Category Archives: Women’s Rights & Women’s Health

Getting Dumped On: Snowmaggedon, Women’s Health and Human Rights

A Guest Post by Amy Agigian, Founding Director of the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University

AmyAgigianGreetings from Boston, where we are currently experiencing Snowmageddon 2015. We’ve had four storms, accumulating over seven feet of snow, in less than three weeks, making this the snowiest month in Boston’s long recorded history.

But what does our unparalleled snowfall have to do with women’s health and human rights? First, the health effects of extreme temperatures hit those with fewest resources–money, housing, safety, good health–hardest. It makes sense if you think about it: if you’re already sick, or living in a violent home or neighborhood, added difficulty getting around is much more serious than for healthy people who are safe at home. If you are homeless or have precarious housing, finding shelter and keeping track of your possessions is that much harder in the brutal cold. The lower your income, the more you will likely depend on massively-disrupted public transportation. And obviously, if you have little money, you can least afford to miss days of work when businesses shut down during blizzards. People caring for children and other dependents also struggle with the dearth of passable sidewalks, breakdowns in public transportation, inability to rely on the timely arrival of caregivers, and simply being stuck in the house day after day.

In addition to these immediate burdens, this historic weather has longer-term implications. Counterintuitively, Boston’s “extreme weather events” are likely part and parcel of global climate change. Global warming leads to more severe snow and rain storms, as well as heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Instead of this month being a freak outlier, we are likely to suffer more, and worse, extreme weather events as climate change intensifies.

All over the world, women bear the worst brunt of a degraded environment. As  UNFPA explains, women are disproportionately affected by global environmental hazards. Women are the majority of those who stretch the family budget when income is disrupted, take care of family members when they can’t afford or access formal healthcare, and walk farther to gather and carry water or firewood. All over the world, women’s resources and health are taxed by such burdens. These hardships exacerbate violations of human rights including the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, and gender equality.

It follows, then, that women must be central to finding both short and long-term solutions to these problems. Women bring critical perspectives, insights, and priorities to discussions of extreme weather. Women’s health and human rights should be put at the center of all policy discussions and funding decisions, at every stage of planning and implementation of solutions. Snowmageddon 2015 has brought much of New England to a grinding halt. Centering women’s health and human rights can help it from becoming the new normal.

Click here to read about the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights.

 

 

Sex, Gender and Informed Consent

A shorter (and much pithier) version of this essay was published today in the Washington Post.

California’s SB967 – better known as the “yes means yes” law – clarifies the contours of sexual consent. For universities to receive state funds, they must now employ an “affirmative consent standard.” That means that both parties must actively, consciously and voluntarily agree to engage in sexual activity.

“Yes means yes” addresses both the high rate and the particular nature of sexual assaults on college campuses. According to studies one in five college women have been sexually assaulted. College victims are especially likely to be raped by someone they know and / or while incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. And they are less likely than women in the general population to define their experience of sexual assault as “rape” or to report assaults to law enforcement authorities. Because most campus rapes are not carried out by self-conscious criminals who set out to commit sexual assaults, SB967 makes use of the opportunities offered by a college setting to reduce sexual violence through education rather than solely through punitive actions.

Critics have argued that this measure will be impossible to implement on the grounds that “consent” is too difficult to gauge, that it constitutes government intrusions into the privacy of one’s bedroom, that it unconstitutionally presumes guilt, and (I assume mockingly) that it will require all men to tape video cameras to their genitals in order to prove that women continue to consent throughout the entire sexual encounter.

Concerns regarding the nature and feasibility of consent are not new, and fortunately for California and other states considering similar laws, these concerns have been thoroughly and successfully addressed in other settings. As the former Chair of the Institutional Review Board (the body that reviews the ethics of research involving human subjects) at Suffolk University, I have seen how well-developed, refined and extensively evaluated protocols for informed consent in human subjects research contain real protections for vulnerable populations as well as the flexibility to allow research to thrive.

Clearly, there are differences between research and party settings in terms of the business-like atmosphere of research interactions versus the recreational atmosphere of college interactions, the clarity with which the roles of researcher and subject versus the roles of college class mates are defined, and the amount of planning that goes into research versus a party.

But there are significant similarities as well. In both settings everyone involved may assume that all parties to the interaction have everyone’s best interests at heart and that there are no or minimal risks to participation. It is these kinds of assumptions — both by researchers and by subjects — that led to tragedies such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which rural African American men were given free meals (and burials) for participating in the study, but were neither told that they were infected with nor were they treated for syphilis and to the need for subsequent restrictions on human subjects’ research.

Protocols for protecting human subjects recognize the power differentials inherent in the relationship between researchers (in possession of knowledge, institutional backing, monetary resources and access to goods and services such as new medical treatments) and human subjects. Gendered interactions similarly are inherently unequal given the greater incomes, financial assets, political power, physical size and strength of men, as well as the far greater likelihood that women (nearly one in five) have been raped at some time in their lives.

If regulations, whether for human subjects’ research or for sexual consent, at times seem tedious, we acknowledge that past injustices and current inequalities legitimately demand heightened scrupulousness in ensuring true, informed consent. Informed consent does not mean reading off a list of bureaucratic legalese. To the contrary, it entails authentic conversation regarding the roles of all participants.

How would this play out in a college setting?

Just as a researcher cannot acquire informed consent from a comatose or cognitively impaired subject, “yes means yes” requires that all parties to a sexual encounter are conscious and sufficiently sober to give meaningful consent. Consent does not necessarily need to be verbal – it can be indicated by a vigorous nod of the head or by moving in closer to the partner to the interaction. But it can never be assumed simply by the absence of aggressive resistance.

Along the same lines, it is the responsibility of the researcher to share with potential subjects all information needed to make an informed decision, and to clarify that the subject heard and understood that information. In terms of “yes means yes,” this principle translates into the responsibility of potential sexual partners to disclose information such as HIV status, the existence of other committed relationships, or actual motivations behind the encounter (for instance, whether the encounter is part of a fraternity initiation ritual).

Researchers are required to present potential subjects with a real choice regarding participation; we are not permitted to offer substantial monetary incentives and we are not allowed to withhold access to services or resources for those who do not wish to participate. The responsibility of researchers to refrain from badgering, tricking, or threatening subjects or potential subjects directly translates to the college setting where potential sexual partners should be trained to avoid pressure such as “If you don’t have sex with me I’ll tell people you’re a frigid bitch and you’ll never be invited to another party” or trickery such as inviting a first year student to a “cool” frat party with the intention of plying her with alcohol and manipulating her into a sexual encounter.

Particularly relevant to colleges, researchers are required to inform and remind human subjects that they may leave the study – with no negative repercussions and no need to justify or explain their decision – whenever they wish. In terms of SB967, a kiss really can just be a kiss and both parties to the kiss can walk away without threatening or humiliating accusations of “leading me on.”

In human subjects’ research, as in sexual encounters, no law will change the behavior of those few individuals truly intent on hurting others. While the initial push for human subject’s research regulation came about in response to the horrific Nazi medical experimentation on powerless victims, I don’t believe that the best ethics board in the world could have stopped Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

Along the same lines, I do not believe that SB967 will stop a perpetrator who consciously sets out to assault a fellow college student. It will, however, educate the many men who do not wish to be abusers on how to assess their own behavior and interactions. It will empower the many women who are not sure whether they really can say “no,” or if the unwanted sexual encounter really was “rape” to report and confront harmful actions and policies. And it will obligate colleges to provide compulsory and meaningful training in gender equity to women and men.

In human subjects’ research the bottom line is that we educate researchers to make honest and intelligent efforts not to exploit or cause harm to others, and we acknowledge that in the heat of the moment (yes, researchers do get passionate) we might be tempted to use our status or power to coercively. As a community of well-intentioned scholars, we welcome the guidance on how to minimize the risk of doing so. In that light, it’s hard to see why there has been so much opposition to “yes means yes.”

Read more here on why “yes means yes” is good for women and men.

Yes Means Yes: Kudos to California

Ono-Yes
Yoko Ono

Kudos to California

California’s Governor Jerry Brown, on September 28, 2014, signed into law a bill making California the first state in the nation to require universities receiving state funds to use an “affirmative consent standard” for determining whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. SB967 represents a paradigm shift from women as victims and potential victims whom we need to encourage to shout “no” a bit louder, to women as agents who have the positive right to engage or refrain from engaging in sexual relations when and with whom and under circumstances of their choosing.

Schools and colleges have been trying to convey the message that “no means no” for at least two decades, yet according to recent data about 20% of women are sexually assaulted in college. In other words, “just say no” hasn’t worked any better in preventing sexual violence than it did in the utterly failed war on drugs. Designed to address high incidences and less-than-stellar responses to rape, sexual harassment and stalking on college campuses, SB967 removes the onus from potential victims to unequivocally convey and prove refusal or resistance (“no”) and places the onus on potential perpetrators to ensure active consent (“yes”).

“Affirmative consent,” according to the bill, “means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.” The bill further clarifies that “it shall not be a valid excuse that the accused believed that the complainant affirmatively consented to the sexual activity if the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the complainant was unable to consent to the sexual activity.”

The Problem with the Status Quo

“No means no” has been the dominant anti-rape paradigm in the United States for the past several decades. One unfortunate consequence of the “no” paradigm is the responsibility it places on women who have been assaulted to prove that they really did say “no.” But even in the wake of the Violence Against Women Act, the majority of rapists are not arrested; only an estimated 5% of rapists are convicted; and an estimated 3% spend any time in jail.

Rape remains one of the few crimes in which the victim is scrutinized for ulterior motives, false accusations and moral deviance. Despite rape shield laws designed to protect women from verbal assaults by defense lawyers at rape trials, victims can be asked about their social and sexual history when these issues are ruled relevant to determining consent. Victims least likely to see offenders convicted are older, poorer, deemed promiscuous or prostitutes, have a psychiatric or drug abuse history or criminal record, didn’t overtly resist or were acquainted with the offender, or had a history of previous rape or abuse.

Joy, one of the Boston area women whom I have come to know through my work with criminalized women, explained to me that when she went to court to testify against a man who violently and brutally raped her, she assumed that the evidence against the perpetrator was very strong: DNA evidence had led to his arrest originally – his DNA was found on the police computer system; police offers and crime scene officers testified; other witnesses from her apartment building testified; the nurse who examined her in the emergency room testified. However, he was found not guilty. “The last three questions the defense attorney asked me are: Isn’t it true that you were in prison? Isn’t it true that you are an addict? Isn’t it true that you used to work in prostitution?” In other words, her “no” didn’t count.

Joy’s experience represents a broad trend: In this era of DNA testing, consent is the primary defense used in rape cases. Coming at this time, California’s affirmative consent standard is a critical step in diverting attention away from the behavior, clothes, personality, drug use, criminal record or degree of resistance by women who have been raped and placing it where it belongs – on the actions of the perpetrator.

The Need for a New Model

California’s new “yes means yes” law has been critiqued as impossible to implement on the grounds that “consent” is too difficult to assess. I disagree. As the former Chair of the Institutional Review Board (the body that reviews the ethics of research involving human subjects) at Suffolk University, I suggest that the State of California turn to the well-developed, refined and extensively evaluated protocols for informed consent in human subjects research as a model for interpretation and implementation of affirmative consent in sexual activity.

Protocols for protecting human subjects acknowledge the power differentials inherent in the relationship between researchers (in possession of knowledge, institutional backing, monetary resources and access to goods and services such as new medical treatments) and human subjects. The structural imbalance of power in the relationship between researcher and subject demands that researchers are pro-active and clear in facilitating the informed consent or refusal of each human subject. Consent cannot be assumed, silence does not mean “yes,” and it is the responsibility of the researcher to present potential subjects with a real and meaningful choice regarding participation in the research, to refrain from offering inappropriate financial incentives, and to avoid any hint of threatening negative repercussions for refusal to participate. The process of asking for and receiving informed consent includes: (1) disclosing to potential research subjects information needed to make an informed decision; (2) facilitating the understanding of what has been disclosed; and (3) positively promoting the voluntariness of the decision about whether or not to participate in the research.

The language and the technicalities (such as written proof of consent) used in human subjects’ research would need to be revised to meet the needs of ensuring consensual sexual activity, but the model makes a great deal of sense. Like research interactions, gendered interactions are inherently unequal given the greater incomes, financial assets, political power and physical size and strength of men as a group vis-à-vis women as a group, and the far greater likelihood that women (nearly one in five) than men (one in 71) has been raped at some time in their lives. Clearly spelling out the responsibilities of those in positions of dominance will in the long run facilitate positive interactions despite power differentials. And clearly spelling out the rights of those in subordinate positions will, I believe, contribute to more equality in all spheres of life.

You can read more on Yes Means Yes here.

You can read more about Joy here: Guilty Until Proven Innocent | Suicide is Painful  | Suicide is Painful, Update

You can read further analyses of rape culture here: Ray Rice and Cultures of Violence /Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips

Ray Rice and Cultures of Violence

In this piece published today in the Washington Post I argue that since jail teaches people how to be better criminals, it likely also teaches men like Ray Rice how to be better batterers. Click on the link to read the full article.

Be careful about sending domestic abusers to jail. It might make them even more violent

From sports talk radio hosts to feminist bloggers, just about everyone seems to agree: Former Ravens player Ray Rice should be locked up. We should throw away the key.

They’re wrong.

Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips

rapewhistle2

You can read this and other posts by a wide range of women’s health clinicians, advocates and activists on the Our Bodies Ourselves webpage.

The new academic year has started and once again students are attending seminars on staying safe on campus. These orientation workshops typically focus on tips for women like:  “Take control of your online life;” “Make others earn your trust;” “If you see something, say something;” “Be aware & stay alert;” “Make plans & be prepared;” “Party smart;” “Be a good friend;” “Stick together in groups.”

I’m sure all of this is good advice, but it misses what I have come to see as the crux of the matter: Teaching girls and women that if they just try hard enough they can avoid sexual assault places responsibility for rape on the shoulders of targets and potential targets rather than on the shoulders of perpetrators and of political and cultural power-brokers.

As a parent and an educator, I feel obligated to tell my children and students the real truth: Rape is a weapon used to amass, exert and enforce power. It has nothing to do with the behavior or attitude or psychology or sociability or preparedness or intelligence or skirt length or alcohol use of particular girls and women.

Here are the real “tips” that our children and students need to know.

In 2012 there was (brief) international outrage over the brutal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in 2012. This was far from an isolated incident. Women and girls in India are raped on buses, in schools, in bathrooms and at home. They are raped in the context of inter-religious, inter-ethnic and inter-caste violence. They are raped for being educated and they are raped for being uneducated. According to a recent International Men and Gender Equality Survey, nearly one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives. Rape in India must properly be seen in the context of femicide: The gender ratio in India is at its most unbalanced since 1947, with 1000 boys for every 927 girls. The “missing girls” are eliminated through selective abortion, infanticide, abandonment, preferential feeding of male children and adults, through torturing or killing young married women for their dowries. Tip #1: Politely thank your university or community for rape crisis hotlines and for those shiny whistles they give you so that you can make a scary noise when you are assaulted. And then insist that they invest in educating and socializing men about women’s humanity and that they put significant resources into ending gender violence at its source.

Hundreds of Yazidi women in Iraq have been abducted by ISIS and either sold or handed out to members of the extremist group in Syria.“In the past few weeks, ISIS has “distributed” to its rank and file about 300 female members of the persecuted religious minority, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group aligned with the opposition in Syria.” The monitors explain, “In ISIS’ eyes, the girls and women are “captives of the spoils of war with the infidels.” Tip #2: If you ever hear anyone saying that a woman who was raped “asked for it,” ask them what the Yazidi women did to entice the ISIS terrorists.

Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group active in Nigeria, has – for several years – been forcing Christian women to convert to Islam and taking them as wives. It has also carried out mass kidnappings and is still holding captive more than 200 girls soldiers abducted in April from a school in Chibok. The group released a video in which the group’s apparent leader called the girls “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market” and “marry them out” rather than let them get educations. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “Although about 50 [of the girls] escaped, not a single one of the remaining girls has been found, and despite international offers of help, the Nigerian government has been slow to act. Tip #3: Write for your campus newspaper, tweet, talk, yell, become an expert in social media: Help keep the violence committed against girls and women in the public eye.

In an excellent on-line essay for NOW, Jenna Archer itemizes increases in incidents of gender-based violence in Central America in recent years. “Rates of femicide (the targeted, systematic killing of women and girls), sexual violence, kidnapping, forced disappearance and unjustified detention are on the rise in the region, causing thousands of women to flee Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico due to their well-justified fear of being raped, murdered or tortured.” Calling out the “pandemic of gender-based violence,” Archer notes that, “Rates of gender-based violence in Honduras rose sharply after the 2009 coup d’état and during the subsequent regime of Porfirio Lobo. Between 2002 and 2010, the rate of femicide increased 257 percent and, today, the second most prevalent cause of death of women is gender-based violence.” And, “Girls may be kidnapped and forced into sex and drug trafficking. In some regions, it has gotten to the point that parents no longer allow girls to go to school because they fear for their safety.” Tip #4: Get together with friends and teachers to learn and and talk about the “pandemic of gender-based violence.”

Thousands of Central Americans travel through Mexico every year attempting to reach the United States. But because they make the trip illegally, they are vulnerable to kidnappings, extortion and robbery – with organized criminal groups such as Los Zetas often acting in cahoots with law enforcement authorities. Women face the additional reality of widespread sexual violence. According to Rev. Prisciliano Pedraza, a priest and director of a shelter for migrants in the town of Altar, near the Arizona border, “The women passing through here know that they’re going to be raped. … Migrants are a vulnerable group, and the most vulnerable among them are women.” While there is no systematic tracking of rates of violence, Father Pedraza puts the figure at 90 percent of all female migrants. Tip #5: Support candidates who support true immigration reform.

Across the United States an estimated 70% of incarcerated women have been victims of physical and sexual violence. With only a few exceptions, all of the Boston-area criminalized women with whom I work have suffered sexual abuse. About half of the women were sexually abused as children. To escape, many of them ran away from home (and so were exposed to additional violence on the streets) and turned to drugs to “self-medicate.” As drug users they became vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of dealers, johns, prison guards and – as one woman puts it – “shady police who make you do things for them.” And, even in this era of the Violence Against Women Act, the vast majority of rapists are not arrested. According to estimates only 5% of rapists are convicted and 3% spend any time in jail. Tip #6: Don’t count on the police or the courts to save you from sexual assault.

My new book describing my work with criminalized women is now available through Amazon and other bookstores. You can read more here.

 

Aswirl in a sad spiral, women in detox face human rights violation

Reprinted from the Boston Globe, August 19, 2014

The Aug. 14 editorial “Women get unequal treatment in court-ordered detox” underscored an egregious violation of human rights in the Commonwealth. Due to a lack of treatment beds, drug users who have not been arrested, tried, or sentenced may be sent to MCI-Framingham if a judge deems that they are dangerous to themselves or others.

Women committed to a prison setting do not receive the treatment afforded those who are sent to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center, which is licensed by the Department of Public Health. Most damning, women of color are three times more likely than white women to be committed to prison rather than to the treatment center.

The way out of this mess, according to Governor Patrick and others, is to fund additional substance-abuse treatment beds in non-prison facilities.

However, many of the women who are civilly committed are not only dealing with addictions but also with poverty, homelessness, serious health problems, and intimate partner violence. One DPH official estimated that 20 percent of civilly committed women do not meet the criteria for commitment; rather, they are committed because no one knows where else to send them.

As a nation, we’ve gone the route of building more prisons in unsuccessful efforts to manage the devastation caused by economic and racial inequalities. Building more “staff-secured” treatment centers will not prove any more successful unless we also address the poverty, gender and racial discrimination, and violence that lead so many residents of the Commonwealth to turn to drugs in the first place.

Susan Sered

Boston

The writer is a sociology professor and a senior researcher at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University.

Morality Hijacked by Religion

“One of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

A Sociologist’s Thoughts on the “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court Decision

Introductory college courses on religion typically begin with a unit called “what is religion?” We tell our students right off the bat that there is no natural, universal or inherently true definition of religion. We discuss how some people consider Buddhism to be a religion because Buddhist rituals and symbols “look religious,” but others might say Buddhism is not a religion because there is no formalized notion of god. Some people consider Judaism to be a religion because of the presence of a sacred text and a tradition of attributing rules of behavior to God, but others might say that Judaism is an ethnicity. (Of course, anyone who watches the Daily Show realizes that Jon Stewart is Jewish in the sense that his parents were Jewish and he uses Yiddish slang in his sketches, but he makes it perfectly clear that he does not “believe” in the Bible or observe the laws.)

In contemporary American English we generally use the word “religion” to describe institutions characterized by an organized body of people who posit some sort of God, attribute to that God some sort of moral potency, and conduct rituals that are perceived as having the gravitas of tradition. In other words, we use “religion” in terms that more or less resemble western Christianity.

From the earliest days of European settlement in the Americas there have been heated and often bloody disputes over what counts as religion. European missionaries did not recognize Native American beliefs and practices as “religious.” Rather, they considered them “heathen” which justified forcible conversion and even murder. The beliefs and practices of many 19th and 20th century immigrants were labeled “superstition” which justified national campaigns to re-educate those primitives who insisted on holding onto their old wives’ tales. And in 1993, when the Branch Davidians “cult” in Waco Texas was stormed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the death toll included twenty-five children.

np9705191These verbal gymnastics cut both ways. Over the past few decades there have been a number of court cases challenging government support of Alcoholics Anonymous. To sociologists, AA looks and acts like what we in America generally consider to be a religion. It grew out of a Christian movement in the beginning of the twentieth century; it has prayers (the Serenity Prayer), scripture (The Big Book), rituals, and a belief system that posits a Higher Power. Interestingly, the rulings – while complex and not totally consistent – have leaned towards declaring that AA is not “religion” but rather “spirituality,” a category even less definable than religion. Is a long walk in the woods spiritual? Many Americans would say yes. But what if you’re walking in the woods because your car broke down? Is that still “spirituality”? What if you pray to the tree god in the woods? Is that now “religion” or “heathenism”? Would it be protected by the First Amendment? And what if the tree god answers you – is that spirituality or schizophrenia? There is no right answer, of course. But how you answer these questions likely reflects your cultural milieu.

That Pesky Establishment Clause

Given that there is no “true” definition of religion, we tell our students, the questions for sociologists are: Who determines what gets to ‘count’ as religion? And, whose determinations carry weight for other people? The answers to these questions, we tell our students, have more to do with political power than with theological purity. In the United States today the IRS has authority to classify organizations as “religious” for the purpose of tax exempt status and psychiatrists have license to determine if an individual is “religious” or mentally ill for purposes of standing trial. But ultimately, in the United States that power rests in the hands of the courts.

“I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” — George Carlin

Justice Alito, of course, is smart enough to realize that under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution the Court cannot favor one “religion” over another. A way around that pesky clause, at least in the Hobby Lobby ruling, is to cherry pick the beliefs and practices that one considers to be “religion.” So, in the majority opinion, objections to contraception are “religion” while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are not. Though not spelled out by Justice Alito, the implication is there: Mainstream Christians object to contraception (we’ve been bombarded with pictures of the very attractive, white “All American”-looking Green family) while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are associated with fringe groups or cults.

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns

The Hobby Lobby ruling invoked a second category that is just as confusing – and as culturally determined — as “religion.” According to Justice Alito religious beliefs meriting protection have to be “sincere.”The Court did not, however, specify what sincerity is or how it is measured. If you recant Judaism because the Inquisition threatens to burn you if you do not embrace Christianity, then are your Jewish beliefs less sincere than those of someone who “chose” the flames? If you have spent most of your life as a devout Christian but for a period of time experience a crisis of faith, a long night of the soul, are your beliefs during that time “insincere” and so not protected by the law? And who gets to decide what or who is sincere? Just because someone says something in a sincere voice doesn’t mean that they are not lying (if that were true Bernie Madoff wouldn’t be in prison), and just because someone cannot articulate their beliefs in a manner that others find credible does not mean that they are insincere.

What beliefs were so compelling as to lead these justices to make a ruling that at best is nonsensical and at worst is discriminatory and unconstitutional? In part, their ruling reflects a broad American consensus that religion overall is good for society and healthy for individuals, and so should receive public support. We have a government Office of Faith Based Initiatives, we love studies showing that church goers are healthier than non church goers and that meditation improves cardio-vascular function, and as a country we entrust churches with children’s moral education.

One might have thought that the assumption that religion (and especially “sincere” religion) is inherently good – or at least benign — would have been undermined by the many religion-driven wars, genocides, suicide bombers and terrorist attacks of the past century. We Americans tend to have short memories, but surely 9/11 is still in our communal consciousness! There must, then, be other considerations that were sufficiently persuasive to have blinded Justice Alito and his colleagues to the potentially dangerous consequences of sincere religious beliefs.

The Court answered this question in their statement that the Hobby Lobby ruling is narrow – that it applies only to contraception and not to blood transfusions or vaccinations. On the face of it both blood transfusions and vaccinations should be even more problematic as a requirement for employers to include in health insurance policies. We need only think about the many Biblical verses declaring that the blood is the soul and the life. And in the case of vaccinations we are talking about children before the age of consent. Contraception is special, I believe, because it speaks to women’s autonomy in a way that few other matters do. Indeed, women’s bodies are often the central battleground in contemporary culture wars not only in the majority Christian United States but in Israel and in the Muslim world as well.

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” ― Jon Stewart

In any war there are few motivations that are as compelling as religion. Invoking the will of God has extraordinary power to inspire people to action: Where human laws are seen as flawed and transient, God’s laws are believed to be perfect and eternal, even transcending death of the mortal body. Religion has the extraordinary power to lead people to martyrdom and to genocide, to endangering their own lives to save children in the slums of Calcutta and to sacrificing children to blood-thirsty gods, to giving away their worldly goods and to appropriating the worldly goods of others. And it has the power to erase from the minds of at least five Supreme Court Justices the thousands of years of human history in which millions of women died in childbirth because they did not have the means to prevent pregnancies that were too closely spaced.

The framers of the Constitution clearly understood the power of religion, and tried to contain it. In the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS unleashed it.

 

You can read more about recent SCOTUS decisions affecting women’s reproductive rights here: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property

 

SCOTUS Ruling: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property

Susan’s note: You can read my analysis of the “Hobby Lobby” ruling here

Yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling striking down 35 foot buffer zone around women’s health clinics in Massachusetts on the grounds that it is “extreme” baffles me. I just paced out 35 feet from my front door. It’s not a lot. I find it hard to believe that anyone who can use a ruler would see 35 feet as an over-zealous restriction on freedom of speech, especially given the bloody history of attacks on abortion clinics and providers.

When a group of educated and intelligent people (at least in the case of most of the justices) make a declaration that so clearly flies in the face of commonsense I have to ask if there is some other agenda driving them. It’s the same question I ask regarding those who deny climate change: Do they really understand the evidence or are they driven by broader anti-science or anti-government regulation of industry sentiments?

“Agenda” sounds like a harsh word, implying greed, personal aggrandizement or some other scurrilous motive. But the reality is that all laws and legal decisions are agenda-driven in the sense that they arise and are adjudicated within social contexts.

So when news of the ruling broke the first thing that popped into my mind was not a point of constitutional law but rather a conversation I had a few days ago with a pregnant woman who complained that everyone – relatives, co-workers and total strangers – feel that it’s okay for them to touch her belly. People who would never dream of invading anyone else’s bodily space in that way seem to believe that a pregnant woman’s body is somehow public property. She’s even had people make nasty comments to her when she asks them to refrain, and she told me that she’s thinking of putting a sign on her belly saying “Hands Off .”

I’m a medical sociologist. My job is to think about the social forces surrounding bodily experiences. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that we seem to have a consensus in the United States that women’s reproductive experiences are a matter in which the collective legitimately has a deciding role.

What do these phenomena have in common? Outlawing lay midwives or homebirths. Incarcerating women for refusing a caesarian section? Disallowing welfare benefits for a child born less than two years after a previous ‘welfare baby’. Taking away children from women who use drugs, even when there is no evidence that the mother neglected or abused the children. In my work I’ve seen criminalized women pressured into having an abortion with the threat of the State taking away their other children if they go ahead with this “irresponsible” pregnancy. And I’ve also seen criminalized women coerced into looking at pictures of ultrasounds when, upon incarceration, they were found to be pregnant.

The SCOTUS ruling was based on freedom of speech arguments. So while I am tempted to see the ruling as part of a broader attack on women’s right to choose, it’s worth noting that the judges actively offered suggestions as to how Massachusetts can protect women entering clinics by changing traffic laws or vigorously enforcing the laws against blocking entrance to or egress from the building. But basically, the ruling came down to the Court privileging the rights of others (of anyone?) to weigh in on women’s reproduction, even people who have demonstrated associations with groups who have used violent and deadly tactics in the past, over the rights of women to bodily integrity.

I do think the state has a rightful role in protecting the health of women, children, men and even animals. But I am concerned that this role seems to expand out of all proportion regarding women’s reproduction. Today’s ruling was narrow in focus – it related only to women’s health centers. So I can’t help but wonder what the ruling would be if the case involved anti-vaccine activists standing outside children’s health centers and yell at parents who choose to vaccinate their children. Or Scientologists standing outside mental health centers yelling at people who see psychiatrists? Or celibacy advocates standing outside urologist offices and yelling at men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction?

I find it interesting that the lead plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, is described in the press as a “grandmotherly” woman whose claim is that “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.” My pregnant friend, I’m guessing, would see her as one of the “belly patters” whose motives may have been kind, voyeuristic or anything in between, but whose actions constituted an assault on her private bodily space.

On Memorial Day: “Remember the Ladies”

2016 Update: According to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), “Currently, medical prosthetics for female amputees are provided as one-size-fits-all and are based on male anatomy. This means female veterans often receive prosthetics that are burdensome, uncomfortable and may not be fully functional.”  An appropriations bill currently making its way through Congress would fund research and acquisition of prosthetic devices that fit women’s bodies. The bill also would allow the VA to cover the costs of reproductive services for veterans who suffered service-related injuries that prevent them from starting families. According to NPR Veterans Correspondent Quil Lawrence, “A law passed in 1992 made it illegal for the VA to pay for IVF, which some people oppose because embryos are often destroyed in the process.”

 

I understand that if women are to have the privileges of citizenship then we should have the responsibilities as well. However, given the needlessness and horror of nearly all wars, I am not at all sure that it is a good thing to expand the number of people who can be called upon to fight.

I understand that if women are excluded from military service then the power of the military  remains in the hands of men. But in light of the near absence of women in the high ranks of the armed services – the ranks where the important decisions are made – I’m not convinced that military service for women achieves a more gender equitable sharing of power.

I understand that for many women the military is a pathway to education and a career. However, – and this is what I’d like to write about this Memorial Day – military service has turned into a path of misery, ill health and homelessness for large numbers of women.

In the second decade of the new millennium, American women have come to make up approximately 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces. While women are not technically in combat roles, in their duties and service environments women face the same dangers and fears as men: exploding ordnance, bullets, vehicular accidents. According to studies the military poses additional threats for women: about one in three women in the armed forces has been sexually assaulted, twice the civilian rate.

Women who have been sexually assaulted are more likely than other women to suffer from chronic pelvic pain, fertility problems, high rates of pregnancy complications and perinatal death, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, invasive cervical cancer, hypertension, urinary tract infections, anxiety and sexually transmitted infections. A history of having been abused is correlated with a lifetime of earning less money, missing more days of work and a greater likelihood of becoming homeless.

Servicewomen suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than do their male counterparts. According to the National Center for PTSD, women in the military run double the risk of developing PTSD of male service members. The Veterans Administration (VA) has found that women are four times more likely than men to experience long-lasting PTSD. This is not surprising: While male veterans who return home no longer face the active dangers of war, women veterans who return home continue to face the active dangers of sexual violence in a society in which one nearly 1 in 5 women has been raped at some time in her life; 1 in 4 women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime; 1 in 6 women has experienced stalking victimization during her lifetime. One cannot “get over” trauma if one continues to live with trauma-inducing conditions on a daily basis.

Marriages of female troops fail at almost three times the rate of marriages of male service members. And while veterans have long been more likely than non-veterans to become homeless, women veterans seem up to four times more likely than non-veteran women to be homeless. The number of women veterans who have been in touch with the VA or Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for assistance with housing more than doubled between 2006 and 2010. Two-thirds of these women were between 40 and 59 years old, one-third have disabilities, and many have minor children.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a quarter of the VA’s homeless support programs do not meet the needs of women. For example, the VA does not have the statutory authority to reimburse grant and per-diem housing providers for costs of housing veterans’ children. Thus, mothers must face the dismal choice of going to the streets with their children or of handing their children off to relatives or social service agencies. The GAO also found that women reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault both on the part of male residents and on the part of staff members in the temporary housing paid for by the VA.

Women who have been drawn into the United States correctional system describe similar cycles of poor health, homelessness and ongoing exposure to gender violence (both in and out of prison). In research that I conducted together with a colleague in Boston from 2008-2013, only 15% of women who had served sentences in the state prison became steadily employed during the five years following their release. Only 35% became securely housed. Seven-seven percent were hospitalized overnight at least once. Eighty-five percent continued to receive prescriptions for psychiatric medication.

For most of these women the cycle of illness, poverty and abuse seems unlikely to be broken anytime soon. But I believe that there are steps that can be taken now to reduce the chances that women veterans will join the ranks of women who circulate among homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, jails, prisons, rehab programs, and the streets.

Here are two concrete ways in which we can and should remember the ladies this Memorial Day:

  1. Put into place clear and effective programs to reduce sexual abuse and harassment of women in the military. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill requiring the armed forces to remove handling of sexual assault cases from male commanding officer should be brought up again in the House and Senate, and it should be passed and enforced.
  2. Provide adequate funding for the VA so that all veterans — men and women — can receive proper health care and secure housing immediately upon finishing service.

Maybe, hopefully someday soon we will declare a national ‘Peace Day’ in which we remember and honor all of those who dedicated their lives to ending violent conflict. But for now, let’s at least make sure that women who serve in the armed forces do not face as much danger from their comrades-in-arms as they face from shrapnel and bullets.

 

Marissa Alexander and the Shot Not Heard Around the World

I’ve been thinking a lot today about Marissa Alexander, the woman who could be incarcerated for as long as sixty years for firing a single warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband. Today she is back in court, again, requesting immunity under “stand your ground” in light of new evidence of her husband’s abuse. The shot most certainly not heard around world injured no one and may well have saved her from further abuse at the hands of a violent man. It has not, however, saved her from abuse at the hands of the courts. In 2012 she was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marissa Alexander had given birth a week before the incident, her husband had beaten her up during her pregnancy, and she had a court injunction that was supposed to keep him away from her. She also had a license to carry a concealed weapon, was trained in using the weapon – and, it bears repeating – no one was hurt.

At the time of her trial and verdict the Court denied her right to use a gun in self-defense under the “stand your ground” law in Florida. The contrast to the ruling in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman seemed a clear demonstration of how racism, even in our era of “colorblindness” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) permeates the law enforcement, judicial and penal systems.

But today when I read her message to her three children who are growing up without their mother, I’ve been thinking more about Marissa Alexander’s gender.

For the past six years I’ve spent a great deal of time with women in the Boston area who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Studies consistently show that the about 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have been targets of physical and sexual violence (Meda Chesney-Lind has written powerfully about this issue.) In my own observations this estimate may actually be on the low side. Furthermore, having been in prison sets women up for further abuse and assault. As “ex-offenders” they lose their eligibility for government-subsidized housing and as a consequence are likely to become homeless. In fact, a 23 city report by the United States Conference of Mayors confirms that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women (www.usmayors.org). Women who are homeless or insecurely housed are vulnerable to assault on the streets, and, with few alternatives available, may move in with a man who is – as several women I know put it – “sketchy” which puts them at even greater risk of intimate partner violence.

Why – despite efforts our society has put into helping victims of violence – do Marissa Alexander and so many other women continue to suffer intimate partner assaults, abuse, sexual exploitation, and rape? The Violence against Women Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, increased penalties for repeat sex offenders, trained law enforcement officers and established the National Domestic Violence Hot Line. We have police, social workers, psychologists, battered women’s shelters, rape crisis hot lines, mandatory reporting requirements – surely these should have, or at the very least, could have solved the problem of violence against women. We have public proclamations that raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse, date rape and domestic battering. But the culture of violence that endangers women, children, and many men has not changed; rates of gender violence have not declined; and men who rape or abuse women are unlikely to be charged with a crime, if charged they are unlikely to be convicted, and if convicted are unlikely to serve significant prison time (more on this in the National Violence Against Women Survey).

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