Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Rick Santorum – humiliated in his last electoral bid, and trailing badly in the GOP primary polls – knows he needs to keep saying outrageous things to keep himself in the public eye. Plus which, he’s crazy, so saying outrageous things is never difficult for him.
He’s been in the news lately for making bizarre comparisons of gay marriage to beer, a cup of tea, and a paper napkin – all predicated upon the rather obvious but undeniable point that “it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is”. This is a claim on which Santorum congratulates himself by describing it as “sort of metaphysical”, but might otherwise be categorized as “sort of idiotic”. Apparently it means something to him, though, because he keeps saying it – most recently in a just-posted interview on the Iowa Independent Website: “It’s like going out and saying, ‘That tree is a car.’ Well, the tree’s not a car. A tree’s a tree. Marriage is marriage.” He goes on to spew a frothy mixture of crazy in a wide arc: gay marriage “minimizes what that bond means to society” (by letting people . . . form that bond . . .); “you’re gonna undermine religious liberty in this country” (his examples consist exclusively of the liberty to prevent other people from doing things); “we’ve created something that is not what it is” (so much for the tautological metaphysics).
But there’s a particular moment in the interview I want to highlight, because it captures so perfectly the ideological dishonesty, and complete divorce from reality, of the right-wing, and particularly the anti-choice movement.
If your position on abortion prevails and abortion is prohibited, Senator, what should the penalty be for a woman who obtains an abortion or a doctor who performs one?
Santorum: I don’t think there should be criminal penalties for a woman who obtains an abortion. I see women in this case as a victim. I see the person who is performing the abortion as doing the illegal act
This has been getting a fair amount of commentary, and rightly so. There is a citizen-petition initiative on the ballot for the City of San Francisco, this coming November, banning circumcision of male minors except in cases of medical necessity. It is modeled on a similar ban on female genital mutilation already enacted into federal law. It adopts language in the federal FGM law specifically excluding religious beliefs or “ritual” as grounds for exception.
It’s not an unreasonable law, and I think it’s something that probably ought to be done though I have the impression that the issue is overblown from both sides. It’s also obvious that the law would most directly impact Jews (and adherents of some the other smaller faiths, including some branches of Islam); the largest number of parents choosing circumcision in American are Christian, but they don’t make a religion out of it. (Ha! Haha!) But the debate over “male genital mutilation” – while pretty crazed at times – has mostly not had a religious focus; there are good non-religious reasons to oppose circumcision, and some non-religious reasons to favor it, and both argunents have been beaten to death by combatants on this subject without making it a religious war (other than to the extent that some people support circumcision for religious reasons).
But the group in San Diego that wrote the bill coming up for vote, and pushed the signature campaign that got it on the ballot, somehow stepped on a banana peel just recently, and threw the whole issue down a steep and bumpy flight of steps to an ugly landing (if you’ll excuse an increasingly awkward metaphor). The group has generally followed the “I mourn my penis” line in its “intactivist” crusade for prepuce justice, but for reasons that are hard to comprehend it recently came out with this:
This is a page from their “Monster Mohel” comic book, issued in support of their ballot initiative. The comic features a blond, muscular superhero – “Foreskinman” – who bursts in on a group of Orthodox Jews conducting a bris on a struggling boy. The villain – “Monster Mohel” – and his evil minyans (Ha! Haha!*) are wild-eyed, scraggly-haired, and grinning psychotically; one of them holds the child’s terrified mother by force while they cut her baby boy. Just to top off the Jews-as-freaks theme, the mohel gibbers about a “sacrifice to God” while brandishing scissors over the boy’s crotch, and also gushes praise for “the metzitzah b’peh for [sic] which I am about to partake” (the latter being a rare version of the circumcision ritual in which the mohel cleans the penis of blood by sucking it).
So: Jews as savages, religious nuts, and perverts, and their religious rites as violent and forcible; the anti-circumcision types as strong, Aryan, saviors rescuing children stolen from their mothers for bloody Jewish religious rituals. Hmmmm . . . never heard of anything like that before.
Not surprisingly, this has gotten a lot of criticism as anti-Semitic, and many commentators, especially on the right wing, have gone on from there to state categorically that the entire anti-circumcision bill is an exercise in anti-Semitism, and the “MGM” activism movement is just anti-Semitism in disguise.
That seems to me no more than another example of right-wing logical failure. (Are anti-Semites really that hung up on Jewish penises? And would they really go to the extent of funding and promoting years of agitation, and multiple state ballot initiatives, on an issue that makes them sound like cranks while affecting over 90% non-Jews? As far as I’m aware, even Nazis didn’t ban circumcision.) Through some bizarre twist of religio-political fate, the political movement that was forever railroading Jews on false charges and banning them from colleges and country clubs has in recent years decided that Jews are their special project (i.e., a convenient hammer in the Middle East to use against Muslims, and tied up in some loony way with Rapture prophecies – which also foretell the murder or forcible religious conversion of those same Jews, but that part doesn’t get mentioned). So finding an initiative they regard as left-wing that also has anti-Semitic elements is a welcome opportunity for them to paint the left wing as anti-Semitic. Between the fact that there’s nothing leftist about the “MGM” movement (except insofar as it’s anti-traditionalist and anti-religious, so clearly not rightist – but most liberals aren’t het up about foreskins and there’s nothing about them that is particularly associated with liberalism) and that tiresomely familiar hasty-generalization thing, the whole argument just makes no sense to begin with. The fact that one argument against circumcision is anti-Semitic, or even that some opponents of circumcision may be anti-Semitic, doesn’t mean that opposing circumcision is in itself anti-Semitic, especially when, again, Jews are only a tiny percentage of the people in the US who practice infant circumcision. Besides, if we’re going to ban an entire policy because some of its supporters did something stupidly offensive, there would simply be no right-wing policies at all, so this is an argument form they really don’t want to be throwing around lightly.
But the weird thing about this is that the group forwarding the bill is not, seemingly, anti-Semitic. Their Web site is for the most part filled with the standard kinds of information and arguments about circumcision that you find among most supporters of this movement; religious issues are hardly touched upon and not, where I’ve seen, in an offensive way. The comic book is just absurdly divergent – in tone it’s completely incompatible with the rest of their work, and in content it has nothing to do with the actual substance of the group’s issue. It’s hard to believe it comes from the same group as is running the “MGM Bill” Web site. It may have been an attempt to address the strongest source of the religious-tradition argument for circumcision, that simply came out stupid-bad. Even though it’s hard to believe this sort of thing could have been dreamed up, proposed, produced, and approved without someone raising a flag, still, things do fall through the cracks. I can believe that something this messed up could emerge from a group that does not have overt or overriding anti-Jewish sentiments, in the same sense that I can believe Michael Richard didn’t intend to sound like a racist dick in his infamous comedy-club meltdown incident – sometimes you lose sight of what you’re trying to do, and . . . well, shit happens. It’s a very weak argument to claim that “they’re not anti-Semitic except for the unbelievably offensive anti-Semitic stereotypes in the major publication they just issued”, but, even so, for the reasons given above I think it’s believable in this case that this was an aberration more than a real statement of their policy.
But whatever its genesis, there’s no question that the publication, deliberately or not, is unmistakably anti-Semitic, and trades in ugly and ridiculous stereotypes. (I have to say I do like Foreskinman’s superhero logo, though: a round knob with a slit at the tip, flanked by a thin spreading collar coming up around the sides . . . use your imagination.) For an issue that has plenty of reasonable arguments on its side, including counter-arguments to religion-based adherence to tradition, this is stupid, divisive, offensive, and counterproductive. This really isn’t helping their movement – in fact, it may well kill it in California before the vote is taken – and causes real harm to many people, irrespective of their stance on the circumcision issue. Bad move, and their dismissive reaction to the first complaints made it worse. The MGM people need to start taking stock, and taking responsibility, soon.
* Yes, I stole that one.
I missed this story when it first came out: a 10-year-old girl in Mexico became pregnant after being raped by her step-father. Abortion is legal with restrictions in Mexico City, but hardly at all outside the capital. In most areas of Mexico, including where this girl lives, abortion is illegal at any time beginning with conception; in her state there is a “rape exception” good only for the first 90 days of pregnancy. The girl is being held outside her home, in a state child-care facility, and it appears she or her mother were not even informed of the existence of even this limited right to abortion. Now it is long past time for that option, and of course there is no hope of her traveling to some state or country where she could get care at this date. It appears that she has no hope but undergo a full-term pregnancy against her will, and give birth, at the age of 10, to her rapist step-father’s child.
Note that these abortion laws: forced pregnancy from the time of conception (not the beginning of pregnancy itself); limited or no exceptions for cases of rape or incest; refusal of authorities to assist in obtaining abortion even when it is legal; state coercion and withholding of truthful information to manipulate women and girls out of exercising their legal right of choice; and general hostility to choice in all its forms, and collusion of state officials to impose forced pregnancy outside the bounds of the law, with impunity – are exactly the policies promoted and supported by the religious right in the United States. In Mexico, where the Catholic Church has much greater social and political power, they have been enacted and are in force.
So if you want to know what it looks like to live in the kind of country envisioned by “pro-life” forces in the US (though with a bit less Catholicism), this is exactly what it is: 10-year-old girls raped and subject to incest held in a locked ward by the state to force them to bear the child of their rapist, with virtually no legal rights to make their own choice in the matter, and what little legal rights they do have systematically withheld from them by force and deception, by the state itself. Every aspect of this case has been managed in such a way as to ensure that this girl – note again, 10 years old – is forced to do what the religious right and the culture of patriarchy have chosen for her life and her body: bear children under force and duress, through rape and incest, while held under guard as her rights and her body itself slip away from her control. Once more, these are exactly the laws the US religious right is campaigning for; this is exactly what they want and will get.
Let me make one final point: Recall again that it is the Mexican law that prescribes forced pregnancy for child-rape victims in that country. It is the Mexican Police who are holding this girl to prevent her from exercising the limited rights the law grants her. If she had come to a US Planned Parenthood clinic needing help in this case, she could have gotten an abortion; the US religious right demands that Planned Parenthood turn her over to the police. It is one of their main complaints against PP: that they provide healthcare on demand, rather than violating confidentiality and turning rape victims over to the state – and their families, which may include the rapists themselves. PP trusts women – even girls – to know whether they are willing to be pregnant or not; the religious right demands that they do so.
For Planned Parenthood, what a rape victim deserves is the power and the right to reclaim control of her body. For the religious right, what a rape victim deserves is to bear the rapist’s child. And the younger the better, apparently. They got what they wanted in this case. And they’re coming for more.
So there’s a minor news bubble developing over the situation of Stanley Thornton, the “adult baby” recently profiled on a reality-TV show.Thornton lives an “adult baby” lifestyle – he dresses in baby-type clothes and a diaper, and has a nurse/baby relationship with a live-in friend who acts as a mother figure; she takes care of him and he is dependent on her, and they like it that way. There’s a surprisingly large community of such people, including the usual Internet chat rooms, Web sites, and so on. In addition, Thornton receives Social Security disability payments, due to a reported heart condition as well as taking multiple prescription medications. His caretaker is also on disability, for what reason I don’t know. They are not housebound, but neither is apparently employable; at any rate, neither has held a job in some time.
The problem is that they were incautious enough to go on a National Geographic TV special about “taboo” lifestyles. Senator Tom Coburn saw it and has now pressured the Social Security apparatus to investigate this particular person based on his appearance on the show. His ostensible grounds for complaint are that, from what he saw on the show, he believes Thornton appears to be capable of supporting himself:
Given that Mr. Thornton is able to determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public, drive himself to complete errands, design and custom-make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult and run an Internet support group, it is possible that he has been improperly collecting disability benefits for a period of time.
The first thing to be said about this is that Coburn seems to have a very strange idea of what “disability” consists in, or what is or is not required to hold down a job. There is nothing about being SSI-eligible that implies you cannot “determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public”, or drive a car or take care of personal needs such as performing errands. And there is a vast gulf between being able to do all or any of that and being able to support yourself in a capitalist economy (to say nothing of one in a years-long recession with close to 10% unemployment). Coburn seems to harbor both a very condescending view of what disability is, and a typically hard-hearted view of what self-reliance requires: the disabled are essentially children, mentally non-competent, cannot even choose their own clothes, and certainly cannot act independently in public, drive, or run errands unsupervised; at the same time, anyone who’s not actually bedridden ought to earn their own living or die trying. Coburn’s worldview seems to be taken from a Dickens novel: spastic lunatics chained to the walls in Bedlam, and starving cripples begging in the streets. In addition, Coburn’s apparent belief that anyone who can cobble up a chair out of 2x4s (I’ve seen pictures of Thornton’s furniture; he’s not exactly Sam Maloof) should be working as a full-time woodcrafter is rather absurd, and the idea that maintaining a Web site imputes the ability to earn a living identifies someone who is clearly struggling to grasp the nature of the intertubes.
But for all its confusion, Coburn’s statement at least seems to focus on the right issue: it’s true that Thornton is not qualified for SSI disability payments unless he is actually disabled and partly or wholly unable to support himself, and it’s not unreasonable to ask whether that is true. Given that Thornton does offer his furniture plans for sale, and he and his friend apparently also offer a paid sleep-over service catering to other adult babies, he apparently does have some income and there may be a legitimate question about his qualifications for disability. As far as it goes, that’s not an unreasonable question to ask.
What gets me about this is that a senior US Senator took the time to pursue an inquiry against one single individual under a program that accounts for close to $13 Billion per year, or more than 20% of the entire national budget. Does he really think that is a productive use of his time? More to the point, was this really prompted by a suspicion that this one disabled guy might have some illicit sturdy-furniture income he hasn’t been reporting, and Coburn is determined to find out how much that is?
It seems obvious that Coburn focused on this case not because this SSDI recipient has made two or three pieces of exceedingly simple furniture (Coburn’s letter notes that one basic chair took him a year and a half just to design – hardly qualification for gainful employment), but because “his choice to live as an adult baby violates societal norms”, as Coburn himself puts it. In fact, although Coburn’s letter ostensibly focuses on Thornton’s possible ability to hold a job, it repeatedly mentions his lifestyle. More than that, Coburn’s official Senate Web page touts the same letter without a single reference to actual qualifications for disability; instead, it proudly notes that Coburn is “requesting an investigation of how people choosing certain lifestyles – focusing specifically on those who live their lives role-playing as ‘adult babies,’ are able to get taxpayer-funded Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)”. In short, Coburn is using his position as ranking Republican on the Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations to bring down the heat on “people choosing certain lifestyles” – for which the issue of possible income on the side is only a convenient pretext. And the crowing and mockery this has already generated on the usual right-wing Web sites can easily be imagined.
It’s hardly worth saying that this is ugly and mean-spirited, or that it makes little sense if taken at face value. Whether or not this person is disabled has nothing to do with how he chooses to dress or what kinds of emotional relationships he values. And the nonsense about driving, running errands, or designing furniture is pathetic as an excuse for a challenge to what is apparently a documented medical disability. Coburn has found someone whose lifestyle he disapproves, and is taking advantage of the fact that it’s unusual and off-putting to many people to harm that person while grandstanding on the issue to promote his anti-social, anti-government ideology.
It’s not like he wouldn’t have been glad to cut anybody else’s Social Security benefits (Coburn has consistently voted against virtually every aspect of Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and other healthcare programs, against the SSI “lockbox”, and in favor of privatizing Social Security). But finding someone in the program he can despise, and then inviting (and getting, in spades, from the right wing) open mockery of that person’s lifestyle as a lever for attacking their health benefits, is a right-wing two-fer: hurting people who aren’t like them, while casting social welfare as unnecessary or a fraud. The message, in political or social terms, is clear enough. But the message for the disabled, and those with alternative lives, is also clear: if you’re disabled, don’t be weird, because it makes you a target; and if you’re weird, don’t expect help if you’re also disabled, because you don’t deserve it.
Interesting comparison from the US Census Bureau:
The percentage of women who reach the end of their fertility with zero or one live-born child almost doubled over a recent 28-year period. The fraction who had 3 or more has been cut in half. These are remarkable trends. The fact that nulligravidity has almost doubled, to nearly 20% of women, is especially striking. Forty years ago, childlessness was almost always a product of circumstances; now, for at least about 10% of women and probably far more, it is a choice (i.e., childlessness has grown by 9% in that time; the maximum rate of biological infertility in 1976 – two years before the first “test tube baby” – was 10.2%, but surely at least some of that childlessness even then was chosen; today’s rate of actual biological infertility is likely lower still, thus, most likely, well under half the current nulligravidity rate of over 19% is due to true infertility, with the rest the product of women’s active decisions not to bear children although they could).
In fact, the shift in total lifetime fertility over this period is markedly toward lower numbers at every level: the category of 4 or more children has declined by the greatest percentage, followed by the category of 3; the fraction of women with exactly 2 children has expanded markedly, but the fraction with just 1 has expanded more, and the fraction with 0 has increased most of all. Comparing the categories shows how pervasive the shift to smaller families has become: not only are more women not having children, but few are having very large families (the percentage of women with 4 or more children has plummeted, almost to the fraction of women who had none at all 40 years ago), and with 2 now being the most common choice, but 1 or 0 (combined) even more popular; essentially, most women who might have had 4 or 5 kids are now having 3 or 2, and those who might have had 3 or 2 are in many cases now having 1 or none. As has been widely reported, the overall fertility rate in the US now is about 2.0 – 2.1, which is just below the replacement rate; it has fluctuated at that level for over a decade and shows no signs of changing. (Hispanic women are the only ethnic group with higher fertility, and that is concentrated largely among recent immigrants.) This also is a choice – one that represents a remarkable shift from 100 years ago, when lifetime fertility was about 4 children per woman.
It’s interesting how sensitive to conditions the total fertility number is as well: within less than a generation, it dropped to about 2 during the Great Depression and through WWII, rose sharply to 3.7 during the Baby Boom, dropped to an all-time low well below 2 in the mid-70s, and has slowly risen to its current stable level just below replacement. Thus, average total fertility is capable of shifting, either up or down, by a factor of 2 in as little as 10 years, and has done so several times in the recent past. Women have always made choices about their fertility, but increasing economic security and more-reliable access to birth control has likely made those choices easier and more authentic. From this perspective, then, the currently stable average total fertility rate of 2 can be regarded as what economists would term a “revealed preference” – a choice women have made when they were free to make their own choices. (Another revealed preference: the percentage of women who remain in the workforce after having children has grown by a factor of almost 2 compared to 1976, and more since before then.)
This has many implications for the United States and the world, in terms of population levels, economic activity, demographic shifts affecting distributions by race, class, and age, and so on. But aside from those often-remarked consequences, what this shift, and its historical roots, tell us, is how far voluntary choices about fertility are part of people’s lives and their strategies for dealing with both reproductive and social opportunities. This shift – which parallels that in other developed countries – demonstrates that fewer children, greater control of reproduction, and greater participation in the external economy and other activities, are the life patterns that women (and their male partners) choose when circumstances allow it. (The only major upsurge in fertility in America in the last century was immediately after WWII, when young men who had been displaced by the war returned and began the reproductive lives that had been delayed for a period of years; the long-term trend has been downwards, and temporary upswings have generally been small.) And this in turn emphasizes how important that freedom is to people’s lives and the goals they hold for them.
The most obvious, and currently salient, lesson to be drawn from this, of course, has to do with the importance of effective and available family planning. Just a day after having narrowly avoided a shutdown of the entire US government over a dispute centered largely on continued funding of Title X – the nation’s only dedicated family-planning healthcare program – and the right-wing attack on reproductive healthcare in general, the recklessness of such policies, and their cost to people’s independence and well-being, can’t be overstated. But there are broader lessons as well: people care about and make active choices about their health and reproductive strategies, in huge numbers, and with surprising subtlety. The economy, demographics, and availability of equitable access to social opportunities such as jobs, education, and employment, have powerful consequences for how people live their lives and use their bodies – and the choices they make in response to circumstances demonstrate that the choices others make under other circumstances are not always free or welcome.
Given a chance, most women in developed countries around the world will choose to have 3 or fewer – often 2 or fewer – children in their lifetimes, and the rate drops predictably with improving conditions. Most women in non-developed countries, and even in affluent ones before the development of effective and available birth control, had many more (in most of central Africa today, it is an average of 5 – 8 liveborn children per woman, and even more total pregnancies including stillbirths; in Afghanistan it is 7). Clearly those choices were not voluntary for most of those women. They were not voluntary for most women in America less than 100 years – just a few generations – ago. Increased economic affluence and urbanization made having fewer children more desirable, but it was the development and availability of modern birth control that made it possible. To remove that access for some of the population now is not merely to endorse certain lifestyle choices or even to make them possible (women have always been perfectly free to have 4 or more children if they choose); it is to eliminate the choices others might make if they could, and constrain them by economic force to a life most of the country, and most of the world, has chosen to flee. It is to return some of the women of America to the conditions of life of 100 years ago, while the affluent continue the path to greater opportunity that was made possible by the economic and medical advances over that time.
I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m not totally diggin’ this:
It’s from the Sierra Club’s new ad campaign “to remind our representatives who they are actually hurting when they attack the EPA.” I’m entirely in agreement with the goal of the campaign, and even with the message of this ad (“gutting emissions regulations results in greater release of toxins, which can do their worst damage during fetal development”). But I have reservations about its methods.
The obvious function of the ad, of course, is that it plays to the right-wing’s proclaimed concern for fetuses to the exclusion of all other health issues (including, of course, pre-natal care, gynecology, infant and child care, and other such irrelevancies). And the fact that the imagery plays so obviously and shamelessly off of the right wing’s fetish for pregnant bellies – in this case to prod them to do something to improve people’s health, rather than take away their rights to healthcare, is an amusing irony. But it’s just those points that leave me uncomfortable.
First, there’s something in a way defeatist, or at least pessimistic, about the focus of the campaign: because the GOP only cares about unborn fetuses, we have to couch every issue in terms of its impact on fetuses. (“Wear your seatbelt – so your fetus doesn’t get hurt!” “Support solar power – so your fetus will use less oil!” “Don’t spread deadly poisons in the environment – because it might hurt some of the fetuses of the less than 1% of the population that’s pregnant at any given time!”) But surrendering every issue to the religious right’s fetus-fetish takes everyone else in the population out of the picture. Mercury, dioxin, and other poisons in the environment hurt everyone. It matters that young children who have grown out of the right’s preferred age for adulation (i.e., they’ve been born already) are also vulnerable to developmental delays and all the other effects of environmental toxins; it matters that adults are crippled and killed by heavy metal poisoning; it matters that the women who are carrying these favored fetuses are also affected by the poisons they ingest – in addition to the fetuses that are the focus of concern in this campaign: these are the people who are hurt when the right wing attackes the EPA – why can’t the Sierra Club, of all people, say so? It may be true that the right only cares about fetuses (and then largely as tools for hurting women, who are their real obsession), but allowing them to forget everyone else is to forfeit the major part of the fight to them without contest. When progressives’ campaigns have the same focus, same tactics, and same blind spots as the reactionaries they are campaigning against, much is lost even if those campaigns succeed.
The second, and perhaps more striking, issue that arises for me from this ad is the imagery that is used. When I said it leaves everyone but the fetus out of the picture, I meant it literally. This ad replays in every detail one of the most common, and most offensive, tropes of anti-choice misogyny: the faceless pregnant woman reduced to nothing but her belly. (Can’t say “uterus“, you know!) You see it everywhere (and, as @ClinicEscort points out, particularly in stories about abortion): a woman’s body reduced to nothing but swollen boobs and swollen belly, or often just the belly – the face is always cut off, just out of the frame. The effect – and unquestionably the purpose – is to erase the woman from her own pregnancy. It’s fetus porn, with the woman dehumanized just as badly as, and in some ways even more fully than, in sexual porn (where at least you can often see the face). It’s the kind of misogynist metonymy that at least has come to be recognized (if not eliminated) in product advertising, but apparently still goes unremarked in issue or values advertising – even though its major function is to promote the value of dehumanizing women. That it does reflect and promote the right-wing vision of women goes without saying: women as pregnant vessels who are not even named or acknowledged, and certainly have no interests or needs that deserve to be addressed in their own right, could hardly be better illustrated than by photographs of them as exactly that, used in campaigns aimed at denigrating women’s interests in favor of the “interests” of an unborn fetus.
It’s infuriating to see progressive groups use such images and tactics. This goes beyond simply bowing to the reality of the right’s indifference to women by finding another “hook” for an issue; this actively embraces and endorses its dehumanizing methods in order to use them for that other issue – exactly what the right wants. What I want is something better than this from nominal allies.
The “Baby Joseph” case has been making the rounds of the right-wing press for some time, and is now in the mainstream press due to a confluence of right-wing hype and a predictably distorted Canada-vs.-US angle. As always, bad cases make good press releases, and rational standards of care suffer.
The latest entry in the “creepy personified fetus” category: the “Feti” – weird/cutesy Christmas-tree ornaments shaped like tiny embryos at about the 6-8 week stage (bulbous head, no digits, visible tail). As is usual with this genre, they sport adult-appropriate personal characteristics, including clothes, personal possessions, and in one case a moustache. You can buy Santa fetuses, “happy” fetuses, candy-cane-carrying fetuses, and an “Adam Lambert” fetus displaying a punk hairdo and clutching a Star of David – a cultural mishmash that I refuse to attempt to understand.
The purveyor of the site insists that “Feti is just for fun, no political statements being made here.” I’m tempted to believe that in her case, but the thing still strikes me as weird, and indicative of a mindset that is worth noting.
The vendor suggests these are intended as gifts for expectant parents, as appropriate additions to the “Baby’s First _____” category of remembrances. (Exactly how, I’m not sure: “Baby’s First Disembodied Hanging on a Christmas Tree”?) In that vein, they play off the very common and understandable practice of many expectant parents in personifying their fetus as it develops – talking to it, playing music, naming it before it is born, and so on. They also seem to accept as a cultural commonplace the fetishizing – literally, in this case! – and personifying of the fetus that is a mainstay of anti-choice propaganda. (Anti-choicers often wear gold-plated fetal-footprint jewelry, and they are forever trying to force abortion patients to look at pictures or sonograms of the fetus.)
I don’t know if the anti-choice movement has so far succeeded in turning the fetus into a fetish object that you can now literally market them to the general public as holiday ornaments, or if the common desire to see fetuses as sort of reverse-extensions of babies simply makes this a natural marketing move, like Cabbage Patch dolls or those weird Anne Geddes photographs of babies in flower petals, and the right wing has merely piggybacked off that common emotional trope for their own purposes. The former would scare me a bit, the latter is merely infuriating. Either way, this sort of thing leaves me with a creepy feeling.
I’m happy for people to be happy about their pregnancies, and to embue their future offspring with emotional valence or even a somewhat overgrandiose sense of promise or accomplishment. In the same way that all parents think their kids are smart and talented, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that, expectant parents can and should go ga-ga over the cute little buns in their respective ovens. There is no point, in the case of people’s emotional experience of the events in their lives, to go around insisting to them “you know it has no functional higher nervous system, right?” . . . “that’s not a ‘person’ you’re carrying, in any meaningful sense of the term – just wanted to let you know” . . . “don’t get too close to it – there’s about a 1-in-12 chance you’ll lose the pregnancy”. But when it comes to law and policy-making, clear distinctions do have to be made – and at that point, the conflict between stark reality and parents’ expectations may be uncomfortable.
Regardless of parental beliefs, not all kids are smart or talented, and thus some won’t make it into selective academic or sports or art programs. And regardless of the fervent, desperately dishonest myth-making of the anti-choice right, the early fetus is not a person and does not make moral claims on a woman’s body and life sufficient to override her autonomy. It is unfortunate to have to disappoint people emotionally invested in believing otherwise, but it is far worse to make policy based on wishful thinking in defiance of the truth.
By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and hang a smiling Adam Lambert Jewish punk fetus upon the highest bough. But let’s keep the “personified fetus” myth firmly in its place when we go to making important decisions about real issues in real people’s lives.
Penn Jillette – magician, activist, raconteur, and all-round interesting character – posts this YouTube video in which he passes on what he says is the best advice ever given for relating to your elderly or incapacitated parents.
(See here for a similar observation from an equally-surprising source.)
A former healthcare clinic administrator in Texas today announced that she had quit her job, joined a far-right anti-healthcare group, and dedicated herself to harassing other women to prevent them from receiving surgery and other forms of “icky” healthcare, after seeing a video of an appendectomy that she didn’t like.
I just thought I can’t do this anymore, and it was just like a flash that hit me and I thought that’s it,” said Jonhson. . . .
Johnson said she was told to bring in more women who wanted [icky procedures], something the Episcopalian church goer recently became convicted about.
“I feel so pure in heart (since leaving). I don’t have this guilt, I don’t have this burden on me anymore that’s how I know this conversion was a spiritual conversion.”
Johnson reports that she is likewise convicted about gall bladder removals, most forms of cancer surgery, and liposuction, although she does not criticize the decisions several of her friends have made to have such procedures, because “that’s different”. She is semi-convicted about breast implants, believing they are the work of the Whore of Babylon but also something you could understand that a woman needs sometimes. She justifies these distinctions with random Bible quotes and references to her own idiosyncratic feelings, which she cannot coherently articulate but is happy to impose on others by law.
This otherwise trivial story about one small-town individual’s weird religious hangups was trumpeted by the religious right as a stunning victory over the right of other people to make healthcare choices they don’t like, claiming other people’s healthcare was now “in meltdown mode” and “total disarray”. Every healthcare clinic in the country, including the one that has now hired a new director, went about its business as usual.
Today is National Coming-Out Day (one day after President Obama promised yet again to repeal the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy and work toward fuller equality for all people, and yet again did nothing tangible about it).
I don’t have much to say about that, except to offer support and the wish that the homophobia that infects our society, among other lingering forms of discrimination and prejudice, will soon fade, and “coming out” can be the act of celebration and affirmation that it should be, rather than an act of courage and risk-taking in the face of dangers that should not be allowed to exist.
I’ll note, by way of parochial hyper-focus, that the pressures and threats that impede coming out and living openly in one’s chosen orientation have health consequences as well as many other harmful impacts; they cause stress and depression, create barriers to healthcare access, often result in abusive or discriminatory treatment in emergency care, and not infrequently result in violence. And of course the pervasive legal discrimination LGBTQ people face, in particular regarding health insurance, visitation and decision-making rights for gay couples, and barriers to assisted fertility and adoption, are also health and family-rearing issues as well as being rank discrimination in the basic sense.
Ending homophobia for reasons of good health is an odd and circumlocutory approach to the problem, but it’s one reason among many. Simple moral necessity is a better one. It’s long past time.
There is a considerable component of right-wing blather, on healthcare and other topics, that is not seriously intended from the outset. To be sure, actual right-wing policy proposals are often offensive and addle-headed – withholding healthcare from women for religious reasons, or prohibiting factual information on contraception for teens are too-familiar examples – but often enough the most outrageous statements the wingnuts make are intended only to generate controversy. The ensuing agitation inflames the right-wing base constituency and feeds their self-aggrandizing notion of themselves as “under siege”, while the attention the controversy gins up raises the wingers’ profile and generates book sales and speaking fees. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and their cretinous ilk have made a profession of making factual claims that are indefensible in morals or truth, then evading responsibility by claiming they were joking; nominally more respectable right-wing pundits are not above the tactic, either. (George Will’s incompetent blundering into the issue of global warming continued long after his lack of knowledge had been thoroughly exposed in his own paper; the incident did him no harm among his target readership, for whom truth is an incidental feature of their reading material.)
For this reason, I felt less shock than merely tired recognition at this week’s reports from the right-wing “Value Voters” conference, in particular the much-remarked insanity of anti-choice provocateur Lila Rose’s demand that abortions be “done in the public square” (“maybe then we might hear angels singing as we ponder the glory of conception”*). Of course it’s idiotic, outrageous, and unhinged; of course it’s meaningless as a serious policy proposal. But it was never intended to be otherwise. It was intended to do exactly what it did – get more attention for a serial attention-seeker whose stock in trade is saying provocative things on video so she can enjoy the reaction, as well as create yet another controversy to make anti-choice theater seem important by generating press.
But it’s worth taking a moment, not to combat this nonsense as if it was to be taken seriously, nor even to condemn the continual offensiveness and provocation of the anti-choice movement (a singularly unlikely complaint, since without that the anti-choice movement wouldn’t even exist), but to note the ways in which anti-choicers choose to offend.
What does it mean to imagine – even if only to create offense – that women should be forced to have their abortions in public? As crazed as the suggestion is, it is not as extreme, from the right-wing perspective, as it would seem from any decent point of view. Mandatory public display of intimate gynecological procedures in order to diminish the legal availability of those procedures is nothing more than the literal instantiation of the basic presuppositions of the anti-choice movement in general:
As with so much anti-choice agitation, women simply disappear from this invasive and offensive scheme as persons to be taken seriously in their own right. Healthcare is granted near-sacrosanct status as regards privacy, discretion, and the centrality of the needs and interests of the patient, but a woman seeking abortion must expose herself, legs splayed in stirrups, vagina dilated, instruments inserted, “in the public square” – her needs and interests, in fact her basic humanity as a person deserving of consideration and dignity, carry no weight against the creepy, invasive perversions of the sex-obsessive misogynists. The abortion debate is structured, logically, as a conflict between women’s autonomy and the religious imperatives of the anti-choice right wing, but here there is no recognition of autonomy interests at play in any way – women not only may not control their bodies or reproductive options, but may even be forced into invasive and degrading displays deliberately intended to undermine their own autonomy, as a condition of (temporarily) accessing such options. As always, women simply don’t count. Whatever protections and privileges the typical moral person might command in undertaking their own purposes in their own life simply vanish if that person is a woman seeking control over her reproduction.
But this familiar moral blindness is not accidental, and it is not merely the hyperbolic implication of a deliberately provocative suggestion. Stupid, crazy, and nasty as they may be, the right wing is not completely incapable of recognizing moral humanity, even in those they despise. The right wing gradually learned not to use racial slurs; today it would unthinkable for them to suggest that people of color should be paraded “in the public square” even as a tactic to undermine their rights, and wingers fall over themselves denying the racism in their racist policies. The gay-rights movement, embattled as it was, made remarkable progress in the space of about 35 years; today, the conservative position on gay rights extols accommodations (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; civil unions) that would have been grand liberal victories just a few years previously. Yet after thousands of years of patriarchy, women command no such deference. Even as a joke or a provocation, there are things that are not said about minorities and gays – things the public would reject in disgust. There seems to be nothing the right wing won’t say about women – there seem to be no abuses or humiliations that are beyond the pale, no degradations or invasions that are unthinkable, whether or not they seem likely as policy.
Vacating medical confidentiality to publicize abortions for the explicit purpose of humiliating women by generating disgust at their bodies, healthcare, and reproductive choices? The only part of that scenario the right wing objects to is the abortion. All the rest is merely the rights, interests, and choices of women. Nothing at all, really.
* I am not making this up.
Apparently, tea-baggers protesting healthcare reform have adopted the slogan “Keep your laws off my body”. This is what passes for wit on the right-wing: people who are presumably largely anti-choice have appropriated a pro-choice slogan for their own purposes.
Mind-bogglingly, they claim they are not merely poking fun by making progressive symbols retrogressive, but are adopting the tools and techniques of left-wing activism for purposes that they regard as similar in motivation and intention. Adam Brandon, press secretary for the tea-bagger organization, claimed:
If we had been alive back in the 1960s, we would have been on the freedom bus rides. It was an issue of individual liberty. We’re trying to borrow some from the civil rights movement.
Right. Freedom Riders:
But that wasn’t my main point. I wanted to note just that one slogan: “Keep your laws off my body”.
It seems undeniable that the vast majority of tea-baggers would strongly oppose the liberty that slogan advocates. Surely their Congressional enablers do. But with the characteristic ignorance and lack of shame that makes it possible for right-wingers to say any of the things they say, they’ve co-opted words they don’t believe in into a context in which they don’t even make sense.
Unlike the issue of abortion rights – wherein the same noisy faction that opposes healthcare for others also aggressively campaigns to prohibit women from controlling their own bodies, and to force them to undergo pregnancy and childbirth against their will – the proposed plan for universal healthcare access doesn’t impose any unwanted procedure on anyone’s body. The access plan incorporates no specific treatments at all – it is a funding mechanism, not a treatment regimen, still less a mandatory one.
Naturally, of course, the wingers who oppose both abortion and healthcare in general, while demanding “keep your laws off my body”, also oppose abortion funding under any healthcare plan that is passed: that’s right, they insist that the healthcare plan they oppose because it would impose laws on their body must also be crafted so as to assist them in imposing laws on other people’s bodies. But more fundamentally, it is the characteristic right-wing solipsism and sheer imperviousness to fact that makes this absurdity possible: their aversion to healthcare means other people can’t have any, and their valorization of unplanned pregnancy means other women must have them; laws that have nothing to do with actually imposing upon people’s bodies are opposed with liberal slogans regarding bodily freedom, while the liberal demand for bodily freedom is opposed by people who spout that same slogan.
As always, the interpretive question here is whether these people are simply mind-bogglingly stupid, or deliberately dishonest. And as always, it’s hard to tell the difference in their cases.
“Choice” – the exercise of the fundamental value of autonomy as it affects the most distinctive, and most embattled, aspects of women’s lives – is always under siege by the right wing and its religious foot soldiers, as much so today as at almost any time. And today, “Blog For Choice Day, 2009”, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision and nearly coincident with the the New Year and the Obama Inauguration as well, it is worth taking stock, and seeing just how encroached and relentless that battle has grown, and what hope of progress arises at this time of new beginnings.
The manifold horrors of the Bush years are finally behind us, and President Obama is already taking steps to end their ravages and wipe away the stains they have left upon the United States. In the area of reproductive autonomy, he has sent encouraging signals that he will repeal the odious “Gag Rule” and “Conscience Clauses” and oppose legislative attempts to further intrude upon women’s freedom. Hopefully the discriminatory Hyde Amendment will finally bite the dust as well. But that those are salient issues is only evidence of how much has been lost in a short time.
That we have to beat back absolute absurdities, such as that hospital personnel may refuse to treat patients in need out of personal prejudice alone, or that any yahoo with an ideological grudge, down to and including pharmacy clerks and cash register tellers, can withhold products and prescription medications on the same whim, means that the first promise of the unfolding Obama administration is simply to undo some of the trespasses of recent years, restoring what, under Clinton, nobody imagined could be lost. Actual progress will have to be a follow-on goal.
So it is not merely “choice” – reproductive autonomy in the area of birth control and abortion – that is under siege, but the entire range of choices women may make regarding their healthcare, sexual and reproductive lives, and liberty in general. Not only the right to abortion has been restricted, but, as part of their war on women’s sexual health, women’s rights to make factually informed choices about their own health and treatment options, to choose, purchase, and receive medicine and healthcare products prescribed or recommended for them, to choose how to balance their sexual and healthcare needs without interference, to choose their own goals and methods in family planning without prohibition on extremist religious grounds, to choose to use scientific medical advances without arbitrary religious restriction, and to make any number of other choices regarding their health and bodily autonomy, have systematically been assaulted, hamstrung, and denied by legions of religious-extremist obstructionists inside and outside the Bush administration. The first item on the “choice” agenda must now be restoring the basic set of choices that existed before the whackos got loose; only then can we begin to extend and refine the range and accessibility of those choices.
There is good reason to be hopeful, as, barely days into the Obama Presidency, a new sense of decency emanates from Washington and the most egregious crimes of the recent past are repudiated and undone. There is little reason to be ecstatic, however – and those who value women’s autonomy know too well that women are always the first to be thrown overboard for political expediency, and that women’s bodies and lives are of little weight in the traditional political balance. It would be foolhardy to expect President Obama to be too radical a departure from business as usual in that respect, though he has been generally good on choice, and on scientific, vs. religious, policymaking. Sadly, I expect that “Blog for Choice Day” will be an annual tradition that outlasts even this administration. But this is certainly the beginning of better things to come, and the victory has never been out of sight, however hatefully it has been contested. Good days ahead!
Cardinal Egan, supremely obnoxious Catholic Archbishop of New York, has an essay up on some Web site, complete with the standard handwringing condescension and heart-tugging photos, declaiming how desperately we need to take control of women’s bodies and impose forced pregnancy as a matter of law and culture. Its contents are typical of this well-worn genre: a lame argument about whether a human fetus is a “human being”, willful elision of the difference between biological identity and moral status, sweeping moral declarations grounded on nothing but his unreflective certainty, and of course obligatory references to Hitler, Stalin, and Dred Scott.
The heart of this superficial and nonsensical (or perhaps it could be said: “a-sensical”) piece is a photograph of a 20-week fetus – a photograph which, Egan declares, proves by itself that abortion is wrong and it is utterly worthless to even consider the actual moral issues raised by the question.
Why, you might inquire, have I not delved into the opinion of philosophers and theologians about the matter? And even worse: Why have I not raised the usual questions about what a “human being” is, what a “person” is, what it means to be “living,” and such? People who write books and articles about abortion always concern themselves with these kinds of things. Even the justices of the Supreme Court who gave us “Roe v. Wade” address them. Why do I neglect philosophers and theologians? Why do I not get into defining “human being,” defining “person,” defining “living,” and the rest? Because, I respond, I am sound of mind and endowed with a fine set of eyes, into which I do not believe it is well to cast sand. I looked at the photograph, and I have no doubt about what I saw and what are the duties of a civilized society if what I saw is in danger of being killed by someone who wishes to kill it or, if you prefer, someone who “chooses” to kill it. In brief: I looked, and I know what I saw.
Why it is that the moral attack dogs of the right wing are always so eager to proclaim their own lack of comprehension I don’t know, but it is no longer surprising as a practical fact, and still less in light of the product of their “reasoning”. But ask yourself: who would take such idiocy seriously in any other context? On what moral issue would anyone seriously say “I saw a picture of an organism affected by this subject that moves me in some way, so I refuse to think about it carefully or read what the best thinkers on the subject have said, and that justifies both my unsupported, idiosyncratic religious beliefs about it and my intention to impose them on everyone else in the country!”? Who would seriously claim that not thinking about, reading about, or analyzing a serious problem could possibly produce a correct answer, or was a proper ground for imposing a solution to it as a matter of law and policy? Well, who but a religious right-winger?
The Sarah Palin nomination is so ludicrous it’s hard to grasp. People are still trying to get a handle on what it means, and what the relevant aspects of her tissue-thin background are. There’s been a lot of good commentary so far, including her relatively minor political experience, all of it in (literally) bush-league environs, and the obvious pandering – to pro-Hillary defectors and religious-right goons – that constitutes the only justification for her nomination. There is also her utter lack of background or preparation for assuming the Presidency without warning – as is her most important, and almost sole, Constitutional responsibility. And there is her apparent penchant for using her office and state agencies for personal vendettas. No doubt all of this will get more thoroughly aired, as it should. (My only fear is that McCain will come to his senses before the official nomination and force her to “reluctantly withdraw” to “spend more time with her family” – I want her on the GOP ticket!)
But there has been some other stuff entering into the discussion that I think is very ugly and ill-advised. Of course there have been some idiotic sexist remarks (and some equally idiotic attempted defenses of her “women’s work” as a qualification for President that are just as sexist in their condescension); that’s bad enough. And it’s hard to know just how to evaluate her “life story”, since much of her qualification for office – according to those who support her – is that she hunts moose and has a passle of kids. If they really think those are qualifications*, then it’s fair game to point out that they are not.
But there are other personal issues that are not fair game.
I hardly like to even bring the subject up, but it should be confronted. There are all kinds of weird rumors going around about Palin and her kids. Many people have suggested that her last child, born when Palin was 44 years old and not known to have been pregnant at the time, was actually the child of Palin’s oldest teenage daughter, who had dropped out of school claiming illness for over 6 months leading up to the birth. In addition, that child was born with Down Syndrome, and
some other clown is now posting suggesting that that condition was the result of Sarah Palin’s behavior during the pregnancy. Alan Colmes has suggested Palin could have endangered the fetus by traveling more than 9 hours to a rural Alaskan hospital, rather than go to any of the many larger and closer hospitals, while supposedly in labor. (Note that the two rumors conflict with one another.)
Aside from this being a highly personal issue (and, if the rumor about the teenage mother is true, then apparently something the family does not want to acknowledge), it’s hard to see what legitimate relevance it has. Once, this would have been a career-killing scandal; thankfully, as the result of progressive social activism and the victories for women’s reproductive freedom that Palin herself opposes, there are now many options for forming families, and one’s personal choices in that regard are granted much more respect. Ironically, it is only Palin’s own base that would find anything scandalous in this. But it can certainly be used to create discomfort for the candidate and her family, and, again, among all the irrelevant lightweight issues Palin brings to the campaign, this seems to bear no relation to the question of her fitness for office.
To deliberately pick on an uncomfortable and private issue for the purpose of embarrassing or harassing a candidate is despicable. And to use women’s reproductive choices as weapons against them only involves us in the worst abuses of the right wing. This is absolutely the sort of thing we – decent progressives who support women’s freedom to choose their reproductive pathway – must not be doing. Yet highly-visible blogs like DailyKos and Andrew Sullivan (not a defender of choice, it’s true) are pushing the issue, and others are spreading it with their concern-trolling.**
There is perhaps one argument that makes the issue sound relevant, and that is the question of hypocrisy. The religious right and the GOP are on hair-trigger to judge other people’s lifestyles, family structures, and reproductive choices, so when one of them finds themselves enmeshed in a “non-traditional family” saga, perhaps we are entitled to some schadenfreude? And perhaps we are, but the only decent response is to welcome that family to the community of freedom of choice and freedom from condemnation. Palin, as far as I know, has not been one of the overt persecutors of others in that respect, and does not deserve to be persecuted in return.
Lee Stranahan, of the Huffington Post, offers this odd defense:
The whole story is based on an insulting view of fundamentalist Christians; that they’d be so freaked out by a teenage pregnancy that they’d have the Governor — the most highly visible and public women in the small fishbowl of Alaska — fake a pregnancy to cover up the sins her of daughter Bristol.
Actually, I find that perfectly possible to believe. But it’s just as much none of our business as it is none of theirs. We’ve got to stop making political fodder out of people’s health and reproduction, out of their attempts to just live their lives as best they can by their own lights, without interfering with anyone else. I have little hope that this story – whatever is behind it – will have any such effect on the GOP; in fact I have little hope that it will even encourage Sarah Palin to think that women who make different reproductive choices from hers might deserve the kind of privacy and respect that she wants for herself. But if we’re going to see a future in which people have the freedom and security to live their own lives and make their own choices, we have to let everyone do so, even those who oppose that freedom for others. We can’t let ourselves be the thing we oppose and expect anything good to come of it.
Update: Palin herself has just announced that the rumors her 17-year-old daughter had the baby (Trig) in May are false, because . . . the daughter is pregnant now.
ST. PAUL (Reuters) – The 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant, Palin said on Monday in an announcement intended to knock down rumors by liberal bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child.
That would seem to lay the other rumor to rest. It also explains why the daughter was seen wearing an engagement ring – she’s marrying the father of her expected baby (yes, 17 years old, with a baby and a husband, neither of which she planned for). Palin has requested privacy for her family over that issue, and again it seems to me they ought to have it. This does raise the tantalizing question of how her insane fundie supporters are going to react, but I think we know the answer to that already: they would be screaming and howling at any Democrat who made the same announcement, but nothing matters if you’re a Republican, so it’ll be just fine.
* I’m highly suspicious that any of her supporters actually believe she is qualified for this office, or that they really mean the things they say in claiming so.
** I hope that’s not what I’m doing here, also. That’s not my intent, at least.
[Crossposted from my group political blog, Lean Left.]
Update: Revised description of one of the rumors; my original explanation was wrong.
Michael Gerson, Bush administration tool and terminal sufferer from Conservative Comprehension Disorder, continues his pattern of getting everything exactly backwards in his Washington Post-sponsored campaign of attacks on Barack Obama. The day after April Fool’s Day (he must have missed a deadline), Gerson published another misinformed screed, this one claiming that Obama is an “extremist” on abortion for opposing laws that would have sentenced women to death. As usual with Gerson and the forced-pregnancy crowd generally, almost everything he says is factually false, and a repetition of standard right-wing myths. The column consists of nothing more than Gerson and the Post carrying water for the organized anti-woman crowd by repeating their well-worn talking points verbatim, with no pretense of originality or reportorial integrity. (more…)
“Reproductive Health Reality Check” is running an April Fool’s Day blog carnival against “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that mislead patients seeking abortion with deliberately deceptive tactics and false information. “CPCs” are medical fraud – there is no other description for it. And they are an increasing problem as abortion services are continually targetted and women have fewer real options; currently they outnumber real, full-service reproductive health clinics 2:1.
College women are specifically targeted by these charlatans – sometimes with official support from the colleges themselves. Shockingly, not only does Georgetown University – a Catholic school – refuse to provide any form of contraception or abortion referral through its campus healthcare center or hospital, they apparently have also been blanketing the campus with anti-abortion stickers whose only pregnancy-care referral number is to a CPC, not a real health clinic. (Full disclosure: I have an MA from GU, from the early 90s, and their behavior in this regard was even more reprehensible then.) UNC Chapel Hill students have had to create their own sex-ed programs for fellow students, who mostly come from local high schools with “abstinence only” programs and literally don’t know anything about reproductive health, and then are targeted for lurid propaganda by a CPC located just off campus. Students at other schools have had to do the same.
CPCs are a threat to the larger patient population as well. Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation documents many of the problems they represent, including their deceptive tactics, medical fraud, and the support they receive from the anti-choice right (including over $30 million in taxpayers’ money from the Bush administration, and more from state legislatures). Allyson Kirk reports her experience with a CPC that had deliberately located itself along the entranceway to a real health clinic; after receiving an appointment at the real clinic, she mistakenly entered the wrong door, deliberately made up to look like a pro-choice facility, and was treated as if she was the expected patient, then subjected to invasive questioning and fraudulent misinformation.
This kind of behavior would be criminal in a real health clinic. CPCs present themselves in a deliberately fraudulent manner, impersonating real clinics with trained personnel (almost invariably, nobody at a CPC is a licensed healthcare practitioner) offering appropriate healthcare services, for the deliberate purpose of manipulating patients’ decisions and foreclosing their options; they then defend themselves legally by denying that they are subject to the professional obligations of real healthcare providers. The more this is known, and the more their tactics are exposed, the safer women will be.
I don’t usually write link-only posts, but this is worthwhile and the stories some contributors have to share are appalling. Go take a look.
There is a terrible tension in healthcare – medicine, especially – between the use of expert knowledge to serve and heal those in need, and its use to aggrandize those with the knowledge and to control, mold, dictate to or torture those who fall into their hands. Knowing what can help another can easily be mistaken for “knowing what is best for them”, and historically has been so mistaken throughout the entire history of medicine as a profession. Today, it’s hard to hear the phrase “Doctor knows best” without an ironic smirk – the same smirk we conjure up for the parallel slogans of wrongheaded patriarchal oppression “Father knows best” and “Trust your government”. But it was not long ago that that slogan was the entirely literal creed of the most respected profession in Western society, and the work of challenging that creed and establishing the primacy of patient values and autonomy was lengthy and hard-fought. Its path was marked by the graves – quite literally the graves – of too many martyrs.
The most entrenched redoubt of medical power (though least well-grounded in research and knowledge) was psychiatry. Not only did the head-shrinkers lay claim to the most occult knowledge of human functioning and health, but they stood against a patient population that was inherently and societally almost unable to defend itself. Members of, possibly, the most severely and unsympathetically stigmatized stratum of society, mental patients were given no credence, and often had no recognized legal standing, to assert their own values and choices in treatment. And it is true that in many cases, patients with mental illness could not in fact act for their own interests or competently manage their own treatment and caretaking. But the presumption that no such patient could have a valid opinion about their own care, coupled with the prejudice that they were unfit for “normal” society, and likely dangerous, meant that virtually anything could be done to anyone, if advocated by a doctor armed with a diagnosis of mental illness. The things that were done were in many cases almost unthinkable.
Howard Dully spent over 40 years thinking about what was done to him. It took him a full life of hardship and failure to finally understand his own fate, and to come to terms with it. That anyone could have survived, let alone found peace and stability, after having lived his story, is an amazement in itself.
Dully is the author (with a professional co-writer) of My Lobotomy: A Memoir. The subject of the book is exactly what the title suggests. The story it contains is heartbreaking.
Dully’s life is difficult to summarize, except to say that it was unremittingly harsh almost from birth. Dully was born in California in 1948; his father was a hard and unemotional man who was driven to work excruciating hours, sometimes at as many as 4 or 5 low-skill physical labor jobs at the same time, partly by the need to support his family, partly by his own obsessive work ethic. Howard grew up a big kid (he’s now 6’7″, 350 lbs) who picked on his younger brother; when he was 4 his mother died after giving birth to a baby brother with a severe neurological deformation – the baby was placed with relatives and never spoken of again within the family. Howard and his family bounced around various friends’ and relatives’ homes as his father struggled to earn a living, and Howard suffered constantly both from missing his mother and from the severe discipline he suffered in some of these homes. Things really got bad when his father married again, to a woman with two sons of her own. Dully claims that she simply resented and hated him; from reading both his own stories of his home life, and some of his doctors’ notes, it is easy to believe he is correct. Howard, in the meantime, was legitimately a handful for any parent: he was apparently flightly and unreliable to an extreme degree, was aversive to school work, discipline, and hygiene, and often fought with his brothers, though they had a generally good relationship. As he got older he began doing stupid kid pranks – shoplifting and stealing items from cars, and playing hooky. As a huge and growing boy, he was constantly hungry, but was not allowed to eat between meals and was beaten for taking snacks. His step-mother also had some sort of obsession with her furniture and household trinkets, and would beat Howard for touching anything in the house, sitting on the parlor furniture, or using the front door. His step-mother would beat him for any infraction, and for things that weren’t infractions; later his brothers confirmed that she did indeed beat him for things she did not mind when done by her own sons, and would rave at him for no reason at all. When his father got home, he would get another beating – his father made him choose a piece of firewood to be beaten with, and Howard developed the skill of picking ones that were flexible enough to hurt less but strong enough not to break (which would encourage his father to continue the beating with his bare hand). Between his actual behavioral problems, his pre-adolescent awkwardness, the fact that his step-mother did seem to truly want him dead, and his father’s absence and emotionally and physically violent treatment, Howard seemed doomed to a life of misery no matter what might have happened. What actually did happen is unbelievable.
Howard’s step-mother apparently conceived the idea that she could get rid of Howard if she got the weight of professional opinion on her side. She began visiting a series of psychiatrists to complain about her son’s behavior, but none of them would agree he had to be institutionalized or removed from the home. Several wrote consulting notes to the effect that they were convinced her harsh treatment was the problem and that she should moderate her behavior toward the boy. She moved from doctor to doctor trying to find one that would agree with her. Finally she stumbled onto Dr. Walter Freeman.
Freeman was the pioneer, in the US, of the new treatment of psycho-surgery. He actually coined the word “lobotomy”, and popularized the use of that treatment in this country. He was the first US physician to see the procedure, after it was developed in Europe just before WWII; Freeman brought it back to the States and traveled the country in specially-modified vans or station wagons that he called his “Lobotomobiles”, giving demonstrations of both electro-convulsive therapy (using a machine he built himself; when it broke down, he simply held the bare wires against the patient’s head for as long as he felt was appropriate, with no mechanism for monitoring voltage or current) and lobotomy. According to the Dully, relating reports of academic researchers who studied Freeman’s career, Freeman was a constant self-promoter and showman: he would perform several lobotomies in a day, every day, in front of medical audiences, liked to demonstrate how easy it was by sometimes using ordinary household implements rather than surgical tools, and developed a signature two-handed bilateral technique in which he would insert “leucotomes” (the lobtomy knife) into both lobes of a patient’s brain and then simultaneously jerk them both through the tissue with a flourish. At times, his death rate ranged upward of 20%. Nobody seemed to think this was cause for alarm. Patients were operated on without their own knowledge or consent, and authorization was freely obtained from courts or patient guardians after reassurances from Freeman that the procedure would solve all the patients’ problems. Often, no precise psychiatric diagnosis was attempted before the lobotomy was performed; lobotomies were used for conditions ranging from headaches to schizophrenia. More than a few were performed on minors, even pre-teens; there were questions about such cases, but little organized opposition. Freeman was profiled in popular magazines, and sometimes hailed as a god, delivering sufferers from their misery. There were many detractors in the medical community, but the great benefit of lobotomy was that it often made patients docile enough to live with their families without monitoring, meaning they could be discharged from the large state mental institutions that were commonplace then. This made the procedure wildly popular with the managers of those institutions, whose patients had no effective representation to oppose the treatment plans made for them by others.
After a few years, Freeman heard about, and again pioneered, a variation of the lobotomy procedure called “trans-orbital lobotomy”, often referred to as “ice-pick lobotomy”. In that procedure, a long, sharp, thin instrument was pushed along the eyeball parallel to the nose, and through the back of the eye socket (“orbit”) into the skull, and into the frontal lobe of the brain. The instrument could then be levered back and forth, and up and down, to tear through the frontal lobes and disrupt their neural circuitry. There was no method for visualizing the exact placement of the instrument in the brain, or the location, depth, or extent of the lesions created; the method was simply to stick the metal rod in through the eye socket and wiggle it back and forth to tear the brain tissue randomly. The effect was almost as dramatic as an open-skull lobotomy, but there was no external wound, and it could be performed under mild anaesthesia. The procedure could be done in an ordinary doctor’s office, and took about ten minutes. In many cases, the surgical instrument used was, in fact, an ice pick. (Freeman’s personal lobotomy instrument was labled “Uline Ice Company”.) Patients were sometimes sent home afterward in a taxi cab.
Freeman began popularizing the trans-orbital lobotomy, sometimes performing as many as two dozen procedures a day on patients in mental institutions and hospitals. In some cases, patients were operated on against their consent; after the procedure, they lacked the drive and wherewithal to sue. After some years traveling the country in his Lobotomobile, he finally settled in the South San Francisco Bay Area, near where Howard Dully’s family were living. Eventually, Dully’s step-mother asked to see him.
Freeman met with her a number of times over a period of two months, duly recording her wild stories of Howard’s unmanageable behavior (some of which later turned out to be pure fabrications – such as the story that he had beaten his brain-damaged baby brother almost to death). From the beginning the step-mother openly solicited some kind of dramatic professional intervention. Freeman hesitated at first, insisting he would have to meet the patient and interview the other family members before coming to any conclusion. (What seems incredible is that he began formulating treatment plans with the mother for weeks before ever once meeting Howard.) He interviewed Howard’s father one time; the father gave a much more balanced report of Howard’s behavior, but Freeman didn’t pick up on the clue. He began to meet with Howard himself, and found him reasonably normal though somewhat uncommunicative (who wouldn’t be?). But he kept meeting with Howard’s step-mother, who still filled him with tales of how afraid she was of Howard, how her other sons were afraid of him and were constantly beaten up by him (they deny this), and finally how Howard had beaten up his baby brother in infancy (his entire family denies this – and note that the step-mother was not part of the family at that time). Freeman seems to have accepted everything she said, and viewed Howard’s truancy and other bad behavior through this fictionalized and delusional lens. After four meetings with the step-mother, only one meeting (ever) with Howard’s father, and four visits with Howard himself, Freeman recommended that they should attempt to “change his personality” with a trans-orbital lobotomy. Howard’s step-mother immediately agreed, and took the papers home for his father to sign, which he did without ever speaking to the doctor again. Freeman cautioned the parents not to tell Howard what would happen – only that he would be admitted to the hospital for “tests”. Howard excitedly looked forward to his night in the hospital, because he had heard they gave you Jell-O there. And they did. It was two weeks after his 12th birthday.
Freeman lobotomized Howard the next day. Howard has no memory of any of the events of that day. He contracted a fever and an apparent infection (Freeman was infamous for not sterilizing his instruments before surgery; you can see, in the actual photograph of Howard’s procedure, [see photo at end, below the jump] that he is not wearing gloves), but recovered soon enough.
The rest of his life was a disaster.
I met Robert Rummel-Hudson last night at his New York book party, celebrating the release of Schuyler’s Monster, his memoir of his daughter’s struggle to meet the challenges of having been born with polymicrogyria – a neurodevelopmental disease that prevents her from developing spoken language – and his own struggle to meet the challenges of parenthood and the demands imposed by his daughter’s condition. The book grew out of Rob’s gripping, heart-rending blog, Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords.
Robert has been documenting, step-by-step, the pathway he, his equally-admirable wife Julie, and Schuyler (pr. “SKY-ler”) herself have followed, first coming to terms with Schuyler’s developmental difficulties, then battling the public schools’ broken and indifferent system for educating special-needs children until finally moving to a city (Plano, TX, of all places) that offered what Schuyler needed. At the urging of his growing base of enthralled fans and well-wishers, he turned the blog into a book that hit the market just this week. It has already received considerable word of mouth and small-market press attention even before release; I am convinced it is just about to explode into a real sensation, and deservedly so.
Robert has an ability to communicate the pathos and humor of his family’s situation, and even more strongly Schuyler’s unbelievably spunky and winning personality, and her brilliantly unique triumph over the multiple dirty tricks life has played her. Schuyler is without question the star of his blog (which, he says, she still has not read, nor has she the book, either, though she is fully aware that she is a media queen). It is impossible to read their story without falling in love with Schuyler (and indeed she is regularly showered with largesse by fans, often anonymous, who have visited the family’s Amazon wish-lists). “Schuyler has a posse!”, I told Rob, and he agreed that one of the most satisfying side-effects of blogging about her condition is that she has garnered such a wide-spread support base. That is due to Rob’s ability to make her come alive through his words – though it’s obvious Schuyler is giving him a lot of great material to work with.
In person, Rob comes across just as you’d imagine from his blog: funny, personable, thoughtful, fiercely dedicated to Schuyler and her needs, worried about her future, and laceratingly honest about his own uncertainties and shortcomings (which I think he overestimates). It was great fun meeting him, and I was glad to see the St. Martin’s Press staff just as enthused about the book as were the many fans who turned out to meet the author.
I mention all this simply to add this plug for a book that deserves to be read, and will break your heart and change your viewpoint when you have done so. I can’t communicate the impact of Rob’s blog or the book it gave rise to, but I urge everyone to experience them for themselves.
(1) Go buy this book:
(2) Go read this blog.
You can thank me later.
UPDATE: Fixed an editing mistake.
Chris Muir is the bizarrely unfunny cartoonist behind “Day by Day” – a conservatively-themed Webtoon that is so consistently incomprehensible that it has spawned an entire cottage industry consisting of the reworking of his strips by liberal bloggers on a desperate quest to force them to make some sense. Adding to the through-the-looking-glass fun are Muir’s many signature artistic tics: utterly non-sequitur dialog, references to Muir’s personal political hotbuttons that are so obscure many of the cartoons appear to have no recognizable content, a cast of characters that consists of weirdly-drawn urban hipsters spouting conservative cliches while striking pointless poses, a female cast that consists exclusively of huge-breasted slim-waisted sexpots with low necklines and bare tummies, artistic skills so marginal that his human poses often simply leave out major body parts or appear deformed, and a strange penchant for showing dialog balloons emerging from implausible parts of the speaker’s body. Plenty of nutty goodness there for those who have the time and energy to wade through it, which I rarely do.
This week, however, Muir joined the creepy talking-fetus brigade of conservative ‘toonists. It’s been discussed before, but it’s apparently a growing meme on the right wing – fetal “personhood” taken to such a bizarrely literal extreme that they imagine fetuses as having fully-functional adult personalities, and sometimes adult bodies (and why not? – with all the retrograde scientific claptrap the right wing has latched onto, the homunculus theory is hardly out of place). This can’t be a coincidence. Literalizing the claim of fetal personhood distinctly changes the relationship between, and relative moral standing of, a woman and her fetus, to the detriment (need it be said?) of the woman. That this delusional characterization of pregnancy has become so common and so widespread of late signals another move in the ongoing assault on the effective moral personhood of women. Here is Muir’s contribution to the war:
Classic Muir. The first panel makes no sense. (Emphasizing the word “must” makes the second woman’s response seem like a logical deduction from the first woman’s statement – but it’s non-sequitur. As commentary on the immigration bill issue, it’s equally nonsensical: who is legal? why “must”? what the hell is he talking about?) He hits bottom in the second panel, when the woman’s fetus addresses her directly and declares itself to be an “illegal immigrant” in a voice loud enough to be heard by the woman next to her. This panel’s a three-fer: creepy fetus fetishization, self-contradiction (the fetus appears to be claiming solidarity with illegal aliens, which is against Muir’s own point of view [does he not actually read his own strip?]), plus nutjob rhapsodizing about marriage that is both false and idiotic (there’s nothing illegal about being conceived before your parents were married, as this fetus is said to have been; he’s somehow elevated a right-wing obsession with adult women’s sex lives to the level of a criminal act on the part of the fetus, which is impressive doing even for Muir). The third panel is just dumb. (What has late-night TV got to do with a talking fetus? Is she hallucinating the voice? That would undercut the fetus-fetish message, plus the other woman seems to hear it, too. Is the fetus watching TV? That’s even creepier.) It’s like he feels no responsibility to relate the content of one panel to another, let alone make his weird asides and personal in-jokes make any sense to anyone else.
The bottom line, though, is the talking fetus. No matter how dumb the rest is, talking fetuses are weird, scary, and implicitly misogynistic.
Which means, of course, that it’s time for another Chris Muir cartoon upgrade project. I’ve posted my weak efforts below the cut. Feel free to pile on. (Add your edited cartoon in comments, or just quote the dialog for the balloons.)
Mingle2 – a blog that links a lot of quizzes, surveys, and other online game-type-stuff, offers this nifty service: What’s My Blog Rated? Enter the URL of your blog, journal or other Web site, and it gives you an MPAA-style rating of its content.
I’m delighted to report Sufficient Scruples received the following:
This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
- sex (17x)
- abortion (14x)
- breast (6x)
- death (3x)
- drugs (2x)
- gay (1x)
Ah, yes. The old “dirty words census” protocol. Some anginal panty-sniffer with a clipboard checking off all the naughty words – predictably, mostly related to sex – that send his blood-pressure up gets to determine whether your interests – and your audience’s – are worthy or not. In this case, it’s obviously done with a script, which I guess is not as bad as that “CapAlert” clown crouching in the back of movie theaters obsessing over “the foulest of foul words” and “female body parts ghosting through clothing”. I gather this site is intended ironically, also. But even so, it functions as a kind of childish dirty joke – that is, that there could be such a rating system, and that it could function on a mere count of perfectly ordinary words like “sex”, “abortion”, “breast”, or “death”, and not be nonsensical or unrecognizable as a rating system, is a measure of how immature we still are as a society. We have allowed self-appointed evangelical Beavises & Buttheads to censor our airwaves, Super Bowl Halftime Shows, and now blogs (“It says ‘breast’, huhuhuh!” “NC-17!!!1!”). Mature people don’t let themselves to have their tastes dictated or censored by immature children.
From any reasonable perspective, rating Web sites on how often they use the words “sex” or “gay” makes as much sense as rating them on how often they use bold-face fonts, or adverbs – the idea that ordinary elements of language could be dangerous in themselves is comprehensible only in a world in which the crazies who have made certain elements of language objectionable are taken seriously. That world is long past its freshness date.
Hat Tip:: Echidne of the Snakes, and several others.
Making with the sorely overdue link-love: two months ago, Amanda Marcotte (of Pandagon, and the best thing that ever happened to John Edwards) linked my prior post on right-wing propaganda about Margaret Sanger (as a way of attacking Planned Parenthood). She points out the fact that, in Sanger’s day, PP was actually anti-abortion (largely for reasons of the relative safety of the procedure, much lower then than now), and that the wingers seem to have no conception of the irony of their slanders.
The article generated a fascinating discussion thread, however (with minimal, but nonzero, trollage) – one that I only stumbled across today by following a visitor link (thanks!). I’m sorry to be so late on this but I encourage everyone to run over there; the discussion is interesting and, collectively, it includes a fascinating list of resources on the history of abortion, abortion and race, and sexual autonomy as seen from a variety of times and places, and presented in a variety of media (the rock-opera version of a 19th-century German play about the link between lack of sex ed and unplanned pregnancy sounds . . . wild – and I had no idea there was a whole list of early silent movies on the same topic!). Now I’ve got a lot more reading to do! So do you.
Not sure what to say about this:
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