Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
On a whim, I stumbled into the new Mad Max installment – Fury Road – on what happened to be its opening night. I just wanted diversion, and got it in spades. The film is an utterly unapologetic festival of vehicles and violence, spending virtually no time on backstory, plot, character development, or even plausibility; it is essentially a two-hour running gun battle/car chase shot for spectacle and speed, and with almost no breaks in the action. If you don’t know the story of the previous three “Mad Max” films you might not even understand why any of it is happening, though that won’t detract from your ability to enjoy (or, be assaulted by) its impact – it has that little content, and that much power.
The film has already generated a lot of commentary, and I don’t have much to say about it as a movie as such, or as an episode of the Mad Max franchise. One focus of the attention, however, is the role played by Charlize Theron’s character, “Furiosa”. As the title implies, Fury Road is very much Furiosa’s movie – she leads the hero contingent on their mad chase for life across the desert, twice (this movie is so epic, even the Namib desert isn’t big enough to contain it – at one point they turn around and fight their way back through the same horde of mechanized thugs they had just fought to get away from, and the movie ends exactly where it began). She fights a hostile Mad Max to a draw and later saves him from death, drives the biggest “war rig” in the entire fleet of insane weaponized cars, and shoots, stabs, punches, and runs down the army of barely-human male psychotics who are chasing her, by the dozens. All this is embodied by a small and famously beautiful woman made up in this film with a shaved head, amputated arm stump, branding scars, and motor-oil war paint. There is never a moment in the film when she wants a man, and barely a moment when she trusts or relies on one, even after Max throws in his lot with her and later rescues her from bleeding to death; their final moment of triumph is a bare nod of recognition as they turn away from each other and pursue their separate destinies, her as savior and leader of her people, him as damaged and haunted loner.
Unsurprisingly, Theron’s character – a strong, self-reliant, and effective woman who stands up to vile and vicious men, in the company of other self-regarding and assertive women – is driving misogynist right-wingers absolutely nuts. There is even an organized boycott of the movie by “men’s rights activists” who are terrified that it will be popular and thus encourage more action films featuring “some damn political lecture or moray [sic] about feminism, SJW-ing, and socialism”. (NB: it’s very hard to find any hint of socialism in Mad Max, especially inasmuch as it centers on a society where there is essentially no government or economy at all. But that’s no different from almost everything right-wingers call “socialist” these days.) Even more notoriously, Eve Ensler, the feminist author and activist, was consulted for some of the female characterization in the film – another point the “men’s rights” community finds so crazy-making they just can’t stand it. (Feminists? Having input into Mad Max?)
There are in fact feminist themes that run through the movie, somewhat more complexly than much of the commentary (superficially focused on Theron as a “strong woman”) has noticed. Though that is not all there is to be said about the movie, it is that I wanted to comment on here.
[SPOILER WARNING: SOME PLOT SPOILERS BELOW THE JUMP, NOT THAT THERE’S REALLY MUCH OF A PLOT]
Once you get on a Scarlett Johansson kick, it’s hard to let go. Real, real hard.
Having just done a review of the godawfully dumb but Scarlett-Johansson-containing Lucy, I can’t overlook the impressively self-contained, intriguing, and record-breakingly-spectacularly Scarlett-Johansson-containing Under the Skin. This I liked. Oh, yes.
Under the Skin is a mesmerisingly slow, subtle, Nouvelle Vague-ish sci-fi film that only clearly identifies itself as such in the last few seconds. We know we’re watching something very strange; things are happening to people that can’t be explained, that shouldn’t be possible. But the explanation – fantasy?, horror? some sort of weird allegory? – doesn’t settle into anything understandable until the end. The viewer is left continually puzzled and unfulfilled until all the previous scenes suddenly come crashing together into a comprehensible narrative, all the dangling clauses closing, all the ambiguous scenes collapsing into a particular interpretation that makes it out to be sci-fi of a not-unfamiliar type, but assembled with such lapidary grace and knife-edge balance that its message, when it reveals itself, hits that much harder and more engagingly.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers After the Jump]
Normally, I’m up for a good Devil’s-advocate following-your-principles-off-the-cliff screed as much as anyone. But it’s hard to figure out what triggered John Sutter of CNN to become so overwrought on the subject of eating dogs as food that he devoted an editorial to it and managed to wind up on both sides of the issue. Yes, as he notes, it’s traditional practice, and apparently big business, in some Asian countries, but it’s not much of an issue in the English-speaking world and he seems to be uniquely exercised about it. He both condemns the practice as barbaric and also suggests it is as justifiable as eating other animals (which he does not explicitly condemn), then concludes weakly that “it’s the [question] all of us should further examine”. Thus, it remains puzzling exactly how he feels or what he wants us to do about it.
No doubt most readers are familiar with the old urban legend about how humans “only use 10% of our brains”. It’s embarrassingly dumb (the most vital organ in the body – and the one responsible for the extraordinarily high rate of death in childbirth, due to its large size, evolved to be 10x larger than it actually needs to be?; and how do we determine just what percentage is being used?), but it persists. (I once attended a lecture in which the speaker seriously insisted that “Albert Einstein used 20% of his brain.”) It returned last week in the form of Lucy, an undisciplined sci-fi action thriller directed by Luc Besson, starring Scarlett Johansson as an ordinary human who is fortuitously accelerated to using larger and larger percentages of her brain until she transcends reality itself.*
In a kind of manic defiance of science-fiction convention, Besson makes no attempt to make the basic factual premise of his movie even sound like it could be true, and fills much of the plot development with shootouts and a truly inspired extended car chase/crash scene. But he is so wedded to the notional groundwork of the film that he includes a numerical readout of the percentage of brain use Johansson achieves at each point in the plot, repeated House-style digital animations of synapses and molecules in action, and an honest-to-god full-length formal lecture from a scientist, complete with slides and a Q&A session. The result is a mess, with unnecessarily pretentious overtones, but still kind of fun.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers Below the Jump]
An interesting, and healthy, discussion has sprung up just recently over the historical view of Richard Feynman, iconic 20th-Century physicist and “character” whose physics were impeccable but whose character was questionable, at the very least.
It is accepted that Feynman was one of the seminal figures of mid-century quantum physics. His influence extends even further due to the impact of his revolutionary physics textbook (Lectures in Physics), and to a large degree his outsize personal reputation, stemming from his iconoclastic personality, his interesting experiences (including roles on the Manhattan Project and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster investigation), and the scores of “Feynman Stories” about his quirks and escapades, most of them devised and promoted by Feynman himself, orally and in his amusing books of memoirs. He cultivated idiosyncratic habits – such as playing bongos in the desert during the Manhattan Project, and grading college physics tests while sitting in a booth at a local strip club – which added to his reputation as a free spirit. He was also a renowned science educator, admired for his ability to convey complex ideas both to science students and the general public. There is an unmistakable “cult of Feynman”; professional physicists trace their own pedigrees to their contact with him as colleagues, students, or just casual acquaintances, and he commands stature in the public eye approaching that of rare science celebrities such as Einstein or Stephen Hawking. (A high-school friend of mine was an undergraduate at CalTech, where he took Feynman’s “Physics X” informal discussion seminar; he came back after his first semester swearing that Feynman should be President.)
It is also clear that Feynman was manipulative and abusive in his personal relations, most notably with women, and that he embraced behavior of that kind as part of his personal ethos. His own memoirs describe in detail his systematic approach to manipulating women into having sex with him, by adopting PUA-style techniques of verbal abuse he acquired from a “master” who taught him that the secret to getting sex was to “disrespect” women. Divorce papers filed by his second wife report angry verbal abuse and episodes of violence. Biographers have recorded his multiple affairs with the wives of colleagues and students, and his occasionally pretending to be an undergraduate in order to get young students to sleep with him. During his lifetime, Feynman was subject to complaints of his sexist treatment of women, including in language used in example problems in his physics lectures and textbook, which made women out to look bad as part of the problem; he was dismissive of these complaints. (He recounts one episode of protests at a public lecture, to which he responded by announcing “I would like to talk about something that will be especially interesting to the women in the audience: I would like to talk about the structure of the proton”. He seemed to think this was very clever, but gives no sense that he even understood why there was a protest.)
Feynman’s biographers, and more recent defenders, have generally regarded this behavior as a minor, negligible facet of his complicated personality – possibly a product of the death of his first wife at a very young age, and at least as being typical of behavior and attitudes of Feynman’s generation, and thus less interesting than his unique quirks and scientific achievements. His stature as an historical figure is high, due to his undoubted scientific pre-eminence and the cult of personality he created for himself; his sexism somehow rarely figures into that evaluation. The general opinion seems to be that he was a great man because he was a great scientist and an interesting or remarkable man, while the sexism and abusiveness somehow stands apart as a peripheral issue. (To be fair, even his detractors admit that Feynman seemed to accept women as scientific colleagues, and in some cases – notably that of his own sister, the astrophysicist Joan Feynman – to promote their careers. But even his defenders admit that he could treat those same women in sexist ways at the personal level.*)
In the last couple of weeks, there has been a spate of blog posts commenting on Feynman’s character and offering a reassessment (downward) of his stature by way of foregrounding his sexism and abusiveness, treating them as central elements in understanding him as a whole person. Maggie Koerth-Baker seems to have kicked it off at Boing-Boing, with incisive comments on why Feynman’s attitudes toward women were so problematic. Matthew Francis, of Galileo’s Pendulum, picks it up, detailing Feynman’s bad behavior at greater length and offering an important summary conclusion:
People can become greater than they are by contributing great things to the world, but it’s important to remember that the human being behind those accomplishments isn’t a god in human form. Don’t worship — understand. Don’t erase the bad acts — remember them in hopes of overcoming them in the future. Only by understanding our scientific giants as full human beings can we do them justice, and hopefully create a more just scientific culture in the future.
Mathematigal speaks eloquently about how the acceptance of sexist behavior by prominent scientists, and the glorification of those scientists for their technical work alone, as if the harm they did to others just wasn’t a factor, creates a continually oppressive and demeaning context for women in science in general, in addition to the particular victims of those men.
It’s important to have these voices challenging the Feynman cult, and the phenomenon of prominent-male-abuser cults in general. These perspectives are a useful corrective to the perception of Feynman, and a warning regarding our understanding of others. But this conversation has also generated reflections on how we are to understand important historical figures, particularly ones renowned for highly particularized achievements in narrow fields, in light of their overall lives and personalities. Janet Stemwedel offers an interesting perspective:
There is a tendency sometimes to treat human beings as if they were resultant vectors arrived at by adding lots and lots of particular vectors together, an urge to try to work out whether someone’s overall contribution to their field (or to the world) was a net positive. . . .
One take-home message of all this is that making positive contributions to science doesn’t magically cancel out harmful things you may do — including things that may have the effect of harming other scientists or the cooperative knowledge-building effort in which they’re engaged. If you’re a living scientist, this means you should endeavor not to do harm, regardless of what kinds of positive contributions you’ve amassed so far.
Another take-home message here is that it is dangerous to rest your scientific outreach efforts on scientific heroes. . . .
You may be intending to convey the message that this was an interesting guy who made some important contributions to science, but the message that people may take away is that great scientific achievement totally outweighs sexism, racism, and other petty problems.
But people aren’t actually resultant vectors. If you’re a target of the racism, sexism, and other petty problems, you may not feel like they should be overlooked or forgiven on the strength of the scientific achievement.
The notion of “resultant vector” (a concept from physics that expresses the final, net result of multiple different forces acting from different directions) is evocative. It captures the idea that somebody should be considered a good person “overall” if the good parts of their work, or behavior, are more significant or somehow greater in magnitude than the bad things they did – thus the net additive result is positive rather than negative. For Stemwedel, this basic method of evaluation is flawed (“making positive contributions to science doesn’t magically cancel out harmful things you may do”; “people aren’t actually resultant vectors”). And she is right in this – there are other ways of evaluating people than simple addition of simplistic quantified evaluations of good and bad acts. Sometimes, we judge people solely by their worst act, without even considering the good ones – criminals are punished, sometimes executed, for single acts that may be aberrational in the context of a long life of good works. Sometimes we even judge people negatively for acts that are net positive “resultant vectors,” for instance illegal mercy killings. And all this leaving aside the obvious huge problem in deciding how to quantify good and bad “vectors”. (The “resultant vector” technique essentially just rationalizes a pre-determined conclusion. You have to decide beforehand what acts are good or bad, and to what degree, before you can measure and add the “vectors” in a person’s life. By this technique, Feynman is a net positive vector – pointed in the direction of science – only because his admirers have already decided being a sexist abuser isn’t as important as being a Nobel Prize winner.)
But these observations don’t tell us how we actually should go about evaluating a life. Stemwedel is right that good works don’t “cancel out” bad ones, but she doesn’t say exactly how they should both be weighed together (other than not as “resultant vectors”). And her emphasis is not on moral evaluation as such, but the practical questions of how best to do science effectively, and promote it to the public. Other than agreeing that the “resultant vector” schema doesn’t work, we still don’t have a way of arriving at a final conclusion about how to understand people and their roles as prominent figures. In the case of Feynman, the commentators above mostly default to “as a” analysis: “as a” physicist, Feynman was outstanding, but “as a” human being in relation to fellow human beings, he was flawed; it is up to each person to decide which matters most to them.
What both the “as a” analysis and the “resultant vector” calculation have in common is the expectation that there will be some determining value that gives us a singular and final answer regarding a person’s worth or stature as a human being. In vector analysis, all impinging factors contribute to a final value that has components along different dimensions, but a single outcome. In “as a” analysis, we similarly evaluate the various contributing facets and then declare one of them to be more important than the others.
I think instead that we should give up the attractive but unlikely expectation that people can be evaluated in an overall sense. This is essentially Stemwedel’s point in rejecting “vector” analysis, but it is true for any other similarly unitary analytical algorithm. Saying that a criminal’s one bad act must be punished in spite of all their good ones does not mean that their life story consists only of that one act, or their humanity consists only of its badness. Saying that someone is a good scientist but a bad person, or, more subtly, a good scientist and a good person with some bad traits, does not mean we have to arrive at a final conclusion as to whether we approve of them overall, or whether they are “really” a “hero”.
We can extend the idea of the “as a” analysis to accept that people can exhibit different degrees of excellence in different areas of their lives. They can be good “as a” scientist and bad “as a” man in relation to women, without implying that they are anything in particular overall. I think we have to come to terms with the fact that most people are admirable, or not, to one degree or another in different areas of their lives. The problem is not that it doesn’t make sense to say that people are good or bad in different ways – the problem is that we often insist on understanding them in just one way, that we insist on naming people heroes or bums and thus force ourselves to squeeze them into those totalizing categories.
This not only violates common sense in the obvious way, but it ignores the interplay between the different aspects of people’s lives. It’s not coincidental that people are good in one way and bad in another; both aspects of their lives inform and interpenetrate one another, and evaluating one aspect in isolation both ignores its connection to other aspects and implicitly carries that evaluation over to all those other aspects. This is explicit in a controversial blog post by :
While not an excuse, several of [Feyman’s] 1950s adventures were probably related to the deep pain and insecurity caused by the death of his first wife Arlene; by almost any account the two shared a very deep and special bond. It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Feynman was doing some of his most intense work on quantum electrodynamics, and at least a few of the situations he narrates were part of him letting off steam.
Here, he states in so many words that Feynman’s personal challenges in one area (his wife’s death) excuse his bad behavior in a related area (his mistreatment of other women), and also that that bad behavior in some way made his scientific productivity possible. A better analysis would be that these different experiences and character traits are related – not offsetting and not independent, but simultaneously detectible within one another – and that this requires an understanding of the person, overall and in each of his different roles that is at least as nuanced and complicated as the personality it focuses on.
Feynman liked to imply that his quirky traits – bongo drumming, lock-picking, and so forth – were part of the unique character that made his scientific breakthroughs possible. He liked to tell the story of the time he directed distinguished foreign scientists at a sold-out conference hotel to rooms at a small hotel on the other side of town – without telling them it was a brothel; he clearly regarded the worldliness and sexual adventurism that led him to rent a room in a whorehouse as part of the “out of the box thinking” that made him a great scientist. And it’s not impossible that that is true. His willingness to be an iconoclast in overturning standard ways of thinking in science was clearly related to his independence and trouble-making in filing his famous dissenting Appendix to the Challenger committee report, which in turn was likely related to his willingness to flout convention by eschewing being a “gentleman” in order to badger women into having sex with him. But if it’s true that a lack of inhibition or other character traits are caught up in both his admirable scientific work and his less-admirable personal behavior, then it’s not true that we can separate out the two in evaluating him as a person. Rather than saying that he was a great scientist who just happened to be abusive toward women, we have to say that he was a person who was contemptuous of accepted standards of respect and deference – both in his treatment of women in bars and toward the reputation and works of fellow scientists. (Feynman also told the story of how he became a confidant of Hans Bethe at Los Alamos because he was the only one there brash enough to challenge Bethe in scientific discussions. This sounds like it reflects very well on both men’s characters: Feynman able to earn the respect of the more distinguished scientist through his intellectual power, and Bethe willing to submit himself to scrutiny from someone younger and less accomplished. But it is possible to see in his willingness to tell the great Bethe “You’re crazy!” the same willingness to “disrespect” women.)
We wind up with an extended view of one person across multiple roles and environments, in which their unique traits turn up for good or for bad in different ways. In Feynman’s case, his playfulness created openness to new experiences that likely informed his scientific thinking, but it also led him to indulge himself by creating pointless security breaches at Los Alamos just for fun, and to revel in playing mean-spirited practical jokes on the servers at a coffee shop. His contempt for social convention gave him a low tolerance for pretentious bullshit, but also led him to act contemptuously toward people he felt weren’t smart enough (on one occasion continually interrupting a visiting lecturer at CalTech to the point that he described Feynman as “the ‘village idiot'”). His extraordinary focus and mental stamina contributed to his scientific productivity, but also triggered violent outbursts at his wife for demanding personal attention when he was absorbed in thinking about math. Lauding any of these behaviors or accomplishments inevitably evokes other episodes arising from the same same traits: saying he was a great scientist because he devoted himself solely to mental exercise requires us to say he was a bad husband for the same reason; saying he was bold and creative in challenging colleagues’ thinking to their faces requires acknowledging that he was disruptive and cruel in having affairs with their wives behind their backs. For Feynman in particular, whose reputation stems at least as much from being “a curious character” as it does from being a productive scientist, treating the science that was made possible by his unique mindset as wholly separate from the anti-social behavior that was also thereby enabled is not just narrow but false.
Rather than summing people up as impossible and falsely-precise “resultant vectors,” and rather than choosing narrow stances through which to view them “as a” particular type of person with their other facets left to the side, we have to acknowledge that every person is made up of competing and complementary impulses that arise in various combinations in different circumstances (and which also change over time). This makes the idea of moral or intellectual “heroes” problematic, because that evaluation is almost always based on a narrow view of just one part of their personality or their work. Instead of this “as a” reduction, we need to adopt a “plus a” agglomerative view of human complexity seen in multi-point perspective: an insightful scientific vision “plus a” cheekily iconoclastic non-conformism “plus a” playful sense of humor “plus a” mean-spirited insensitivity to others’ feelings “plus a” misogynistic and old-fashioned view of women “plus a” self-indulgent willingness to emotionally abuse women for sex “plus a” fair and egalitarian willingness to accept all competent people at face value “plus a” . . . . The better we hope to understand people, the more “plusses” we have to add to that understanding and the larger and more complicated, more multi-faceted, our picture of them has to be.
The advantage to this is that it allows us to see people as admirable and disappointing at the same time, as most people surely are, in different ways, without requiring us to artificially inflate one aspect of their lives, or ignore other aspects. And this gives us a chance to arrive at a fairer and more accurate assessment of almost everyone, including other historical figures who bedevil us with their contradictory personas: Galileo (Feynman-like in his genius and petty-minded self-aggrandizing); Thomas Jefferson (architect of freedom and slave owner); Herbert von Karajan (exponent of artistic majesty and ardent Nazi), and so on. It is no contradiction that their genius or heroism was combined with less-savory traits; we simply have to acknowledge that each of us, not least the greatest among us, is complex and flawed and must be understood as such to be understood at all.
* This story, by Danny Hillis, about hiring Feynman as a consultant at the Thinking Machines Corporation, has always seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate Feynman’s dichotomous treatment of women, and his admirers’ ability to casually acknowledge, and simultaneously overlook, it: “The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest ‘girl’ and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. ‘Yes, it really annoys me,’ she said. ‘On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.’ That was the essence of Richard’s charm.”
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless sister
So my beloved sister has apparently been stalking me online. The other day she told me that she had been showing my blogs to her girlfriends, “and we laugh a little”.
So it’s come to this . . .
January 22: the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and a perennial high point in the continuing relentless fight for women’s rights. This year is the 40th anniversary of the decision that gave women their own bodies back, and it comes at a time when the autonomy conferred by that court decision, the simple fact of self-governance that ought not to require any ratification or authorization in the first place, is more embattled than it has been at any time since.
There’s much to say about this ugly time, the vicious, bitterly vicious, unrelenting backlash that since the Bush years has been ever more shameless in its naked hatred for women’s independence and, still worse, their sexuality. The truly fascist and deeply dishonest legislative assaults that have erupted in so many states over the past two years are as shocking as they are disheartening. And the creepy and untiring campaign to undermine, by every devious and indirect means, women’s access not only to abortion services, but contraception and all reproductive healthcare, including even breast cancer screenings, is both revelatory and repulsive.
But aside from the infuriating and burdensome details of this multi-front war on women and their bodies, what particularly strikes me is the pervasive bad faith that drives it. Abortion rights have always been threatened by attempts to undermine the laws which make it possible for women to exercise their inherent rights to control their own bodies and lives. But the new face of the war against them is not one of wrong-headed but above-board legislative controversy. It is a persistent and thoroughgoing attempt to turn the law itself against the majority of the citizens it governs – to use the law to make it impossible for law-abiding citizens to exercise the rights guaranteed them by that law.
Bans on funding for non-abortion related services, bans on the provision of factual information about abortion by healthcare providers to their own patients, prohibitions on the provision of abortion and reproductive health services through government programs relied on by women who have no other source of care, disingenuous regulations intended to make it impossible for women’s clinics to function for reasons unrelated to the quality of their services, and so many other restrictive and intrusive regulations, all are uses of the democratic process to make it a practical impossibility for women to exercise their own rights. And all of these are thoroughly and deliberately dishonest: they block factual information, and in some cases even stipulate falsehoods, to women seeking to make an informed choice about their own healthcare; they erect barriers and regulations addressing questions of funding, safety, or other ordinarily-reasonable aspects of healthcare provision for reasons entirely unrelated to their ostensible purposes and with the deliberate intention of making service to patients impossible; they malignantly distort the bedrock principle of medical ethics – informed consent – to harass, intimidate, and manipulate women seeking to make a free and informed choice about their own care, and drive them to a choice dictated by political and religious ideologues motivated by a deep-seated and gnawing hostility to those women themselves.
The enemies of women, having seen that orderly debate, under the framework of rights guaranteed by law, was not their friend in their war to take women’s lives into their own hands against those women’s wills, have adopted falsehood and bad faith as their weapons of choice. Nothing is now what it seems in this fight: informed consent is deception and manipulation; safety regulations are intended to prevent safe access to the services sought (and consequently drive women to seek unsafe alternatives, the rate of which is rising in the United States for the first time in decades); funds for services unrelated to abortion are banned out of nothing more than a virulent hostility to the organizations that provide the funded services because they also support women’s rights to abortion.
So much is at stake in the war against women. But the perversion of this war into a distortion of democracy itself, and the twisting of the law to undermine the law in the lives of one specific, hated, targeted sub-group of the population (the majority of that population, no less, but ever a despised and insecure majority) has broadened its scope, even beyond the lives, dreams, and freedom of more than half the country’s citizens. It has allowed a rabid and unhinged minority of religious berserkers, and the politicians they hold captive, to turn the nation against its own citizens.
It is said “when one is not free, none are free,” but that is truer than ever in the latest total-war assault on women by the religious right. They have adopted scorched-earth tactics against civilization itself – against the law that guarantees the freedom to live under the law, using the law’s defenses as weapons against those whom they defend. No nation can claim to be civilized which terrorizes and enslaves its female population. But the right wing has abandoned civilization even in form, not merely in substance, willingly gutting law itself when its guarantees of freedom thwarted their plans for domination.
What other rights remain, when the right to exercise one’s rights is denied?
Thomas Szasz, MD, has died at the age of 92.
Szasz made a career as the gadfly of psychiatry, excoriating its role as enforcer of political and social orthodoxy and questioning mental illness as a category of disease. He was driven by both a lacerating exactitude of mind regarding the theories of disease and healthcare, and by the libertarian political ideology which caused him to see all forms of behavior modification as an encroachment on freedom. By tireless effort he established a solid, but not popular, beachhead position against mainstream psychiatry and its role in the legal/medical complex.
I was not a close student of Szasz, but, though I did not admire his politics, I greatly admired his insistence on clear thinking and on holding medicine accountable for what it does to people. His death is a loss to a profession that needed his intelligence and keen critical eye.
A short overview of his career and ideology can be found here; a more detailed, and fascinating, report of Szasz’s early experiences in psychiatry and the development of his ideology is here. My own review of one of his books can be found here.
So apparently there’s a new trend in spamming: paying wage-slaves who, apparently, couldn’t find a job gold farming in WoW to cruise blogs and hand-type vaguely relevant but meaningless comments with embedded links to spam client sites. The comments are coherent enough that they evade spam filters like Akismet, and the workers are cheap enough that this, apparently, is a profitable form of parasitism.
I’ve just deleted a couple of dozen comment spams of this type, and presumably the problem will only get worse. At some point I may have to implement Captcha or another form of verification. Sorry for the inconvenience, but sleaze rises to the top, and never slows down.
You’d think one of the most high-profile women’s health organizations in the country would steer clear of misogynist religious-right campaigns to curtail woman-centered healthcare. You’d be wrong.
I’ve been hesitant to say anything about the Hugo Schwyzer situation. It’s so contentious, so continually-on-the-boil, and so tedious. It also brings up a lot of difficult issues regarding the place of allies in liberation movements, and white men particularly, that I feel I need to come to better terms with before commenting. But I find my reactions to it call into question my own understanding of myself as a male feminist, and what I expect or perceive of my place – such as it is – in that movement, and that creates an entirely different can of worms for me.
Here’s a really great snippet from “An Examined Life” (which see). Renowned philosopher Judith Butler takes a walk with Sunaura Taylor, talking about the reality of disability and the ways physical impairment is perceived, and disability realized, by society. (One thing that was revelatory for me: Taylor refers to the city of San Francisco as “the most accessible place in the world”. I grew up near San Francisco and, while it’s an incredibly wonderful place, I’ve always regarded it as challenging; the hills and traffic, and narrow sidewalks, would have made me guess it would be one of the most difficult places to use a wheelchair. But Taylor notes that it has extensive curb cuts, good wheelchair-accessible public transportation, and a community that recognizes disability and welcomes people with impairments. This is telling testimony to the overriding importance of social context, rather than actual physical environment, to the reality of disability.)
This video is great in so many ways: Taylor’s discussion of the ways society makes her life with an impairment harder or easier; her description of the psychological burden in going into a coffee shop and ordering coffee, and then having to deal with the difficulties of either trying to carry it herself or asking for help – “it’s a political protest for me to go in”; the simple and lovely depiction of two affectionate people being out together, while not pretending the issue of disability doesn’t affect them; the segment in which they go into a used-clothing store (which charges by the pound! – I love San Francisco!) and buy Taylor a warm sweater, which is both a perfectly simple and normal act, and complicated by the ways impairment affects her ability to try it on and the process of payment – ending with the store clerk’s matter-of-factly accommodating reaction. Taylor works in a useful bit of disability-theory: the distinction between “impairment” (physical limitations) and “disability” (difficulties in living caused by social context or discrimination), and the video underscores that point again and again as Taylor goes about her day and talks about how disability affects her. (I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that she has “what the medical world has labeled as arthrogryphosis”. I’m very much sympathetic to the notion of individualized definitions of disease and health, but I don’t think that means there’s no such thing as a diagnosible condition. I see no reason to say that she doesn’t really have arthrogryphosis if she meets the diagnostic criteria for it – as, by her own description, she seems to do. Pointedly repudiating her own use of that name, as she does in the video, doesn’t seem to me to gain anything; whether she wants to call it a “disease” is another matter.) There are also brilliant moments of reflection on the nature of embodiment and what it means to live an embodied life in a social context.
Just a beautiful, sweet film with surprisingly profound content, visually and verbally. I can’t wait to see the rest of this series.
Taylor: When do you still count as a human?
Butler: My sense is that what’s at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency.
. . .
Butler: [When] you ask for the coffee, or indeed even ask for some assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question “Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs?”
Jill Filipovic, at Feministe, has a great post up on objectification of women within liberal activist circles. It was prompted by the much-commented assholery of one Steven Greenstreet, who took video footage of female demonstrators at OWS protests and put it up on Tumblr, out of context and with no purpose other than inviting leering at the “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street”.
Jill righteously calls him out for it (as did many others):
The deflecting from legitimate concerns, and the fact that the OWS “public” includes a lot of men who think it’s ok to treat women at a protest like we’re there for their visual fulfillment, troubles me. No one is saying, “Don’t find women attractive.” . . . No one is objecting to the fact that straight men are attracted to some women (fun fact: straight women are also attracted to some men! So really, no one is pissed about attraction, I promise). What people are pissed about is what Rebecca Traister says:
“The larger, simpler argument, outside of consent or permission, is: This video is sexist. It’s an example of women participating in public life — political, professional, social — and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification. That’s what happened here, nothing more, nothing less.” . . .
Emphasis mine. . . . [C]reating a blog and a video dedicated to showing women at a protest with the sole purpose of reminding dudes that women at the protest are hot? That does reduce women to objects of male attention. It’s another reminder, for women, that how seriously we’re taken and how valuable we are depends on how sexually attractive we’re deemed.
Read the whole thing; she’s got good things to say. But the part that really triggered something for me was this:
Frankly, the kinds of dudes who would come to the OWS protests because they heard there are hot chicks there? Are not the kinds of dudes I want to be protesting with. I would hope they’re not the kinds of dudes that most progressives would want to be protesting with — but judging by the lefty-dude reaction to Steven Greenstreet (hi Matt Zoller Seitz, looking at you!), that’s not the case. It’s disappointing.
To say the least. And far too common, from way back. It’s no secret that supposedly “progressive” groups have always been rife with sexism and sexual pressuring, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Progressives have never been immune to human failings, including stereotyping and bigotry of the kind that they supposedly abhor but sometimes don’t recognize in themselves; the long fight for acceptance in progressive movements of gays and transexuals is one case in point, and the difficulty many white (and especially male heterosexual) liberals have in recognizing and acknowledging their own privilege is another. But the LGBTQ community, people of color, and other marginalized groups, though still embattled, have by now to a considerable degree been granted by progressives the one thing many persist in denying to women: recognition of the fact that they have real interests, problems, and worth that must be taken seriously. The situation is far from perfect, and not everybody agrees on how the tensions between different progressive constituencies should be resolved, but in most cases they are acknowledged, and the human pain and human interests that lie at their heart are given due deference. Except in the case of women.
To be sure, progressives are not right-wingers. They don’t overtly hate women. They don’t gleefully consign them to death by deliberate neglect at the hands of sniffy sex-negative religious bigots. They don’t dishonestly and cynically strain moral concepts – often ones introduced and championed by progressives – such as “informed consent” to create barriers to the very autonomy they are intended to protect. They don’t penalize the fact of women’s having sexual natures – just the opposite! But in too many cases they don’t grant them the respect and freedom needed to act on their own natures and seek their own good. Just as with conservatives, women exist for far too many progressive men for the purpose of their gratification – an impersonal usage that erases those women as persons themselves.
Which leads me, finally, to the question that came up for me on surveying this latest stupid and distasteful incident: how, exactly, are these dipshit “progressive” men progressives? What goes through their heads, what process takes place in their heads, such that they wind up thinking things like “let’s go to the OWS protest and photograph women’s breasts!”? How, when they are called out for that, do they expend so much energy defending their childishness and sexism? Why do they not care about offending or humiliating their supposed fellow activists – about derailing or undermining the movement they claim to support – about embarrassing that movement by acting in a regressive manner and then elevating their own bad behavior into the limelight? More particularly, what is it that allows progressives to empathize with everyone but women, even women in their own movement? What allows them to hear everyone else’s protests at mistreatment, and dismiss those of women out of hand?
In a way, I suppose it has something in common with the denial and self-absorption that allowed Southern slave-holders to rationalize their own crimes. Patriarchy is its own form of slavery, more complex and less overt, but very real, and it is very hard to acknowledge you are doing wrong when your entire lifestyle, all its comforts and conveniences and pleasures, derives so much from others’ service to your needs. It is easy to protest obvious wrongs that don’t require you to change your own life to amend. But progressive men, in many cases, are no better than the privileged classes of the Confederacy, of apartheid South Africa, of Wall Street itself, at admitting that their own satisfaction depends on bending others to their desires, against their will and at the denial of their basic human personhood.
You can’t be progressive just for causes you aren’t invested in, at the expense of people you don’t like. Being progressive means wanting to live in a better world – not just wanting to take down the most guilty in this one and then carry on regardless. Being progressive means checking your privilege, living the dream you envision, being part of the solution – all slogans that have at their heart the basic truth that you have to be as critical of yourself as you are of others, or more so, since you can only really change yourself.
You aren’t a progressive if you mistreat women. You aren’t a progressive if you think progressivism is defined as rallies, protests, and events, rather than a mindset that is grounded on a world in which people are treated with respect, by everyone, starting with yourself. You aren’t a progressive if you go to events but don’t treat the people there with regard. You aren’t a progressive if you revel in your own privileges at the expense of the pain and diminishment of others, then feel hurt because you’ve decided that whatever superficial support you feel for “the cause” entitles you to use others for your pleasure and then resent it when they object.
If you’re not a progressive for any of these reasons, you’re little better than a reactionary even if you vote the right way. You’re pro-choice? Great. You don’t think being pro-choice encompasses the choice to control, and present, your own sexuality on your own terms? You’re not a progressive, and you’re a pain and an embarrassment to those who sincerely try to be.
There’s a great post up at Skepchick, discussing a supposed regimen for “natural” transexual procedures for female-to-male transitioning. Debbie Goddard (@DebGod) responded to a question from a writer who was approaching the FTM transition but was uncertain about surgery and hormone therapy, and had heard about a program of exercise and “natural” supplements similar to that used by “natural bodybuilders”. DebGod’s response and the discussion that ensued fascinated me. I encourage people to read it; then I’ll have some comments to make.
What got me onto this is that there’s just so much cool stuff in this post and the comments thread. I don’t have anything to say about the basic question of natural transitioning, but I want to point out several things that come up in the discussion.
First, it’s interesting that this post arose on a skeptic (i.e., atheist, anti-paranormal) site in the first place. Transexuality isn’t inherently an issue for skeptics, but the questioner identified as a skeptic and was apparently feeling vulnerable as both a transexual and a skeptic, so sought out a welcoming community. He found the right place: DebGod happens to be gender-queer, and is knowledgeable about transexuality and a former bodybuilder, and the community of readers was supportive. From some of the comments, it appears that many perceive the skeptical community as not uniformly welcoming for LGBTQ people – something I hadn’t known or expected. This post included some interesting discussion of LGBTQ issues among skeptics, and raises questions that – especially in light of the recent conflict over misogyny among skeptics (notably involving another prominent Skepchick poster) – I hope the skeptical community will take the opportunity to address.
More importantly, DebGod’s response is a model of careful and helpful analysis. She gives her own background, with appropriate disclaimers, then lays out the issues clearly and concisely. She notes red flags with the claims being made (no professional credentials, buzzwords, trademarked terminology, skeptical responses from people directly affected). She then reviews the suggested procedure, notes that it relies heavily on biochemical supplements, comments intelligently on their purity and efficacy, and discusses the vague distinction between “natural” and “non-natural” that the promoters take advantage of. She seeks information from a more knowledgeable source. Shen then concludes by running down all the issues this analysis raises, categorically, giving pros and cons for each and pointing out dangers. This is a really well-done, intelligent, well-argued analysis, at least as good as that commonly seen from Quackwatch or prominent skeptics like PZ Myers.
What I really like about DebGod’s analysis is that she is carefully value-neutral in all of this. Though it’s clear that there is much to be worried about in this suggested regimen, she never takes it on herself to make other people’s decisions for them. Her final statement is a clear and balanced sketch of the relationship between all the competing factors – health, personal goals, available support, and insurance or income – that influence a decision among the many different options for transitioning; she doesn’t declare any of them right or wrong for any individual, but makes it clear that each may be better or worse under different conditions. She includes just a single sentence offering her opinion that the “natural” process is too risky and low-benefit, but clearly identifies it as her own perspective and doesn’t insist that anyone else has to adopt it. She really gets her role as guide and analyst, as opposed to parent, judge, or dictator – something that so many culture-critic blowhards, and even many licensed professionals, can’t accept.
As she notes:
When it comes to gender identity and transsexualism, where you want to go, who you want to be, and how you want to do it is up to you, of course.
– a message that needs to be heard more widely, and not just regarding transexualism.
That leads to another issue that comes up obliquely, but importantly, in the comments. The medical community’s response to transexualism has been mixed, in ways that have generated a lot of resentment in the T/Q community even when the doctors and psychologists thought they were being helpful. For many years, transexuals seeking medical treatment in the US were commonly required to conform to the so-called “Harry Benjamin Standards of Care” (now the “World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care”), requiring extensive counseling and explicit authorization from multiple psychologists, and a set period of pre-treatment life in the transitioned gender, before professionals would agree to provide the requested treatment. Those standards have been eased but still exist. Many critics have pointed out that this is not only paternalistic but unnecessary – transexual patients have a higher level of success and satisfaction with their treatment than patients of many other conditions, including cosmetic procedures, that do not involve such heavy-handed gatekeeping. The professional societies – starting in the 1950s, when this work was extremely controversial – saw themselves as protecting patients and preventing harmful mistakes, while also going to lengths to provide treatments that more conservative caregivers would have prohibited in the first place. Patients, however, saw it as condescending, offensive, and wasteful of time and money. (Note that in other parts of the world, clinical standards for transexual therapy are much looser or non-existent; there is no known epidemic of regretful genderflippers.)
There are some very interesting comments from “natalie1984” noting that the sex-reassignment gatekeeping system has been eroded in recent years, and along with it the stereotyped view of what it means to “really” be transexual or gender-dysphoric in the first place. Not only has therapy become more accessible, but what kind of therapy and what therapeutic endpoint the patient seeks have also been thrown open. As she notes: “Now we’re all able to simply work out for ourselves who we are and what we want from transition, and what will make us feel happiest”. She speaks with understanding of why many healthcare professionals are not current on T/Q issues, and simply encourages patients to find caregivers they are comfortable with. There’s also an interesting exchange further down the thread between her and one of the promoters of the natural therapy. She comes across as uncompromising but smart, thoughtful, and understanding.
There’s more, including the politics of gendered pronouns, but even just this adds up to a rich and complex discussion, with intersections between skepticism, healthcare autonomy, gender issues, and, vaguely, perhaps some philosophy-of-science stuff. What this post brings up for me is the deeply connected ways in which such issues always do surface in any similar debates over the proper application of facts to values – that is, the use of science or medicine to achieve chosen goals in human lives, and the conflicts that arise between those who control the science and those whose goals are at stake. It is common in ethics and philosophy of science to emphasize the “fact/value distinction”, but real cases often dredge up facts – and perceived facts – from many aspects of our lives, and competing values that arise from very different lived perspectives.
In this one issue, the skeptical community provides a useful mindset for analyzing clinical claims, but has also been charged with hostility to the LGBTQ community in whose interests those questions are asked. The “natural health” community offers the autonomy and self-direction that many patients want, but also harbors liars and scammers. The doctors who invented the sex-assignment gatekeeping system that so many transexual people hate did so as a way to make it possible for those patients to get care than had never previously been available. It is impossible for anyone to assert an exclusive claim to the moral or epistemological high ground here.
This stuff is hard, and, like so many progressive programs, requires a dedication to working through all the implications of a given position, and to striving to make one’s positions more defensible, more responsive, and more accepting. Every one of these communities – the skeptics, the healthcare professionals, the alternative-health promoters, and to some degree the LGBTQ population as well – have work to do in that way. Some of it has been done, though, and some of it is being done now, over at Skepchick. Good start.
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
From “Fund Abortion Now“, the blog of the National Network of Abortion Funds – non-profits that provide financial assistance to women in need of an abortion – comes this list of funding sources by state:
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.
Today’s news is that an amendment to the Republicans’ medical-residency defunding bill, prohibiting the use of any medical-education funding for “training in the provision of abortions”, was passed in the House by an overwhelmingly partisan vote. The event is not of great practical significance: this amendment is very unlikely to emerge from the Senate, and the bill is almost certain to be vetoed anyway. But it marks yet another front in the right wing’s ceaseless war on women’s healthcare, and yet another point-scoring display of how reckless – or simply antagonistic – they are willing to be with women’s lives.
The amendment is odd, though, and uglier even than it seems. It is so vaguely written that it is hard to figure out just how it would work if it were enacted, but its most likely interpretation would be literally deadly. It also extends the odious “conscience clause” for neglect of patients to every health plan, contract facility, professional group, doctor, nurse, or other staffmember at every medical school and teaching hospital in the nation, through a single sentence in this seemingly minor funding provision regarding training for one specific type of care.
The text of the amendment is here (scroll down). Recall this is an add-on to a larger bill; the parent bill seeks to defund all residency-level training in hospitals and medical schools nationwide, to force a new budget fight for training subsidies every year thereafter, rather than allowing block funding with less meddling. That bill by itself is part of the Republican assault on mainstream medicine – this proposed amendment is just a little anti-choice icing on the cake:
(d) Prohibition Against Abortion.–Section 340H of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 256h) is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:
“(k) Prohibition Against Abortion.–
“(1) None of the funds made available pursuant to subsection (g) shall be used to provide any abortion or training in the provision of abortions.
“(2) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to an abortion–
“(A) if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest; or
“(B) in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, that would, as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed including a life endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.
“(3) None of the funds made available pursuant to subsection (g) may be provided to a qualified teaching health center if such center subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.
“(4) In this subsection, the term `health care entity’ includes an individual physician or other health care professional, a hospital, a provider-sponsored organization, a health maintenance organization, a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility, organization, or plan.”
The Meaning – Such As It Is – of the Amendment
The amendment is so badly worded that it’s not clear what it actually does. Section (k)(1) – the central defunding provision – prohibits any residency training money from being “used to provide any abortion or training in the provision of abortion”, but this is far from self-explanatory.
The first part is confused: the funding in question (defined by the parent bill, HR1216, which addresses “funding for graduate medical education in qualified teaching health centers”) is for post-graduate medical education (i.e., medical residency programs or the equivalent), not actual clinical care, and the infamous “Hyde Amendment” prohibits federal money for abortion care in the first place, so the “provide any abortion” provision here would seem to be superfluous at best.
The real issue – and the way the amendment has been packaged – is the denial of funding to train residents in abortion techniques, with an eye toward making abortion unobtainable by flooding the country with surgeons and OB-GYNs who are simply incompetent to provide this standard care. Since almost all residency training takes place in facilities receiving federal subsidies, this provision, if enacted, would mean the coming generations of doctors would receive no training at all in central aspects of women’s healthcare. (It might be possible to obtain such training at the resident’s own expense, but it’s not clear where that would even be possible, since this amendment would restrict almost all centers even capable of providing the training regardless of who paid for it. The only realistic alternative would be to go overseas – again, at the doctor’s own expense – and even that would not necessarily be availing, because it raises licensing questions and is not a practical option for all residents, even the ones who were willing to go to such lengths.) This is not a new tactic on the anti-choice right wing; at one point, Georgetown University’s Medical Center attempted to ban its GYN residents from obtaining abortion training anywhere, even on their own outside the program – and this when such training was still funded. But making it mandatory, inescapable, and nation-wide, is a step never before taken.
But it also seems that much of the intended impact of the amendment could be escapable. Here, the strange wording of the amendment provides a paradoxical loophole. Section (k)(2) allows exceptions for “an abortion . . . ” involving the usual grudging set of special horrors (rape, incest, death*) that some of the right wing are willing to overlook. But, again, notwithstanding the wording of the amendment, there is no funding addressed by this amendment or its parent bill that would “provide an abortion” under such conditions, since it does not provide funding for clinical care in the first place. So these exemptions for “an abortion”, if they do anything at all, must modify the prohibition on “training in the provision of abortions” – that is, Section (k)(2) apparently grants exemptions for federal funding for “training in the provision of an abortion . . .” in pregnancies involving rape, incest, or the threat of death. But of course all techniques used in abortion may be used in cases involving these exempted situations – so presumably federally-funded health centers can provide any kind of appropriate “training in the provision of abortions” for pregnancies involving rape, incest, or the threat of death – after which it’s the doctors’ own concern how they actually put that training to use!
At least, that’s how it reads, in strict logical terms. That may not be how it would be implemented, however. It’s clear from the legislative history of the amendment – the discussion on the floor before it was voted on – that, regardless of the grammatical deficiencies of its author, it was in fact intended to prohibit all training in abortion techniques.† Probably the courts would interpret it that way, even if that’s not what it says. So in practice the impact of the amendment is (a) to prohibit (with few exceptions) all abortions provided using medical-residency training funds – a category which does not exist, and (b) to prohibit all training in all methods of abortion regardless of likely application.
Scope of Ban
The result of all this, as noted, would be to permanently exclude competency in certain standard professional practices from the skill set of all US-trained physicians in all specialties, even including surgery, obstetrics, and gynecology. The skills in question, it should be noted, would almost certainly include, among others, the following methods most commonly used in pregnancy termination:
However, every one of those techniques is used for purposes other than abortion (most commonly, to remove dead tissue left by menstrual troubles, fetal death or an incomplete miscarriage). As noted above, the strict text of the amendment allows training in “abortion” techniques if it is not intended to facilitate abortion, but that’s obviously not what the author hoped for, so presumably it must be interpreted to include any technique that could be used in abortion, regardless of its common application. That would also include:
Impact of Ban
What would it mean if doctors were banned from all training in those techniques, for all purposes? Well, among much other harm, it would mean that any woman would face almost certain death from any of the following conditions, for which one the above techniques is the standard treatment:
It would also mean that women would have no access to standard or best practices under any of the following conditions, among others, because those treatments involve techniques that could be used in abortion:
And of course there’s the whole conspiracy-of-silence-about-birth-control thing (see ‡ below).
In short, this ban – if it were enacted and if it were implemented as intended, and as anticipated by its legislative history – would kill even more women in the US, in coming years, than are currently sacrificed every year from the current lack of abortion providers. We would see a return to death from emergencies in childbirth – even for women not seeking elective abortion – at levels equivalent to that in some Third-World countries (since, given that appropriate care would be banned under this amendment, women facing certain labor-related emergencies would essentially be getting Third-World care even though best-practices-level care could have been provided). Many more would suffer, some greatly, from the lack of access to perfectly ordinary and preferred treatments for conditions having nothing to do with abortion. By making it illegal for physicians in training to obtain the necessary skills to treat a wide range of common gynecological conditions, some of them life-threatening, this amendment simply condemns their future patients to death, permanent disability, and other suffering from conditions for which safe and effective treatments were available, and which are universally practiced in every other advanced nation, but which their US-trained doctors were prohibited from learning.
[NB: I am not a clinician. The information above is common knowledge from widely-available sources. I am confident it is accurate; it is likely incomplete – the full impact of this legislation is likely worse than I have been able to describe. For actual clinical guidance or practical healthcare purposes, be sure to consult a knowledgeable clinician who has a full range of professional skills (i.e., one who was trained at a non-misogynistic healthcare center before this ban was enacted).]
As with so much of Republican “healthcare”, it’s hard to imagine this policy could ever be taken seriously, or enacted in any nation that makes a claim to basic decency. But as so often has been the case in the past, it’s best to be prepared to be surprised by what levels of indecency Republicans are willing to reach.
As I noted, the amendment contains inherent loopholes that its legislative history makes clear were unintentional. It may be possible to circumvent some of its provisions nonetheless, by sequestering training in the relevant techniques to programs ostensibly aimed at other conditions: that is, teach vacuum aspiration as a treatment for dysmenorrhea, teach dilation and extraction as a procedure for removal of a dead fetus after incomplete miscarriage, etc. This could work, but only if the ban were confined to overt training in abortion as such, and not to training in any procedure that could be used for abortion. There is no question how vicious, and how hostile to the lives of women seeking abortion, the supporters of this bill are; it remains to be seen if they are willing to sacrifice innocent breeders, too, in their pursuit of death for rebellious hussies. Virginia Foxx, the sponsor of this amendment, is known for her bizarre and incoherent beliefs; I think it is really likely she just does not understand the implications of her own amendment, and it would not in the end be taken to the extreme of a complete ban on all gynecological surgical methods. Or would it?
At any rate, the stupid and ugly thing is not going to pass. But it is worth considering just how serious its sponsors were, and how far they were willing to go, to kill and punish women who sought control of their reproductive organs, through the medium of their own doctors – how far they were willing to go to make the ignorance that characterizes Republican health and science policy across the board in fact mandatory for those who refuse to adopt their values voluntarily. As in so many cases, denial of knowledge is both the substance of, and a weapon for imposing, the right wing’s values as punishment upon those whose crimes are knowledge and independence.
* Note that only death – not merely unendurable pain, permanent disability, or traumatic stress – is grounds for exemption. And, too, the section on the woman’s health repeats the phrases “physical disorder . . . physical injury . . . etc.” four times, making it clear that there is to be no sympathy extended to women whose traumas are psychological, whether or not life-threatening, because that’s not part of your “physical” health. Apparently the people who are convinced there is such a thing as a soul are not convinced there is such a thing as a mind.
† This raises another issue: the technique for “provision of abortions” in the case of medical abortions – RU486 or similar medications – is simply to conduct an appropriate examination and write a prescription. The “techniques” for doing so are used in the treatment of every condition, and the specialized knowledge involved in using this particular medication is trivial to acquire independently. So, again by the strict logical meaning of the text, either hospitals are prohibited from teaching residents even to write prescriptions – unless they argue that techniques that merely could be, but are not intended to be, applied to abortions prohibited by this amendment are therefore not prohibited in their non-abortion contexts. And that – again, if logical consistency means anything – would authorize all abortion techniques, medical or surgical, for the reasons I explained in the preceding paragraph. But these are Republicans we’re talking about.
‡ And of course the anti-choice nuts characteristically go so far as to define mere fertilization as a “pregnancy”, and I have no doubt that the supporters of this amendment would argue that its provisions apply not merely to the prescription of abortion by medication, but also to post-coital medical contraception such as Plan B. But . . . Plan B and its like are essentially equivalent to nothing more than high doses of ordinary prescription birth control, and in fact ordinary birth control pills can be used for that purpose without a separate prescription. So presumably this amendment would also prohibit either training in prescription of oral contraceptives, or at least mentioning the fact that they can be used for morning-after contraception. So far does the absurdity extend, if you take this policy seriously.
Latest really bad idea in the medical marketplace: doctors demanding that patients sign a “mutual privacy agreement” that grants copyright to the doctor of any reviews or commentary the patient may ever publish regarding that doctor – in other words, giving the doctor censorship rights over any evaluations the patient may make of the doctor, such as on doctor-rating Web sites.
Even worse, this agreement is apparently the product of some sort of doctors’ legal service called “Medical Justice”, whose purpose is to “(1) Deter frivolous malpractice claims; (2) Address unwarranted demands for refunds; (3) Prevent Internet defamation, and (4) Provide proven, successful counterclaim strategies to hold proponents of frivolous suits accountable” – which is to say, intimidate patients in order to give doctors a edge over them in any legal dispute. As Timothy Lee points out in the post linked above, their waiver policy is likely useless, and may be fraudulent: copyright assignment is usually granted in return for compensation, but given the somewhat coercive nature of this agreement (his dentist’s office manager actually threw him out of the office when he objected to it) and the lack of an employment-related justification for the claim on copyright, copyright experts he quotes say the agreement is likely unenforceable; also, the agreement claims to provide the patients with privacy guarantees that go “beyond HIPAA”, but in fact the particular (relatively benign) practices it covers are already banned under HIPAA, meaning the promises made to the patient in the agreement are not only worthless but actually false. But most patients won’t know those things, so the agreement still hampers their rights of expression even if it is unenforceable or even illegal. It gets worse: the agreement requires a “loser pays” financial penalty for any lawsuit (in contrast to standard US practice), making malpractice suits potentially financially ruinous for the patient, especially if the doctor’s insurance firm adopts the strategy of deliberately running up their own bills to create risk to the plaintiff (see Goals #s 1 and 4 above!); thus it hampers the patient’s ability to seek legal redress in addition to imposing on their rights to seek and share information.
It’s hard to count how many things are wrong with this: creating an abusive caregiver/patient relationship as a pre-requisite to treatment; chilling patient free speech and access to information about caregivers; cynically twisting completely unrelated provisions of copyright law to straitjacket the healthcare treatment environment; inequitable restrictions on patients’ rights and legal remedies for harm; not to mention just plain fraud and deception. What seems most unnerving to me is that such a bizarre and intrusive instrument (signing away your copyright?) has entered the healthcare environment at all.
More and more healthcare becomes just like any other marketplace: primum caveat emptor has become the contemporary Hippocratic credo, and deceptive, misleading, and grossly one-sided terms of service rule every aspect of the treatment process, from privacy to quality of care to access to caregivers to prescription drug availability to the ability to seek compensation for mistreatment. Though this particular “privacy” agreement is abusive in new and strange ways, the erosion of patients’ rights and remedies is far, far gone already. Medical “privacy” now means only that you must sign a form granting your caregiver and your insurance company the legal right to violate your privacy at will; access to treatment is deliberately hampered by adversarial gatekeepers who use your own medical history against you; mandatory arbitration for malpractice, on terms favorable to the insurance company or doctor, is now a common requirement of many health plans. You have no choice but to sign away all these rights, since the ubiquity of their implementation in the for-profit medical industry, and the lack of choices most patients have regarding treatment plans and costs, means even those lucky enough to have access to treatment at all usually have no access to treatment under respectful and empowering terms. What is shocking in this new approach is only how bold and shameless it is. What is sure is that there will be more of that coming.
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.
Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) asks on Twitter:
Why oh why is our country in the grips of a sex panic? I just don’t get it.
My response was:
Obama backlash was greenlight for all wingnuts; every hate/fear is now OK, unhidden, synergistic.
I’d like to de-Twitterize and unpack that a bit.
Here’s a post submitted to “Ask the Ethicist” by Christopher:
I am gay and for 20 years, I have had a best friend and mentor who is also gay. Besides regular friendship, I have taken care of him when he’s sick, staying at his house, getting him to the doctor. But we do not live together. There has never been a sexual component to the friendship.
He is getting ready to retire. As part of his retirement package, he can designate a domestic partner to receive a payment of over $150,000 a year after his death. He has asked me if I want to do the paperwork to be his domestic partner. As I said, we do not and have never had a sexual relationship. I do not live with him. Is creating this arrangement unethical?
Thanks, Christopher, for your question. It’s an interesting situation; let’s see what readers have to say about it.
My response is below in comments. Readers: feel free to join the discussion!
(And feel free to post your own questions to “Ask the Ethicist” – see link in top right-hand sidebar!)
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.
Interesting tactic in the New York City gun-control fight:
A gun-rights-advocacy group sued Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Tuesday, claiming that the city fee for obtaining a home-handgun permit was so excessive that it impinged on the Second Amendment.
The group, the Second Amendment Foundation, based in Bellevue, Wash., is focusing on New York’s fees because, according to the group, the city is one of the few places in the country that requires people to obtain permits to keep guns in their homes.
The city’s fee is $340, plus a $94.25 charge for a fingerprint check. The fee in most other places in the state is $10, according to the foundation. Mr. Bloomberg has long been a staunch supporter of gun control and has made efforts to reduce the traffic in guns into the city through sting operations, lawsuits against gun dealers and other antigun measures.
The city’s fee for obtaining a home gun permit has long been in place.
The suit, filed in federal court, claims that the city’s fee is so exorbitant that it “impermissibly burdens the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” and the suit argues that because city residents are forced to pay more than others, the fee also violates the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
(Just to be clear: New York City, separate from New York State, requires a permit just to have a gun in one’s own home; the process of obtaining one is deliberately made as burdensome as possible, including high fees and an extensive application and testing process designed to make you fail, as a form of indirect gun control. A completely different and vastly more difficult process is required to obtain a concealed carry license, which is rare in NYC.)
What’s interesting to me about this is not the gun-control issue itself, but the legal approach in this suit: they are claiming that the fact that the state (or the city, acting under authority from the state) has erected restrictive procedures that make it significantly difficult to exercise a right that in fact exists under law should constitutionally invalidate those restrictive procedures. And presumably they’re going to argue that the rationalizations the state offers – that they must review applications for reasons of public safety, that this incurs administrative expenses that must be covered, that the city has the authority to act on its official perception of the public interest against the wishes of the people actually affected, etc. – are obviously disingenuous or at any rate insignificant in view of the basic right of people to exercise freedoms that otherwise exist under law.
This reflects is a seemingly simple principle – people have a right to exercise their rights – that actually has considerable legal repercussions. For the most part, the Supreme Court has not recognized that the government has a positive obligation to ensure that people can act on their legal negative rights (i.e., a right that merely specifies freedoms that other people may not ban), but has not usually gotten into the question whether regulatory procedures that constrain but do not entirely vacate a given legal right are for that reason illegal. It’s a difficult problem; obviously, some regulatory restrictions are necessary in many cases, and equally obviously, that regulatory authority can be used to create insuperable practical barriers in cases where the law does not allow outright bans. But, to my knowledge, the Supreme Court has not held that the mere existence of a barrier is the equivalent of an unconstitutional ban. In fact, the Court has often gone out of its way to give deference to government regulations even when their burden on citizens’ rights is grave: the standard test for Constitutionality of a law is that it must show a “rational basis” for its existence, which the Court interprets to mean literally any rationale – however stupid or obviously dishonest – that is not literally logically impossible; the Court also usually rejects “substantive due process” and “equity” arguments, which ask for the application of general principles of law or morality outside the strict “black letter law” of statutes and case precedents. Thus, laws and regulations are typically upheld as written, on the presumption that legislations have wide latitude to act as they choose, and the laws they write are therefore prima facie in keeping with the principles of representative democracy regardless of how burdensome, unfair, or duplicitous they may be.
There are few exceptions to the “rational basis” doctrine, all having to do with Constitutional-level civil rights. The Supreme Court has held that laws directly impinging “fundamental” Constitutional rights, or imposing ethnicity-based restrictions on freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, must meet the test of “strict scrutiny” – that is, they must not merely have a nominal “rational basis”, but must “advance a compelling state interest”, be “narrowly tailored” to that interest alone, and use the “least restrictive means” to achieve it. Arbitrary distinctions between groups also come in for strict scrutiny, under the 14th Amendment’s “privileges and immunities”/”due process”/”equal protection” clauses. In other civil rights cases, the Court has imposed a doctrine of “intermediate” or “heightened” scrutiny, under which the laws must demonstrate a weaker but still compelling rationale for their restrictions. (Almost all sex- and gender-related discrimination receives only heightened scrutiny, because, you know . . . teh uterus . . . .) In the case of abortion, the Supreme Court has struck down some, but not all, anti-choice laws and regulations that were clearly intended to impose, in its words, an “undue burden” on women’s exercise of their rights; however, others were permitted under heightened scrutiny if the anti-choice state could articulate even a moderately plausible-sounding (as opposed to barely “rational”) reason for the law, even when those laws were obviously intended only as burdens on women, and even when they arose as part and parcel of laws that were otherwise rejected for that reason. So, in general, the Court has not taken the step of saying “this law is obviously intended to void a legal right, and you can’t do that”; it merely subjects burdensome laws to various levels of analysis as to how well they disguise that intention.
What’s interesting about this gun-control case is that the legal theory it relies on (as reported in this short article – hard to tell if this is true) attempts to raise burdensome but otherwise normal administrative regulations to the level of Constitutional infringement – that is, it appears to claim that having to pay ordinary but high fees, and jump through ordinary but complicated procedural hoops, is as much an infringement on Constitutional rights as are poll taxes or racial segregation, or at least as gender-based restrictions on employment. “Unduly burdensome” regulations may be unconstitutional, it’s true, but in this case the regulations are not unusual, even if the fees are high: every jurisdiction (other than a couple of whacko states that have no gun permit laws at all) processes paperwork, assesses fees, and in general requires some kind of procedural rigmarole for getting a gun permit. New York City is an outlier, in that their licensing process is unusually difficult (they make you take a test that includes trick questions), lengthy (it commonly takes months), and expensive (as much as 40 times what other jurisdictions – even in New York State itself – charge). But that is only a matter of degree, which it seems can easily be explained given the City’s political determination that they want to make the process stringent. (The fees, I suspect, are an estimate of the fully-loaded cost of staff time and expenses to process the fingerprints, application, and background check, and are probably slightly, but not hugely, inflated. That’s a bullshit way to calculate fees for a job the government actually exists to perform in the first place, but that’s a different matter.) So the issue here is whether a normal and appropriate government function – processing applications and assessing fees – which nobody suggests is unconstitutional in its typical form, becomes unconstitutional when that function gets so out of hand that it essentially becomes a tool for prohibition of what is otherwise a legal right.
This has obvious implications for the constant barrage of dishonest and hostile regulatory encroachments on fundamental Constitutional rights that have become the favorite tactic of the anti-choice brigades. Unnecessary waiting times, intrusive and unnecessary medical procedures, explicit ideological harassment deliberately intended to discourage people from the decisions they have made, technical regulations intended only to delicense or bankrupt clinics – all these and much more have been commonplace tactics in the anti-woman crusade for years, and they are getting more brazen and more offensive almost literally day by day.
These attacks on abortion rights go much further than New York City’s procedural hurdles for a gun permit. In New York, if you pass the test and pay the fee, they will give you a license (for home possession, at least). The administrative procedures are clearly intended as a bottleneck, and the fee is unfair, but the procedure is straightforward and involves nothing that is not common in the administration of similar governmental functions across the country. Anti-choice regulations, in contrast, commonly apply only to abortion procedures, impose burdens that serve no reasonable purpose or are inflated absurdly beyond what is necessary for their ostensible purpose, or distort ordinary procedures in ways that are intended solely to make abortion unobtainable, unaffordable, or discouragingly unpleasant. Examples include requiring multiple trips on different days to a clinic that is often a vast distance from a woman’s home; applying hospital licensing standards to outpatient clinics for abortion only; requiring medically unnecessary ultrasounds at a cost of hundreds of dollars; requiring scripted and false speeches to deliberately upset patients before a procedure – all of them extraordinary burdens that have nothing to do with the ordinary process of licensing and regulating medical clinics, or ensuring informed consent (which, in every other medical discipline, is intended to help patients get what they want and need).
The gun-rights people do have a point about New York City’s regulations: although those regs are not that unusual on their face, the details of their implementation make the legal right of gun ownership essentially unexercisable by many citizens who lack the money, time, or persistence to overcome a burden that is not actually required by the legitimate government function it purports to arise from. But if that difficulty rises to the level of a Constitutional infringement in the case of gun permits, how can the GOP’s outright and unashamed assault on women’s rights to legal and vital healthcare not be seen in the same light?
This puts the right wing, of society and the Supreme Court, in a pickle. If they agree that burdensome and hostile regulations intended to discourage the exercise of a Constitutional right are impermissible even when those regulations are normal and proper other than in the degree of the burden they impose, then they would have to agree that far more invasive regulations serving no ordinary purpose and deliberately intended to actually void a Constitutional right entirely, and even in cases of life-threatening consequences, are that much more obviously impermissible. On the other hand, if they want to continue their assault on women with any degree of logical consistency, it would seem they would have to throw gun lovers under the bus along with them. It will be interesting to see this play out.
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