Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
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.”
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m not totally diggin’ this:
It’s from the Sierra Club’s new ad campaign “to remind our representatives who they are actually hurting when they attack the EPA.” I’m entirely in agreement with the goal of the campaign, and even with the message of this ad (“gutting emissions regulations results in greater release of toxins, which can do their worst damage during fetal development”). But I have reservations about its methods.
The obvious function of the ad, of course, is that it plays to the right-wing’s proclaimed concern for fetuses to the exclusion of all other health issues (including, of course, pre-natal care, gynecology, infant and child care, and other such irrelevancies). And the fact that the imagery plays so obviously and shamelessly off of the right wing’s fetish for pregnant bellies – in this case to prod them to do something to improve people’s health, rather than take away their rights to healthcare, is an amusing irony. But it’s just those points that leave me uncomfortable.
First, there’s something in a way defeatist, or at least pessimistic, about the focus of the campaign: because the GOP only cares about unborn fetuses, we have to couch every issue in terms of its impact on fetuses. (“Wear your seatbelt – so your fetus doesn’t get hurt!” “Support solar power – so your fetus will use less oil!” “Don’t spread deadly poisons in the environment – because it might hurt some of the fetuses of the less than 1% of the population that’s pregnant at any given time!”) But surrendering every issue to the religious right’s fetus-fetish takes everyone else in the population out of the picture. Mercury, dioxin, and other poisons in the environment hurt everyone. It matters that young children who have grown out of the right’s preferred age for adulation (i.e., they’ve been born already) are also vulnerable to developmental delays and all the other effects of environmental toxins; it matters that adults are crippled and killed by heavy metal poisoning; it matters that the women who are carrying these favored fetuses are also affected by the poisons they ingest – in addition to the fetuses that are the focus of concern in this campaign: these are the people who are hurt when the right wing attackes the EPA – why can’t the Sierra Club, of all people, say so? It may be true that the right only cares about fetuses (and then largely as tools for hurting women, who are their real obsession), but allowing them to forget everyone else is to forfeit the major part of the fight to them without contest. When progressives’ campaigns have the same focus, same tactics, and same blind spots as the reactionaries they are campaigning against, much is lost even if those campaigns succeed.
The second, and perhaps more striking, issue that arises for me from this ad is the imagery that is used. When I said it leaves everyone but the fetus out of the picture, I meant it literally. This ad replays in every detail one of the most common, and most offensive, tropes of anti-choice misogyny: the faceless pregnant woman reduced to nothing but her belly. (Can’t say “uterus“, you know!) You see it everywhere (and, as @ClinicEscort points out, particularly in stories about abortion): a woman’s body reduced to nothing but swollen boobs and swollen belly, or often just the belly – the face is always cut off, just out of the frame. The effect – and unquestionably the purpose – is to erase the woman from her own pregnancy. It’s fetus porn, with the woman dehumanized just as badly as, and in some ways even more fully than, in sexual porn (where at least you can often see the face). It’s the kind of misogynist metonymy that at least has come to be recognized (if not eliminated) in product advertising, but apparently still goes unremarked in issue or values advertising – even though its major function is to promote the value of dehumanizing women. That it does reflect and promote the right-wing vision of women goes without saying: women as pregnant vessels who are not even named or acknowledged, and certainly have no interests or needs that deserve to be addressed in their own right, could hardly be better illustrated than by photographs of them as exactly that, used in campaigns aimed at denigrating women’s interests in favor of the “interests” of an unborn fetus.
It’s infuriating to see progressive groups use such images and tactics. This goes beyond simply bowing to the reality of the right’s indifference to women by finding another “hook” for an issue; this actively embraces and endorses its dehumanizing methods in order to use them for that other issue – exactly what the right wants. What I want is something better than this from nominal allies.
I haven’t been paying much attention to the show Nurse Jackie. I have seen other work by the star Edie Falco and admire her as an actor, and I gather her current show is popular, though I haven’t seen it and I don’t know much about it. I vaguely wondered if it really had much to do with nursing or healthcare, and whether it presented any interesting issues, but, as I said, I wasn’t really paying attention.
Just now, however, I happened to open a magazine and find a full-page ad for the new season that began this week, featuring a large color picture of Edie Falco in her nurse’s uniform, and two thoughts popped immediately to mind: (1) “Nice tits!“; and (2) “Wait a minute . . .”
Right-wing sites are loudly touting yet another of their doctored videos and deceptive recordings to vilify Planned Parenthood – this time with an accusation so blatantly misconceived it hardly makes sense.
The anti-choice “Live-Action Blog” has prominently posted a short video clip of Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards explaining the impact of the GOP proposal to gut all Title X (federal reproductive healthcare) funding as well as any funds specifically for treatment at Planned Parenthood clinics. (This is the budget amendment to “defund Planned Parenthood” that has been much talked-about, but it is important to note that it kills all Title X funding entirely, as well as any other treatments at PP specifically from all other funding sources). As Richards notes, entirely correctly:
What’s gonna happen, if this bill becomes law, millions of women in this country are going to lose their healthcare access, not to abortion services, [but] to basic family planning, mammograms . . .
I don’t know what else she said, because they cut that off. The clip just repeats the word “mammograms, mammograms, mammograms” over and over – as if they’ve broken some kind of scandal in proving that the head of a women’s health service would be concerned with access to a basic and universally recommended women’s healthcare procedure.
The clip then goes on to include secretly-recorded conversations at a couple of dozen PP clinics in which . . . another scandal! . . . the receptionist confirms that Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide mammograms, but offers to refer the deceptive “patient” to a facility that does. They’ll even help you get an appointment and fill out the paperwork for a subsidy for the cost. This, the wingnut blogs are breathlessly screaming, is a immense “scam”.
So, these anti-choice “activists” have broken a really big expose of Planned Parenthood, right? (OK – if you couldn’t have guessed the answer to that without even reading the story, you haven’t been paying attention.)
They certainly think they have, or at least claim so: Live-Action blares “Planned Parenthood CEO’s False Mammogram Claim Exposed”; Left Coast Rebel claims that “Cecile Richard’s, CEO of Planned Parenthood, lied and did more to limit access to mammograms than defunding” (the latter part appears to be some convoluted argument that PP is actually denying women mammograms by referring them to facilities that provide mammograms – this is right-wing thinking on healthcare); the always-wrong Erick Erickson repeats that claim, asking “Does Supporting Planned Parenthood Increase The Risk of Breast Cancer?” (um, no – it increase your probability of being referred for a mammogram, at an appropriate facility); David Brody calls this “The Mammogram Scam”. And there’s more. Around the blogosphere, yet another coordinated Planned Parenthood “sting” is taking place, broadcasting false and just bizarrely distorted secret and misleadingly-edited tapes that mean almost the opposite of what they are twisted to say.
You have to ask: are the media going to fall for it again? Time after time, these false tapes have been dutifully repeated in the news without the slightest critical inspection (one of them was the reason for the “defund Planned Parenthood” bill – now another equally false one just happens to pop up claiming that the impact of that bill is actually evidence of a financial ripoff by Planned Parenthood itself). We can only hope this persistent and organized campaign of distortion and outright dishonesty will be recognized this time. (The Washington Post already failed.)
Let me make one point about this ridiculous “denying care” argument, before pointing out what the tape actually did say. Planned Parenthood clinics do not provide mammograms on-site; they do make referrals of patients requesting (or who have been recommended to receive) mammograms to other facilities that provide them. In some cases of these fake patients requesting them over the phone, they wound up having to call a couple of numbers to find a place where they could get a procedure that that Planned Parenthood clinic does not provide. The argument here is that it is apparently Planned Parenthood’s fault they didn’t provide instant access to a procedure a random caller requested from a facility that doesn’t offer it. On-site, some of these clinics (depending on the clinic and the state) apparently can help patients get mammograms elsewhere by providing referrals and forms to request funding from a state program that also subsidizes those procedures. The argument about this is apparently that PP is taking federal funding for mammogram services and using it merely to shunt patients off to some other facility where the procedure is funded some other way. This is nonsense in both cases, obviously. Every medical facility of every kind has a specific range of services it provides, and will refer patients to other facilities for other procedures; the fact that a given clinic does not have a specialized and expensive facility on-site, that only some of its patients need, and which requires a dedicated technician to operate, is hardly surprising and in no way unusual. As for Title X, it does provide funding for mammograms among many other things, and PP does get funding for some services under Title X, but obviously that funding is not for particular services they don’t provide, it is for the services they do provide. PP clinics do not get any funding for mammograms; what they get is Title X funding for the many other services that can be provided in an OB-GYN clinic, and which they do provide. In many cases they cooperate with cancer screening programs run by other facilities, including well-respected groups such as the Susan Komen Fund. There is no wasting of Title X funds on patients who get mammograms from X-ray facilities outside PP offices; and no denial or delay of care – if anything, the patients get mammograms faster and more readily, thanks to PP, because PP provides them with access to internists or OB-GYNs who recommend such screenings and provide referrals for them – exactly the services that the GOP is trying to kill off.
As to what the tape actually does show: Richards doesn’t say that Planned Parenthood provides mammograms; she doesn’t even mention Planned Parenthood in the edited clip they show. PP clinics do not provide mammograms for a very good reason: a mammogram, while routine, is a specialized radiological procedure that requires an X-ray suite and a trained technician. Most OB-GYN clinics don’t have an X-ray suite. They send women to X-ray facilities for that. (Your doctor doesn’t have a medical lab, either – they send your blood and urine to a specialized facility and get the results back by computer. This is standard.)
What Richards does say, correctly, is that the GOP cuts to women’s healthcare will prevent vast numbers of women from getting basic care, including mammograms, from many sources or providers. The GOP proposal cuts all funding for Title X, which does fund mammograms (at X-ray facilities, not gynecological clinics, because mammograms involve X-rays, therefore they’re done at X-ray facilities . . . am I going too fast for you, right-wingers?), and will have a considerable impact on the availability of mammograms, as well as other forms of care, for women nationwide.
Richards was pointing out the impact of this vicious bill on women’s healthcare across the board, not just in respect of her own organization, and she did so honestly and perfectly correctly. The anti-woman contingent couldn’t be bothered to understand what she was saying, or provide the context of the question she was answering, or even the full sentence in which she answered it, before whipping up another howling storm of falsehood and deception.
[UPDATE: Title X funds “breast and cervical cancer screening according to nationally recognized standards of care”, which in practice means manual breast exams for individual patients during office visits, and referral for mammograms for patients with a positive manual screen. It does not appear to fund routine mammograms, though their Web site is so vague it is hard to tell exactly how it works.]
Since the anti-choicers are so very concerned about minority interests that they insist on stealing every woman’s autonomy because a potential black leader fetus might someday be aborted, it’s only logically consistent to pay attention to the upside of that issue:
That’s just a fraction of the total, even considering murderers alone. Almost no suspects have ever even been named in the over 200 arsons and bombings, or close to 100 other attempted arsons and bombings, or the literally thousands of vandalisms and chemical attacks committed at health clinics across the US, not to mention the many attempted murders, public “targeting” of chosen victims (some of them later murdered), personal harassment and threats to healthcare providers, and uncountable incidents of on-site harassment and violence directed at clinic staff and patients, that are the stock in trade of Christian anti-choice terrorism.
No person loses their life in an abortion. But here you can see just some of the people who would be alive today if the terrorists above, and others like them, had been aborted before they murdered them. If we’re counting up the possible impact on society, well, there’s only one Obama, but there’s plenty of these shitheads. So, all things considered . . .
[NB: Of course the entire line of reasoning is nonsense. The fact that some unpredictable thing could occur sometime in the future is no reason to force anyone to bring about circumstances that might randomly, but not foreseeably, result in that outcome, even ignoring the fact that it is their decision whether they want to do so. The same reasoning would not only justify mandatory childbirth, but mandatory pregnancy, and in fact mandatory maximum reproduction regardless of risk or cost – since one of those unwanted children might do enough good to offset all the suffering required to produce it. That this is in fact the official policy of the Catholic Church makes it no less insane or misogynist. It’s also illogical: there’s no guarantee that any child – still less an unlimited number of unwanted children imposed by force – will do more harm than good, so the proposition that there’s a harm to society in aborting them is no more provable than that there’s a good to society in doing so, as the above images demonstrate.]
Relative frequency of terms appearing on this blog over the last roughly 18 months (from the lovely Wordle online application).
Nothing surprising here (although it does appear to be weighted somewhat for more recent posts – “Hinckley” appears in only one post, and it seems much too prominent above).
A couple of observations: abortion looms about as large as it has to, but too large to be comfortable. That is, so much of practical bioethics is taken up by trying to stave off the continual, desperate assault on abortion rights that other issues – ones that actually have a significant ethical (rather than purely religious or political) issue at their core – get short shrift. Likewise, women’s issues predominate in bioethics because, as with abortion, so much of practical politics on bioethical issues is driven by misogyny. One longs for the luxury of moving on to other things.
“Fact” is prominent, which pleases me; at the core of rational bioethics is the fact/value distinction, in which regard it is almost always the facts that are under-represented, and I hope my writing balances the two. For the same reason, though, I am not sorry to note that “feelings” gets almost as much weight. “Right” and “law” are fairly prominent, which may be a source of chagrin for a consequentialist ethicist, but you can’t deny their importance in practical policymaking. I don’t understand how “treatment” is so large and “patient” is so small, or how certain other terms that I think are common do not seem emphasized here, but as I said, it appears that the terms are not equally weighted over time, so there may be a distortion resulting from mere differences in time of appearance.
I notice that LGBTQ and disability issues are not very obvious in the above, which bothers me. And though the emphasis on women’s issues evidences a feminist perspective that I hope is clear in the blog, the word “feminism” doesn’t appear above, which is a suggestive oversight. (In a way, a tag cloud is kind of like the Implicit Association Test – you reveal your own mental processes through behavioral patterns you weren’t consciously aware of.)
Still, interesting, no? Is anyone surprised by any of this? What terms are missing? What dark psychoses do you detect from the pattern above?
Here’s an interesting peer-to-peer phone-line support service for women who have had an abortion and want to talk to other women about it.
Exhale serves women who have abortions, and their partners, friends and family. We respect the cultural, social and religious beliefs of all our callers.
Apparently they’ve been in operation for about 8 years, and claim to have taken close to 20,000 calls; I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of them before. Their Web site makes them sound like a neutral listening post for those who want to talk about their experiences and feelings about them, regardless of what those feelings might be or what the caller’s perspective on the whole issue is. I have no direct experience with this group, so I can’t say how accurate this is or how well it works, but the Web site seems to me like it takes just the right tone:
- Exhale views each individual as a “whole person,” respects their belief system and strives for cultural competency.
- Exhale believes that self-awareness, self-care, and knowledge can empower individuals.
- Exhale seeks to transform oppression by challenging its roots and empowering each other and our communities.
- Exhale values the spirit of collaboration.
- Exhale believes abortion can be a normal part of the reproductive lives of women and girls.
The problem, of course, is that the entire notion of abortion “counseling” is generally a deception perpetrated by anti-choice groups to trick women into being manipulated with slut-shaming and false information. That makes me leery of any group – however honest and above-board – that sets itself up to provide such counseling. And, given the documented fact that abortion is not uniquely associated with psychological trauma, and since we don’t normally set up support groups for every individual outpatient surgical procedure (“Expel seeks to transform colonoscopy . . .”), the implication that there needs to be one for abortion specifically also smacks – just a bit, perhaps – of a negative, or at least defensive, stance toward abortion in general. But their Web site specifically disclaims this, and, without direct knowledge, I’m willing to take them at their word.
It is valid to recognize that abortion can be an emotionally fraught experience. While it is an important, useful, and sometimes life-saving procedure, abortion is unusual (though hardly unique) in that it is a treatment for a condition that is often regarded as actually desirable, and that most women, including most women who have abortions, will seek voluntarily at some point in their lives. There is no contradiction in the fact that pregnancy can be wanted under some circumstances and unwanted under others, and it makes only the most obvious kind of sense that there should be treatments available for those cases in which it is unwanted, and that many women will want “an abortive remedy” when that serves their needs and interests under their particular circumstances. But it is understandable, too, that an unwanted pregnancy may call up thoughts about pregnancies they patient may want or embrace under other circumstances, and that a particular pregnancy may be unwanted due to immediate circumstances that the patient wishes she could change, and would be wanted under those changed circumstances. So it’s easily understandable that some women’s feelings about their abortions would be complex, even while they are firm in their conviction that having one is/was right under the circumstances at the time.
Given the virulent campaign to make women feel guilty for making their own decisions about pregnancy, and to use that manufactured shame and guilt as a tool to keep them from doing so, even admitting that women may have conflicted feelings about abortion, or indeed that it is possible to be conflicted about one’s decisions without that fact undermining the right to make one’s own decisions at all, is the kind of frank discussion of fact that becomes so dangerous in the face of organized campaigns of falsehood that consistently distort facts to attack women’s independence. But an honest discussion of abortion, and honest, respectful, and welcoming acknowledgment of the women who have abortions, requires treating simple facts in a true and honest way. It in no way undermines the pro-choice principle – even if it will be used as a dishonest political attack – t0 say that women may have complicated feelings about pregnancy and abortion and may want to talk about them, and it serves those women more fully and respectfully to address that need openly and provide a tool for meeting it.
One bit of the Exhale Web site took me aback, and then left me even more impressed with their apparent devotion to honest and value-neutral service to women. They say:
If you have been diagnosed, or have self-diagnosed, as having Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome, Exhale understands that having a name for what you’re feeling and experiencing can feel important. Many women find the experience of identifying with this syndrome as positive and affirming. It is also important to know that having feelings about a significant life event doesn’t mean that you have a major psychological condition that requires medical care. For many women, naming and expressing their emotions, and having the space and support to do so, can be more empowering than being identified as having a disorder. Whether or not you think you have PASS, the most important thing is that you get support for what you’re feeling, not what someone else thinks you should be feeling. Exhale trusts you to know what feels right for yourself.
Exhale follows the findings of the American Psychological Association, which has not found a link between feelings that follow an abortion and a psychological condition in need of medical care.
This is startling, but strikes me as exactly right. “Post-Abortion Syndrome” is a wholly imaginary and deeply dishonest “diagnosis” invented out of whole cloth by anti-choicers. It exists (actually, is claimed to “exist”) only to discredit abortion – a procedure that serves women’s health and autonomy interests in a centrally vital way, and is actually safer than childbirth in almost all cases – as somehow pathological, in open defiance of established data (yet another example of a tactic that is pervasive on the right wing). The campaign to tout this fraudulent “syndrome” as a real condition has misled many women, often the youngest and most vulnerable among them; this is not just a travesty of medical science but an assault on women and their freedom. But the fact that some women have been conned into worrying about this fake disease, or mistaking their own natural complexity of feelings, or even regret, for some sort of illness on their part, must be met sensitively and with respect for the women who have those feelings, and the feelings they have.
It is unconscionable to participate in or endorse the deceptions the misogynist right practices against women and women’s independence, but it is vital to meet those women themselves, where they are and as they are feeling, and to validate their own perceptions of their situations and help them deal with them on their own terms. Exhale seems to walk this line bravely (given how easily such a stance can be misconstrued and used against them) and sensitively (given the difficulty of managing such a delicate distinction).
From what I see here – and again, I have no direct knowledge – the group hits the nail right on the head, in terms of acknowledging the range of women’s experiences and prioritizing their own perspectives on their situations, without downplaying every woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health. (Including family and friends, including men, in their services is also a sign of a sensitive and realistically broad approach.) Healthcare has more and more come to recognize the importance of a wholistic approach to patients’ needs and experiences, including post-treatment support. In a field in which any admission of need is turned into yet another attack on women’s strength and claim to independence, simple decency and understanding can become a liability. By refusing to play those games, the approach that Exhale seems to embody returns the truly important issue – women’s need for service, support, acceptance, and respect – to the center of the abortion issue where it belongs.
I’d be interested in hearing what others think or have seen, regarding Exhale or similar services. Has anyone who is willing to discuss it here participated in such counseling, or served as a facilitator? How significant is this sort of support, and does it help?
UPDATE: Wow, am I a dumbass! Somehow I completely forgot about this organization, after I had previously blogged about it back when they were first starting up! Guess I should read my own blog more often.
Additionally, I have heard from well-respected sources that Exhale is legit – they will talk to anyone in a non-judgmental way, but are in no way anti-choice.
From Comrade DougJ at Balloon Juice, this says it perfectly:
You know the drill on the politics of reproductive rights: most voters support a woman’s right to choose, but those who oppose it are much more likely to be one issue voters. Most anti-choice legislation focuses on fucking with poor people who vote Democrat anyway, so as not to alienate more middle-class and upper-class women (who are often strongly pro-choice but sometimes vote Republican anyway). I have to wonder at what point all this bullshit turns a lot of middle-class and upper-class women into single issue pro-choice voters. All this crap will stop as soon as that happens, but it will continue unabated until it does.
The key point is that the right wing hates upper-class women as much as they do lower class women (though for fewer reasons: they’re not poor, and more likely to be white, so that eliminates certain causes of the antagonism, but not its strength). Because of the class divide, the assault on women has less effect on the upper class, but the motivation is still there. When upper-class women begin to feel it, they’ll respond. (And in that regard, the move to eliminate tax deductions for all and only health plans that cover abortion may be welcome prod, as DougJ notes in the above-linked post.)
Sadly, solidarity begins when suffering is shared, not when it is merely noted. But GOP overreach makes that almost inevitable.
This is by far the least important of recent political incidents, but something about the Christopher Lee story demands comment. Lee was a married right-wing Republican Congressmember from New York who advertised for hookups on Craigslist, lying about his age, profession, and marital status, until a woman he flirted with found out who he really was and passed the information on to Gawker, which re-printed their entire e-mail exchange. When confronted by Gawker, Craig Lee at first evaded the truth and deleted his Facebook page, then submitted a letter of resignation from Congress barely one hour after Gawker broke the story.
This is funny, in the way that bad things happening to bad people are always funny, but, aside from the speed of his panicked reaction, the only thing surprising about a married sex-negative right-winger’s dishonesty and hypocrisy is that he appears to actually be heterosexual. For myself, not being a sex-negative right-wing bluenose, I’m not generally inclined to stand in judgment of other people’s sex lives. I would normally regard whatever promises of monogamy he made to his wife as an issue between them only, and I don’t regard lying about your age on Craigslist to be exactly the kind of transgression that rises to a Constitutional level. The fact that he chose to resign without even waiting to see the political consequences of his behavior speaks to his state of mind, but not to any rule of Congressional probity that I would think was necessary.
In fact, I had stopped reading Gawker after their nasty “expose” of Christine O’Donnell’s drunken hookup from the past; though O’Donnell’s a weird and creepy reactionary, the fact that she may actually like sex is not something to be held against her (the fact that she wants to criminalize it for other people is). Treating sex as some sort of scandalous behavior is wrong, often sexist, and plays into the right wing’s tactic of using people’s sex lives to punish them. Gawker, however, puts a trenchant point on this particular case:
Lee[‘s] support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and vote to reject federal abortion funding suggests a certain comfort with publicly scrutinizing others’ sex lives.
That’s what caught my attention about this case, and made me think it might be worth discussing, even though the basic content – dude gets some on the side, is embarrassed to be found out – should not in itself be a public issue. But there is a special kind of hypocrisy in engaging in private behaviors you want to criminalize or punish on other people’s parts. And there’s an argument for publicizing hypocritical behavior of that kind.
You can make an analogy here to the “Frank Rule” – the informal guideline for outing closeted gays in politics formulated by Barney Frank: people have a right to privacy, but those who seek to invade others’ privacy by punishing or criminalizing what should be a private matter have no expectation of privacy in that regard themselves, which is to say that closeted gays who promote anti-gay policies should be outed, but those who do not overtly work against gay rights should not be, even if they’re conservative in other ways. For similarly private issues other than homosexuality, I would think a parallel rule is reasonable: people have a right to be left alone, unless they refuse to leave others alone, in which case they should be regarded as fair game for scrutiny of their own behavior in its relevant aspects.
That raises the question whether this Craigslist idiocy (dumbass used his own name, picture, and Facebook account) is relevantly similar to the kinds of behavior Lee had previously devoted himself to demonizing – specifically, the sex lives of women and gays – to make his extramarital peccadilloes worth revealing or discussing. (Again, Lee resigned in such a flighty panic that almost nobody actually had discussed it. But it was Gawker’s expose that triggered his resignation, so we can ask whether Gawker itself should have broken the story, and whether it’s fair game for continued discussion now.) You could argue that, because his sexual pursuits were heterosexual, and he himself wasn’t having an abortion, his antipathy to other kinds of sexual autonomy does not implicate his own meandering. But that’s exactly the kind of straight-male privilege that most sexual discrimination turns on, and that leads wingnuts like Lee to believe they have the right to criminalize sexual freedoms that they don’t personally happen to need or want.
This case should be seen as an issue of sexual freedom pure and simple – the right of an individual to make their own sexual decisions and accept their consequences as a private matter. Lee should have that right, in regard of his skeezy hetero Craigslist trolling, just as gays should be free to seek and indulge the relationships they prefer, and women should have the authority both to own and indulge their own sexuality and to control their bodies in service of that end. Lee wants to strip those rights from everyone else, knowing that he will continue to enjoy almost unfettered privilege in his own sex life. When his openly-published Craigslist ad was revealed (along with his private e-mails), he complained that he had been violated:
A spokesman for the Congressman confirmed that the email address belonged to Lee, and that he had deleted his Facebook account because [Gawker’s] initial inquiry had him fretting about “privacy.”
But Lee’s career has been devoted to destroying the privacy of more than half of all society, in its most vital dimensions, not by revealing lame e-mail come-ons but by stripping them of control of their lives and sexual identities – in fact, subjecting them to imprisonment on such grounds in some cases. The issue is not whose privacy is being invaded, or what acts are subjected to scrutiny and punishment, but the simple fact that sex is used by people like Lee to punish other people, and they should, at the very least, not be allowed to enjoy immunity from that same punishment on those same grounds.
The fact that he cheats on his wife is a tawdry and ordinary hypocrisy that is of no concern to anyone but them – it’s a kind of lie he tells her, and is contemptible in its own way but not a public matter (we’re surely not going to start cashiering Congressmembers for lying). But Lee and those like him would like to think that their sexual preferences enjoy a privileged status, one that not only gives them immunity for their own behavior but the right to denigrate and demonize those whose preferences are different. Everyone should enjoy privacy in their sexual lives (note here the vicious hypocrisy in Lee’s claim of a right of “privacy” to commit “adultery” while working against the right of privacy in women’s lives that underlies their right to abortion). But if Lee is going to decimate the vital privacy that protects the most persecuted aspects of people’s lives, he can hardly claim the trivial right to privately hook up on Craigslist behind his wife’s back. Outing Lee in this case is an affirmation that his right to sexual freedom is not just equal to, it is exactly the same right as, that of homosexuals to live their lives without interference, and of women to make their own sexual choices. The only difference is that the stakes in Lee’s case are so much lower.
Today the wingers are hugging themselves over the fact that the New Jersey state legislature failed to override Gov. Christie’s veto of family-planning funding for low-income women in that state. The funding reduction particularly targets services provided by Planned Parenthood – the nation’s largest single non-governmental provider of reproductive healthcare to the poor. Naturally, this was trumpeted as an attack on “Planned Parenthood’s abortion business” – a claim as false as it is stupid. Not only were the funds in question earmarked for services that have nothing to do with abortion, but they provide no indirect support of abortion, and the clinic that was affected does not provide abortions! What the Republicans did manage to do was shut down basic and necessary reproductive healthcare services – of virtually all kinds except abortion – for thousands of low-income patients, while crowing about their non-existent and deliberately disengenuous anti-choice “coup”.
First, Planned Parenthood does not have an “abortion business”. (They’re a non-profit – they aren’t a business at all.) Abortions (just 3% of PP’s annual clinical visits, nationwide) are provided by PP at rates generally below cost – they are subsidized by donations. (This – and their non-profit status – defeats the lie that PP is making a “profit” on abortion services.) Funding for other services is also heavily subsidized, and also in part paid for under government aid programs for healthcare for low-income people – typically Medicaid or SCHIP. That is, low-income patients who qualify for subsidized care can get that care at PP – while many for-profit providers simply refuse to take such patients at all – and PP is reimbursed, just like any clinic, under the appropriate plan. Those fees pay only for the services rendered, at the government-mandated rates, which are so low that, again, most mainstream providers simply refuse to accept them or the patients that are thereby covered. PP makes up the difference from its donation revenue – the government payments are so low they not only do not fund other PP activities, they don’t even fund the activities they nominally are supposed to pay for. (This defeats the lie that low-income healthcare reimbursement subsidizes abortion services.)
All this can easily be verified by looking at PP’s publicly-posted annual reports, which clearly show that a large portion of its clinical costs are subsidized by donations (24% of all revenue, in 2007) – no source of fee income for clinical services, whether abortion-related or not, government or private, is sufficient to actually pay for those services; all such fee income is used up in costs of the care itself, and then some.
But beyond this, the actual effect of the funding cut, as mentioned above, is to force closure of a clinic that did not provide abortions. The entire dishonest grandstanding really targeted ordinary healthcare and reproductive health services for low-income patients, largely women but some men. It had nothing – financially, practically, or even geographically – to do with Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, or the availability of abortion in New Jersey in general. But anti-choice ideology was a convenient stalking horse for the GOP’s anti-woman, anti-healthcare, anti-sex hatred, and it worked perfectly in this case.
What Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey actually does do – and which is no longer available from the clinic that is shutting down – includes, among other things:
- All methods of contraception, prescriptive and non-prescriptive
- Complete GYN physical exam
- Treatment for many GYN problems
- Laboratory screening
- Cancer screening (Pap test, breast self exam)
- Testing and treatment for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
- Emergency Contraception
- Colposcopy & cryotherapy
- Pregnancy testing & counseling
- Pre-Natal Care
- Gardasil (HPV vaccine)
- HIV testing & counseling
- Hepatitis B vaccine
Male Services (25 and under)
- Condoms / Contraceptive Education
- Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) screening & treatment
- HIV Testing & Counseling
- Health Screening
Pre-natal care plays an important role in providing a comprehensive package of medical and health support services for the pregnant woman. Pre-natal care promotes optimum health, prevents disease and provides a mechanism to manage potential problems and can have a long lasting positive effect upon the family. At PPSNJ, we provide the following pre-natal services:
- Medical exams
- Laboratory services
- WIC Program
- Pregnancy support and education
- Nutrition education
- Adolescent parenting support groups
- Delivery at Cooper University Hospital or other referral
[C]omprehensive, age appropriate sexuality education and training for pre-adolescents, teens, families, schools, community groups, faith-based settings, other social service organizations and healthcare providers.
- Workshops and Professional Training
- Speakers and classroom presentations
- Curriculum Development
- Teen Programs
- Fathers Group
None of that is available now, at one of their primary locations, thanks to the “pro-life” assholes of the Republican party. Their ideology is made clear by the fact that the elimination of this funding not only has no affect on the funding of abortions (see above), but in fact directly impacts a clinic that does not even provide abortions. What it does eliminate is a local source of low-cost healthcare for the financially needy population, most of it focused on reproductive health and pre-natal services. That was their target, and that was their effect. The abortion nonsense – aside from being an outright lie – was a red herring.
The GOP hates women, hates the poor, and hates people who make their own decisions about sex and reproduction. Today they’ve eliminated healthcare for thousands of them, while having absolutely no impact on abortion, although banking on and claiming a political payoff for anti-choice ideology as a means to that end.
More of their standard, repulsive, dishonest and hateful same.
The recent federal-court decision invalidating California’s ban on gay marriages was of course welcome and long overdue. And there’s a lot of commentary from across the political spectrum predicting that it will be upheld at the Supreme Court level, given Justice Kennedy’s authorship of both major recent groundbreaking decisions favoring equality for gays (Romer, invalidating an exception to equal-rights statutes in the case of gays, and Lawrence, invalidating the criminalization of gay sex), and his status as inevitable swing vote on discrimination issues. So – while nothing is yet assured – this is a watershed, and very hopeful, moment for the cause of equality.
The question it raises, however, is what kind of backlash this will trigger. One likely possibility is an attempt to push through a Constitutional amendment imposing discrimination nationwide. Although that possibility concerned me greatly, I am – with fingers crossed – hopeful that such a movement would be unavailing. By the time any such plan could gain traction, there will have been several years’ worth of experience with gay marriage, and increasing experience of life under a national-level Supreme Court decision for equality, tending to reduce the panic over the supposed consequences of gay marriages. The political winds have shifted, also; it’s true that the GOP is somewhat resurgent, but the grounds for debate are now dominated by economic issues, and the religious-right/teabag movement is proving more and more of a liability for the GOP. I suspect the homophobic firestorm the GOP deliberately stoked in 1996, which created gay marriage as a political issue for their base, will not be possible in 2012. And, too, Constitutional amendments over controversial issues are hard to pass, and this one is unlikely to have enough momentum to overcome the inevitable decline of the homophobic movement as the reality of gay marriage proves their crazy ranting is just pointless. So I suspect there will be an attempt to pass the first-ever Constitutional amendment creating a new form of discrimination, but it will fizzle out.
However, I just read speculation elsewhere that gay marriage will become “another Roe v. Wade” – that is, a cultural flashpoint issue that will polarize society and give the right wing something to agitate about forever. That is no reason to oppose equality, of course, but it is a daunting prospect nonetheless. And that commenter was surely right that the (presumptive) institution of equality by the Supreme Court, and the failure of legislative or Constitutional processes to maintain discrimination, will energize the right wing and serve as a focus of grievance for them for the forseeable future. And yet, as I think about it, it occurs to me that this outcome may not be as destructive as it would seem, and could even have an upside. I suspect that the wingnuts will indeed agitate interminably over gay equality, and this will have two consequences: (1) it will further marginalize the religious right, and (2) it could conceivably bolster support for abortion rights as well.
The argument for the first possibility above is obvious. As gay marriages become more and more commonplace, and as disinformation about priests being forced to perform gay marriages, or children being “indoctrinated” in schools, are disproven by everyday experience, the disingenuous fearmongering that drives the hate movement will be undermined. The haters will simply serve to highlight the unhinged and bigoted streak that infects the Republican party and, as Sarah Palin is quickly becoming, and Sharron Angle already has become, will be an albatross around the neck that the GOP will eventually be glad to be rid of.
The argument toward a pro-autonomy rebound is less intuitive, but not implausible, I think. The idea that gay marriage will galvanize conservatives like abortion did is likely true. The parallels between the issues are strong: each is a cause celebre’ for the religious right, grounded on religious visions of morality, driven by a deep-seated revulsion to sex, and centering on a despised group whose claims to equality and autonomy the religious right hates and resents. And the campaigns waged by the right against autonomy and self-determination in both cases are again similar: bizarre predictions of the consequences of allowing people to make their own decisions, Biblical injunctions against equality and non-patriarchal sex, deliberate lies and disinformation about the implications of freedom in each case, hateful moralistic judgmentalism, simply deluded scientific disinformation, and a manipulative pretended concern “for the children”, all of it as grossly distorted and dishonest as it is possible to be. As wingnut hot-button issues, they do have much in common.
It is that close parallel that, I think, spells (indirect, and uncertain) good news for the pro-choice position. The campaign against equality for gays is very similar to the campaign against self-determination for women. The basic idea at the bottom of both campaigns – that one particularly backward and restrictive religious view of how people should live their lives should be made mandatory for everyone, by law – is the same, and the attempt to regulate sexual behavior that they disapprove of is likewise a common central element in both campaigns. The gay-marriage controversy brings this to the fore because that issue is clearly solely driven by sex-based animus, but the same elements are at work in the abortion issue. And so, as the gay marriage controversy is exposed as the panicky, lunatic hatefest that it is, all other attempts to restrict the rights of autonomous adults to make their own decisions in areas reflecting on their sex lives will be simultaneously undercut. To the extent it becomes obvious that “gay marriage” is a wholly invented controversy based on ludicrous and bizarre apprehensions about other people’s sex lives, and the characterizations of its proponents and participants were absurdly false and fantastical, and its presence in the community is not a threat or a curse, and the claims and predictions made about it were false and invented, it will become that much easier to see how those same distortions have driven the anti-choice campaign in the same ways. And, most of all, the more it becomes obvious that the anti-gay-marriage people are simply hateful and barely sane, and that their movement is a product of their religiously-inspired reactionism, and that they are the same people who are driving the anti-choice campaign, the true nature of that project will become more obvious as well.
The bottom line is, letting the wingnuts discredit themselves over gay marriage can only work to the advantage of the pro-choice community (and related progressive movements). It will be an ugly and hateful process, but a necessary cleansing, and possibly a road to a better day in the future.
There’s a lot of blogging today over a sensationalistic post at NRO by Shannen Coffin, a former Bush lawyer who was responsible for anti-choice litigation surrounding the so-called “partial birth” abortion ban. She He notes a 1996 memo from the files of the Clinton administration, predating Clinton’s veto of the anti-choice bill, in which Elena Kagan, then a Clinton legal advisor, recommended a change in language in the policy statement eventually issued by the American College of Gynecologists supporting their opposition to the bill. They originally stated that “in the vast majority of cases, selection of the partial birth procedure is not necessary to avert serious adverse consequences to a woman’s health”, and that they “could identify no circumstances under which intact D&X would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman”, but – on Kagan’s recommendation – clarified that by also noting that it “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman”. (Note that ACOG explicitly reaffirmed this policy, using the same language, at least three more times, in 1997, 2000, and 2003). That policy statement was later referred to by at least one federal judge, in litigation on the constitutionality of the ban later enacted by Bush.
Coffin’s conclusions are that this is a “distortion of science”, that “language purporting to be the judgment of an independent body of medical experts devoted to the care and treatment of pregnant women and their children was, in the end, nothing more than the political scrawling of a White House appointee”, and that “Miss [sic] Kagan’s decision to override a scientific finding with her own calculated distortion in order to protect access to the most despicable of abortion procedures seriously twisted the judicial process” – naturally she he rolls this up into the ongoing Kagan Supreme Court confirmation hearings as well. The right-wing idiotocracy is all a-Twitter, too, natch: Powerline declares this is a “smoking gun” and “shocking”; Riehl calls it “misrepresenting science” and “dishonest”; the risible Betsy, of Betsy’s Page, reads this and concludes that “there was a doctors’ opinion that said that partial birth abortion was not necessary and she, with no medical background at all, drafted a statement that said the exact opposite”. Yuval Levin, the severely bioethics-challenged former staff manager of Bush’s Presidential Council on Bioethics, declares this to be a “war on science”, “astonishing”, and “easily the most serious and flagrant violation of the boundary between scientific expertise and politics I have ever encountered”.
This sort of nonsense is particularly astounding from Levin, who was a central player in the workings of an “ethics” commission that remains a watchword for right-wing distortion and duplicity, whose major policy statements drew dissenting opinions from its own most scientifically-qualified members, and which then censored, and later fired, those same members. Levin – a political scientist and former Bush White House policy staffmember who has spent his entire career crafting right-wing bioethics policy – also castigates Kagan for her lack of medical expertise and her involvement in healthcare policymaking. You really just can’t make this stuff up.
It’s especially disingenuous for people like Levin and Coffin – political hacks whose entire career consists of trying to influence policy to fit their ideological leanings, from both inside and outside the government – to claim that there’s something untoward in political policy staff conferring with the policy-making boards of professional organizations to shape language on statements issued in clearly political and legal contexts. That sort of thing goes on all the time, and it’s appropriate for such bodies of experts to confer with political authorities to ensure that their statements are effectively written and focused. It would be inappropriate for them to turn themselves over to the political authorities as tools of policy, and to issue statements they did not believe were true, but it’s not inappropriate to get guidance on language and emphasis in order to convey an effective message. (As Coffin herself notes, ACOG already opposed the anti-choice bill. Obviously they would want their policy statement to reflect the reasons why.) To suggest that a policy expert drafting language for a policy statement endorsed by a professional body is somehow scandalous – let alone unusual – is simply stupid. And to suggest, as Coffin and others have recklessly done, that ACOG is somehow compromised or tarnished in doing so, is not merely stupid and dishonest, but libelous.
Aside from the completely manufactured, and fictional, scandal that the right-wing noise machine is busily whipping up over this, there is also the simple fact that the language Kagan suggested does not replace or contradict the language previously present. The statement that there are “no circumstances under which intact D&X would be the only option” is entirely compatible with the claim that it “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman” (emphases added). It’s simple, really: the fact that something is never the only option in no way means that it is a bad option; the revised language not only implicitly acknowledges this but clarifies for the dim-witted (i.e., conservatives) the even more important point that it is in fact sometimes the best option. (Obviously, Intact D&X is never the only option: you can always perform an unnecessary Cesearean section or force the woman to deliver a fetus that may be dying and may possibly kill her – options that are much prefereable, for conservatives, than allowing a woman to choose the safest option on her own authority. ACOG’s point, which Kagan nudged them towards, is that there are often better options – and that women should have the right to choose them.)
The fight over Intact D&X was particularly nasty because it encapsulates so much of right-wing misogyny, so clearly: it was not a ban on abortion, and it was not a ban on late-term abortions; in fact, it did not ban any abortions under any circumstances. It was only and entirely a ban on one particular procedure for performing abortions. It banned the procedure that was preferable in specific circumstances – leaving abortions entirely legal under those circumstances but forcing women to submit to a procedure that was less safe and more debilitating for them. It was straightforwardly an attempt to punish women by making them accept higher risks and a lower standard of care, as the price for choosing a procedure the right wing disapproved. And ACOG’s policy statement implicitly recognized this: it notes that there are always alternatives to the ID&X procedure, but that in some circumstances those alternatives are worse, and ID&X is, in those circumstances, the best or most appropriate procedure. Kagan’s contribution – appropriate, useful, and highly pro-woman – was to encourage them to clarify that distinction. (Note, again, that ACOG explicitly reiterated this policy, and the important distinction it makes, three times after Kagan supposedly “overrode” their scientific judgment in the matter by forcing them to include language that does not contradict that judgment.)
Raising this issue is simply another example of the right-wing’s reflexive insanity over sex and abortion, coupled with their inherent inability to read and comprehend basic logical statements. (Note “Betsy”‘s analysis: “there was a doctors’ opinion that said that partial birth abortion was not necessary [no, there simply wasn’t] and . . . [Kagan] drafted a statement that said the exact opposite” [no, she didn’t].) Honestly, the relationship between “not the only” and “sometimes the best” is really not that tricky. It’s too tricky, of course, for the average right-winger, and for people like Coffin and Levin, whose deficiencies were all too apparent back when they were writing policy for Bush, but to people of normal intelligence and reading comprehension, this entire farce is an obviously groundless, and all-too-familiar, political hackery.
The right wing is also up in arms over this because, as Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, & Money notes:
the only point of this feeble “smoking gun” is to allow Senate Republicans to mention the phrase “partial birth abortion” a lot [and] I should note once again that for reasons Judge Posner and Justice Stevens have explained the entire issue is a farce. The distinction between D&X abortions and other abortion procedures is wholly arbitrary, and for people who have supported irrational laws making such a distinction to pretend to care about rigorous medical science is nothing but comedy of the lowest form.
Mahablog was fast out of the blocks on this, in a post I wish I’d written:
if you actually understand the issue in question — which leaves out righties, naturally — you’d know there is no “there” there. . . . Somehow, in the fevered imagination of righties, a professional organization representing 90 percent of U.S. board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists was duped by Kagan into telling a lie, or something, and because this wording came from Kagan it must not actually reflect the views of ACOG. . . . no scientific finding was “overridden,” just clarified, and ACOG must have agreed with the statement or they wouldn’t have continued to repeat it in their position papers ever after.
Lemieux gets the content issue exactly right:
There’s no contradiction between the two drafts, because D&X abortions are, in fact, not medically necessary in a majority of cases. But this fact doesn’t mean that they are never medically necessary, and indeed the original statement implies that there are cases where D&X abortions are necessary or preferable for a protecting a woman’s health. Adding a statement to clarify what was implicit in the first draft doesn’t “distort” anything, and of course if ACOG didn’t think the statement was accurate Kagan had no power to get them to change it. There’s nothing here.
UPDATE: Corrected pronouns referring to Coffin; he’s a “he”, not a “she”. My apologies to Coffin for the mistake.
UPDATE: Another right-wing website breathlessly announces that Kagan “pressured a second group” on its wording of its pro-choice policy. That group was the AMA. Their claim: “Kagan discussed with other Clinton administration officials whether the AMA could reverse its policy saying there is not an identified situation in which partial-birth abortion is the only appropriate method of abortion. The AMA also noted ethical concerns with partial-birth abortions and said that it should not be used unless it is absolutely necessary.” Note that this repeats exactly the same mistake all the other commentators made about the first memo: the two positions described are not contradictory, and there is no “reversal” in evidence! And Kagan’s particular crime: she wrote an e-mail saying “We agreed to do a bit of thinking about whether we (in truth, HHS) could contribute to that effort . . . . Chuck and I are meeting with the AG on Tuesday; Donna offered to send over some doctors this week”. They don’t even identify who the e-mail was sent to (obviously it was internal), or whether any such meeting ever took place, let alone had any effect. (Apparently the AMA does the bidding of any government staff lawyer who offers to “contribute” to their policy development.) Truly, the stupid knows no bounds with these people.
The latest entry in the “creepy personified fetus” category: the “Feti” – weird/cutesy Christmas-tree ornaments shaped like tiny embryos at about the 6-8 week stage (bulbous head, no digits, visible tail). As is usual with this genre, they sport adult-appropriate personal characteristics, including clothes, personal possessions, and in one case a moustache. You can buy Santa fetuses, “happy” fetuses, candy-cane-carrying fetuses, and an “Adam Lambert” fetus displaying a punk hairdo and clutching a Star of David – a cultural mishmash that I refuse to attempt to understand.
The purveyor of the site insists that “Feti is just for fun, no political statements being made here.” I’m tempted to believe that in her case, but the thing still strikes me as weird, and indicative of a mindset that is worth noting.
The vendor suggests these are intended as gifts for expectant parents, as appropriate additions to the “Baby’s First _____” category of remembrances. (Exactly how, I’m not sure: “Baby’s First Disembodied Hanging on a Christmas Tree”?) In that vein, they play off the very common and understandable practice of many expectant parents in personifying their fetus as it develops – talking to it, playing music, naming it before it is born, and so on. They also seem to accept as a cultural commonplace the fetishizing – literally, in this case! – and personifying of the fetus that is a mainstay of anti-choice propaganda. (Anti-choicers often wear gold-plated fetal-footprint jewelry, and they are forever trying to force abortion patients to look at pictures or sonograms of the fetus.)
I don’t know if the anti-choice movement has so far succeeded in turning the fetus into a fetish object that you can now literally market them to the general public as holiday ornaments, or if the common desire to see fetuses as sort of reverse-extensions of babies simply makes this a natural marketing move, like Cabbage Patch dolls or those weird Anne Geddes photographs of babies in flower petals, and the right wing has merely piggybacked off that common emotional trope for their own purposes. The former would scare me a bit, the latter is merely infuriating. Either way, this sort of thing leaves me with a creepy feeling.
I’m happy for people to be happy about their pregnancies, and to embue their future offspring with emotional valence or even a somewhat overgrandiose sense of promise or accomplishment. In the same way that all parents think their kids are smart and talented, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that, expectant parents can and should go ga-ga over the cute little buns in their respective ovens. There is no point, in the case of people’s emotional experience of the events in their lives, to go around insisting to them “you know it has no functional higher nervous system, right?” . . . “that’s not a ‘person’ you’re carrying, in any meaningful sense of the term – just wanted to let you know” . . . “don’t get too close to it – there’s about a 1-in-12 chance you’ll lose the pregnancy”. But when it comes to law and policy-making, clear distinctions do have to be made – and at that point, the conflict between stark reality and parents’ expectations may be uncomfortable.
Regardless of parental beliefs, not all kids are smart or talented, and thus some won’t make it into selective academic or sports or art programs. And regardless of the fervent, desperately dishonest myth-making of the anti-choice right, the early fetus is not a person and does not make moral claims on a woman’s body and life sufficient to override her autonomy. It is unfortunate to have to disappoint people emotionally invested in believing otherwise, but it is far worse to make policy based on wishful thinking in defiance of the truth.
By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and hang a smiling Adam Lambert Jewish punk fetus upon the highest bough. But let’s keep the “personified fetus” myth firmly in its place when we go to making important decisions about real issues in real people’s lives.
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