywhere that people live, work and carry on their lives.

We’ve learned good lessons in the telling of those stories, and in the copious commentary that followed. We’ve recognized that Zero Tolerance policies must be implemented and enforced, that non-disclosure agreements, buyouts and retaliation must end, that the real issues behind acts of aggression against women and girls - culture, misogyny, male privilege and power, for example – are big, complex, and urgently need to be the center of exploration, discourse, and social change. We know that we have to educate our children, both male and female, about what is acceptable and what is not in human behavior. We need, as one columnist put it, “to move away from the narratives of victimization and sympathy.”

But there is a deeper analysis occurring now and it is beginning to help us understand the dynamics involved when one person hurts, attacks, terrifies and traumatizes another, based on gender.

In her important book Women and Power, English scholar Mary Beard reminds us that the silencing of women was ever thus. Aristotle thought women’s voices proved their wickedness and that virtue lay in masculine tones. Mythology shares stories of women who’ve had their tongues cut out to silence them while other tales have women turned into inanimate objects.

Such attempts at silencing females have long trailed women, from Odysseus’s wife Penelope to Hillary Clinton and other women in the world’s public spaces. Stories of silencing women, whether mythological or modern, are part of our personal stories too – “mansplaining,” not recognizing the value of our ideas until they think they were theirs first, ignoring our leadership skills. As Beard says, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”  So have Eastern cultures. A recent NPR story exposed schools in China to which girls are sent to learn that their purpose in life is to serve their husbands silently, even those who rape and beat them.

Beard urges us to “interrogate our notions of power,” and to examine why they exclude women. Why are our ideas about authority, mastery, and knowledge perceived as gender-based, she asks. And how, when institutional structures are “coded as male,” can you ask women to fit into them? Clearly, the structures themselves must change.

Greg Weiner, writing in The New York Times, reminds us that character matters when it comes to moral behavior, which “calls for a deep capacity for judgment.” True morality, he argues, must be cultivated and must exceed private, coded actions.  

Adding to the #ME TOO tsunami, Paul Bloom’s recent discussion of new books in The New Yorker includes Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others, an exploration of humans’ capacity for cruelty, by philosopher David Livingston, who quotes Claude Levi-Strauss: “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe,” the noted anthropologist said. Here, the tribe consists of men bound together by deep-seated misogynistic feelings that render them incapable of seeing, and treating, women as equally human.   That’s why it’s easy to “slut-shame” and to say you can grab women by their genitals; after all, they are not “like I am.”

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, makes this observation about sexual violence: “The idea of rapists as monsters exonerates by caricature.” She argues that we must recognize “the banality of misogyny,” much as Hannah Arendt argued that the world had to acknowledge “the banality of evil” after the Holocaust.  Manne raises “the disturbing possibility that people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.” Like others, Manne argues that that there is a larger truth in this tendency. “Misogyny, she says, is “often not a sense of women’s inhumanity as lacking. Her humanity is precisely the problem.”  Men, she explains, have come to expect things of women, including attention, admiration, and sex. “Misogyny,” adds Bloom, “is a mindset that polices and enforces these goals, it’s the ‘law enforcement branch’ of the patriarchy.”  Bad women must be punished.

This is heady, important, and sometimes difficult stuff.  But it offers the possibility of deeper examination that could lead to necessary exploration of factors that explain why so many men do what they do to women, especially in the workplace where females may be highly threatening.

Such analysis leads to other important considerations: How does this psychological and sociological reality within cultures influence media coverage of stories about women? Who gets to frame issues and how?  What language do we use in interpreting women’s experience? Who tells their stories? What impact can this deeper grasp of human psychology have on decision-making in the halls of governance?

That’s just for starters.  Still, we must begin somewhere. As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has said, “This is our moment.” Oprah Winfrey sounded a clarion call to action in her Golden Globe speech. Now, poised for the moment when we do move forward, women’s voices, experiences, and insights are leading the way. Surely, that is how it should be. Their time has come.

Back to Barefoot and Pregnant Politics

 

In the late 1970s as I was beginning my career in women’s health, one of the first feminist icons I met of was a flamboyant, passionate, and deeply committed woman named Perdita Huston.  She had made her mark internationally working as a journalist and a Peace Corp professional, but what put her on the feminist map was her 1979 book Third World Women Speak Out

 

Huston’s book was remarkable because she was the first person to give women in the developing world a chance to tell their own stories. She gave them voice, and with that voice what they proclaimed most loudly was that they wanted fewer children, and they wanted those children to be educated.

 

It was a radical moment with far-reaching ramifications because it coincided with the early days of family planning becoming a goal of international funding agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). With the help of the Women in Development movement, spawned in large part by the Women’s Movement at large, donor organizations had begun to realize that family planning was key to a country’s economic and social development and that women’s reproductive health was an issue that mattered.

Subsequent years revealed that family planning was, indeed, a wise investment. Countries like Egypt and Bangladesh showed that once women controlled their fertility, families, communities, and countries benefited, whether by increasing educational opportunities for girls, widening agricultural opportunities for women, or bringing women into decision-making at some levels of society.

None of this happened quickly or easily; there are always naysayers and development “specialists” willing to argue against innovation (and empowering women), no matter how simple and effective an intervention may be. But gradually the world saw how important family planning was to the healthy development of nations, let alone women and their families.

Now fast forward to Trumpian times, in which the president has reinstated Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City Policy of 1984 – revoked by Bill Clinton, restored by George W. Bush, and revoked by Barack Obama - in which nongovernmental organizations are forbidden to receive U.S. federal funding if they perform or promote abortion in other countries. 

Trump goes even further. His administration, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Labor, wants to make it easier for employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees if the employer has “a religious or moral objection” to doing so. The administration also wants to make it harder for women denied birth control coverage to get no-cost contraception directly from insurance companies, as they have been doing.

In an attempt to rush this through, the administration made the absurd claim that taking time to seek public comment would be “contrary to the public interest,” and went so far as to say that coverage of contraception could lead to “risky sexual behavior,” a nod to those who believe women’s sexuality is evil.  Not only is that one huge misogynistic insult to women; what is riskier than setting women up for unwanted pregnancies while trying to eliminate safe abortion and shut down Planned Parenthood?

 These actions are a setback of huge proportion. They affect not just American women, but women around the world.  In Madagascar, for example, the change in policy is forcing dramatic cutbacks by the largest provider of long term contraception in the country, Marie Stopes International (MSI), which receives millions of dollars from USAID for its work there. Ironically, abortion is illegal in that country, but MSI cannot receive American aid because it will not renounce abortion as part of reproductive health services in other parts of the world.

Hundreds of women and girls flock to remote MSI clinics where they receive everything from malaria prevention to HIV treatment to contraceptives. It’s a scene repeated all over the developing world no matter who is providing services. What is to become of all those women?

The policy, already making its way to the courts, is clearly aimed at mollifying organizations like March for Life and Real Alternatives, anti-abortion groups that don’t qualify for religious exemptions but claim to hold strong moral convictions unrelated to a particular religion.

In his long string of lies, Trump and his administration have claimed, absent of any evidence, that its new rules won’t have an effect on “over 99.9 percent of the 165 million women in the United States,” while simultaneously arguing that low-income women will still be able to get subsidized or free contraception through community and government health programs. All this while the administration plans to substantially cut government spending on such programs.

The President’s attack on birth control, safe and accessible abortion, and the Affordable Care Act is low on intelligence and high on lies. It is spiteful, vindictive, woman-hating, and downright mean. It will hurt millions of women and their families. There are only two ways to describe it: utterly inhumane and grossly misogynistic. Everyone should be resisting mightily.

Is the Democratic Party Disappearing?

 

Ever worry about this? “What if we gave a party and no one came?”  Right now, I’m worried that many of us are invited to support a party that we don’t really want to be part of and don’t feel good about voting for, and the disturbing thing is the problem is of their own making.

 

When Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others blathered about “A Better Deal” recently I, and I’m sure others, despaired. It’s not just about the economy, Stupid! I wanted to tell them. It’s not just about the middle class and working (white) people! It’s not about more of the same blah, blah, blah we’ve heard since the 1990s. And I’m not sure who’s writing their copy, but what were they doing using a Trump-loaded word like “Deal”?

 

At a time when the Democrats should be about to launch a vigorous, inspired campaign designed for a major takeover of Congress, why are they poised for self-defeat yet again?

When will the leadership realize who their constituents are and understand how they are failing them?  Where is the vision for a better future, not a better deal? To put it another way, where is our next “Yes We Can” moment? Without a bit of inspiration, how can the majority of us come together as a nation that can feel proud of itself again as we regain our stature in the world?

 

To illustrate just how pathetic the Democratic party is right now, consider this. An extensive online search for “Democratic Party platform” yielded the campaign rhetoric and plan for 2016! It’s 2017 and we’re heading into a crucial election year. Where are you, Mr. Perez, Mr. Ellison, Nancy, Chuck, et al? Enough with the continuous calls for contributions. It’s time to tell people of color, people explained in the book Hillbilly Elegy, people terrified of losing their health care, the LBGT community, women and others who once trusted you what you stand for and what you’re going to do to insure that their futures are healthy, safe, and yes, economically sound while also ensuring that their Constitutionally protected rights are not going to be snatched from them behind closed doors by a creeping and creepy autocracy.

 

Speaking of creepy, how could any Democrat in leadership possibly dare to violate women’s right to control their own bodies by endorsing anti-abortion candidates?  Are they really ready to throw women under the bus for a few votes?  And what’s next – embracing racist candidates? Homophobic candidates? Islamophobic candidates? I doubt it, which underscores the point that betraying a major constituency is, in this case, tantamount to political pimping.

 

“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” according to Rep. Ben Lujan (D-N.M.) who declared that “we need to have Democrats that can win in districts across America.”  Yes, Mr. Lujan, there is a litmus test – or there once was. It was meant to ensure that all Democrats would stand for the principles and values for which they were once known and trusted.  

 

So, sorry, Nancy Pelosi, the fact that you grew up in a “very devout Catholic family” whom you loved should have absolutely nothing to do with your political position on women’s health, reproductive rights and choices.

 

Bernie Sanders?  Sorry, but backing Heath Mello to serve as a mayor is not okay given his anti-choice legislative background.  Such endorsements represent political prostitution and showcase misogyny writ large, which the Democratic party and its frontrunners may realize as contributions dip dramatically and polls become troubling because many former supporters understand what a huge betrayal the leadership just handed us.

 

Yes, “raising wages and incomes of American workers and creating millions of good-paying jobs” is important. So is lowering the cost of living “for families,” but let’s not forget the multitudes of young and single people out there, or women heads of household, or disenfranchised, appropriately angry and afraid minorities.  Yes, “lower prescription drug prices, crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power.” But where is campaign finance reform?  Where is climate change, environmental integrity vs. oil drilling in treasured national parks and polluted waters, the urgency of infrastructure, support for science and research, a viable, well-articulated health policy that fixes the flaws in the ACA? Where is the commitment to ensure safety nets like social security and Medicare/Medicaid? Where are women in your plans?  In other words, where is your 2017-18 policy platform?

 

Writing in The Guardian recently, columnist Jamie Peck said, “the Democrats seem more determined than ever to bungle their comeback from 2016’s humiliating defeat. From small-thinking policy proposals…and slogans that read like satire…to their quixotic obsession with wooing ‘moderate’ Republicans and the rich to the detriment of progressives and the poor, their strategy is, at best a wet fart. At worst, it’s a plan to sell out everything they once stood for.”

 

I’m with Jamie Peck and other thinking Dems who’ve simply had enough. At this point, who among us can say we’re still coming to the party? The question now is, what are Democrats going to do about it?

The Power of Women's Truthtelling

                                                        

“What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?” poet Muriel Rukeyser asked as Second Wave feminism was finding its feet. Her answer? “The world would split apart.”

Rekeyeser understood how powerful women’s life stories were. She knew that wrapped in those stories lay a reality that represented the underpinnings of male-dominated institutional cultures, whether from the marketplace, the academy, or the Church. She also knew that if women could give voice to that reality they would help to expose those patriarchal cultures and perhaps even change them.

The history of women’s courageous truthtelling is long and instructive. From their diaries, journals, letters, autobiographies, poetry, books and a collection of writings dating as far back as Egyptian tomb inscriptions circa 2300 B.C., women have been writing in ways that Plato later called “passionately direct.”

Sixteenth century St. Teresa wrote a brutally honest book called “Life” and 17th century Alice Thornton described her everyday life with notable emotion. The 20th century saw an explosion of uninhibited, political writing from women like Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others who asserted themselves effectively through expressions of their personal power.

Fast forward now to 21st century social media and other platforms, and to 2017, and think about what happened to Bill O’Reilly. And make no mistake about it. It wasn’t just the withdrawal of sponsorship by major companies from The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox network that brought Mr. O’Reilly down. It was women telling their stories, women supporting them, women advocating for them, and feminist legal experts like Lisa Bloom.

Without truth-telling women exposing the institutional culture of sexual harassment at Fox, the sponsors never would have ended their sponsorship. Sure, the power of the purse was a driving force, and it’s fine to acknowledge that. But let’s also acknowledge that women consumers exerted pressure on Fox’s sponsors, and most importantly that the impact of women telling their stories was hugely important and deeply powerful in effecting O’Reilly’s disgraced departure.

The media either overlooked or downplayed this point. For example, the iconic conservative lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, told CNN with absolute certainty that women coming forward didn’t account for the network’s decision. It was O’Reilly breathing hard into a taped phone call that did it. Another male guest agreed with him as he repeated the claim that it was the advertisers who finally got to the network.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, to her credit, was quick to point out that it was “the effort by a group of women who day after day after day were calling in complaints, who were going on TV despite their fear, who were putting the public pressure on, who were going to the advertisers,” she fumed. “Maybe that’s what happened! I want these women to get credit.”

Wendy Walsh, the woman who brought her case to Bloom and agreed to go public with it – not for any financial compensation but so that “other women and [her] daughters wouldn’t have to go through similar experiences,” added that while advertisers pulled their support from O’Reilly’ show, they did it “because they care about their women employees and they care about their women consumers. It was girl power.”

What happened at Fox clearly doesn’t suddenly end the anti-woman culture at the network that paid $13 million to five women to settle their cases of sexual harassment and gave O’Reilly a golden handshake of $25 million. This should tell you all you need to know about how rampant the problem is at Fox News: 21st Century Fox has made payouts related to sexual harassment allegations at Fox News totaling over $85 million, the majority of which was paid to men ousted from the network because of harassment allegations.

Clearly, sexual harassment cultures still prevail and ending them will not be easy, as we know from our recent election and current political landscape. But because of the legacy of women truthtellers, and the courage of the growing number of women coming forward to speak truth to power, at least now when we ask, “What would happen if women told the truth about their lives?” the answer can include the fact that at least some sexual predators will get busted.

I think we owe the women who have begun, hopefully, to change the landscape in which we live, at least a little recognition for that, and a very big thank you.

Time for a Second Look at the Second Wave

In light of emerging demographics within the American electorate, by which I mean the growing youth vote, and the fact that young women are flocking to Bernie Sanders - and in view of the brouhaha about remarks made by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright – I’m concerned.  I’m not as bothered by the Steinem and Albright remarks as others are, although I was shocked by both utterances. Anyone, in a moment of frustration or fatigue, can make thoughtless or insulting comments they regret the moment the words leave their mouth.

My cri de coeur is about how Hillary Clinton and her spokespeople are failing miserably in addressing a fundamental point that needs to be made to young, idealist women because none of them has one clue about what life was like for females before HRC and other Second Wave feminists crawled into the trenches and fought like hell for women’s rights. They have no sense of women’s history and how it affects them.

Alice Paul and other women were tortured trying to secure women’s right to vote. How dare young voters, especially women, say they will stay home if Bernie isn’t the Democratic candidate? Contraception was illegal in Connecticut, even for married women, until the 1960s. Want to think about what it was like to miss a period before Roe v. Wade? (If you were wealthy you flew to Puerto Rico for an abortion; poor women used hangers.) Know what it was like when nursing, teaching or being a secretary were your only options? It goes on and on. For a full picture, read Gail Collins’s book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2009), which begins with a young woman being sent home from traffic court because she was wearing crisply ironed trousers and includes stories like the one about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was told she should give up law school and make babies.

Since no one reading this column is likely to run out and get Collins’s informative book, here are a few examples of what life was like for females in my day. When I bought my first car in the 60’s the bank insisted my father – who was in bankruptcy to the same bank, sign my loan agreement. Once I got married, only my husband’s credit mattered. And when I went to graduate school I was assessed out-of-state tuition fees by the University of Maryland because although I met every criteria for in-state fees, I didn’t earn half our family income, so legally as they saw it, I was my British husband’s dependent, just as if I were his child.

Why don’t Hillary and her deputies respond to media questions about why women aren’t voting for her by noting that young women don’t know any of this stuff, and don’t realize how threatened their futures are if the wrong man wins? Do young voters know that women have been arrested for feticide following miscarriage in this country, or that even if raped they could be forced to carry a pregnancy to term? Do they get that lack of pay equity means they will have substantially smaller pensions or social security checks in old age than men? Do they even care that there is a tax on tampons or that Viagra was covered by medical insurance when birth control wasn’t?

When late term abortion comes up why don’t Hillary’s folks tell it like it is: Third trimester abortion happens very rarely when a woman (and her partner) find out, after 20 weeks of pregnancy, that their much wanted unborn child has a horrific anomaly, perhaps a missing brain or other organs. These parents have made the agonizing decision to terminate out of a very deep love for that child and the quality of its life. No woman – not one – flippantly decides she doesn’t want the kid that late in pregnancy, and it reveals the deepest disrespect for women to accuse them of such mindlessness.

Don’t get me wrong: This is not a pro-Hillary vs Bernie argument. It’s a plea to young women and to the political campaigns that want to include them.  The idealism driving young women voters to the Sanders campaign is a good thing. But Bernie, too, needs to speak to these issues, at least once in a while, so that his female followers can think through their voting decisions with a full deck of cards.

On the Clinton side, young women need to know about and appreciate the direct experience, skill set, and yes, scars that Hillary brings to the arena, especially if they are concerned about their future as females in an extremely challenging time, economically, socially and politically.  This could be the most important election of their lives. The time leading up to it should not be reduced to simplistic sound bites, silly squabbling, incomplete or out-of-context information, or serious omissions of fact and history. There is just too much riding on knowing as much as we can and voting wisely.

As for Gloria and Madeleine, give them a break. What they said was inappropriate and in the fullest analysis troubling. But they have given us all – women and men – so much to appreciate and be thankful for and they’re basically terrific role models. Let’s not diminish them, outstanding elders both, on the basis of a bad day or an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

 

Shut Up and Put Up: A Military Culture of Retaliation When Rape Happens

Sometimes as a journalist one thing leads to another and you suddenly find yourself going down a dark rabbit hole that you hadn’t planned to visit. That’s what happened to me recently when I was writing a piece about how the Veterans Administration’s mental health system and the military in general were failing women in need of care following sexual assault.

I interviewed a lot of women veterans who had suffered military sexual assault while serving their country for that piece and what I heard wasn’t pretty. Nor were the things they said about what had happened to them when they sought help, or when they tried to tell their stories. That’s the part that led me down the rabbit hole, because the truth is retaliation is rampant in the military against those who tell the truth about what happens to victims of abuse.

“It’s a culture of silencing,” one source who’d been warned not to talk to the media told me. “They take away your First Amendment right to free speech.” Then he called me, twice, in a panic.  “Don’t use my name,” he said. “I still work for the VA.” Soon afterwards I got a call from another source who asked that I water down her comments. “My husband still gets his care at the VA,” she explained.

But don’t take my word for it. In May 2015 Human Rights Watch released a report called “US: Military Whistleblowers at Risk” in which it detailed retaliation for reporting sexual assault. “Military service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished,” the report said after its 18-month investigation in partnership with the human rights organization Protect Our Defenders. “Despite extensive reforms by the Defense Department to address sexual assault, the military has done little to hold retaliators to account or provide effective remedies for retaliation,” the report said, adding that “the Military Whistleblower Protection Act has yet to help a single service member whose career was harmed.”

Let’s put a human face on this travesty. “A Sergeant told me he would kill me if we ever went into Afghanistan because ‘friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens’,” a female soldier told Human Rights Watch.  Another reported that she was assaulted by a cook whose colleagues harassed her so much she couldn’t eat in the mess hall. She “lived off of cans of tuna” for seven months. In another case a female Marine’s name and photo were posted to a Facebook page where other Marines could comment. “Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell,” someone wrote. Another soldier said she should be silenced “before she lied about another rape.”

Is it any wonder that one advocate I interviewed said she advises women who come to her for help to “get out right now because you life is on the line.” She told me “it’s not unusual for women to go missing” or to have their deaths called a suicide.

A study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2014 revealed that 62 percent of women who reported unwanted sexual conduct to military authorities experienced some form of retaliation. The study also found that 35 percent of women reporting sexual assault suffered an adverse administrative action, 32 percent suffered professional retaliation and 11 percent were punished for infractions after reporting. It didn’t count the number of women who receive pseudo-psychiatric diagnoses like “Borderline Personality Disorder” which is often used to damage or end a victim’s career.

“These sickening stories of retaliation against survivors should make every American angry,” Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) has said. “We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front and this mission is failing. Survivors will not be able to get the justice they deserve until we change this business-as-usual climate without any real accountability and create a professional, non-biased and independent military justice system.”

Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, agrees. “When no one is held accountable for retaliation, it creates a hostile environment for all survivors, and sends a message to criminals that they can act with impunity. When a survivor who reports sexual assault is 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than they are to see their rapist convicted, it demonstrates the military has a long way to go to fix this problem.”

After talking to so many brave women who have suffered terribly, first by being raped and then for telling the truth about it, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’ve written their stories here and elsewhere, which has led me to wonder occasionally if I will be retaliated against in some way. So if my column doesn’t appear next month please come looking for me. Maybe you should start with that ultimate black hole – a military brig – where someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to Al Capone may well be watching over me.