Not long after the white puffs of smoke blew through St. Peter’s Square in March to announce his election as head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis set many a progressive heart aflutter, especially with regard to his oft-stated concern for the poor of the world.
The release on Tuesday of Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s manifesto for the renewal of the church, has set off a pandemic of swooning among liberals, particularly because of the pope’s welcome critique of so-called “free market” ideology and the gaping income inequality it creates. Overlooked is the internal inconsistency of the document, in which exclusion of the poor from full participation in society is rightly portrayed as an evil, while exclusion of women from full participation in the church is defended as necessary.
When it comes to inequality of the sexes, Pope Francis enthusiastically embraces Rome’s status quo, using his great treatise on his dream of a kinder, gentler church to sanction the exclusion of women not just from leadership, but from performing the most holy of its rites: celebration of the Mass.
“The reservation of the priesthood to males…is not a question open to discussion…,” Francis writes.
While, in the same document, the pope also reiterates the church’s rejection of abortion as a moral choice and implicitly condones the marginalization of LGBTQ people, it is his blessing of a male-only priesthood that is arguably the most damaging, for it renders the church as a model justification for the view of women as subhuman—a view that lends cover to the rapist, the pimp, the bigot, and the chauvinist whose works the pope decries, even as he advances stereotypes about the “feminine genius” that women have to offer in acts of compassion and intuition.
As Sister Maureen Fiedler observes, Pope Francis “seems to think of women as a different species of human.” And it is from this “othering” of women from rest of humanity, I believe, that the church’s cruel and sometimes murderous denial of women’s reproductive prerogatives stems.
For Catholics, the Mass is a mystical, not just a representational, rite. The priest is believed to be the conduit, a channel of God’s grace, for the transformation of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. That’s an awesome power to have—rather god-like, in fact.
The church’s denial of priestly ordination to women is based on a trumped-up piece of theology known as the “natural resemblance” rationale. Simply put, since Jesus was a man, then only men can be priests. Fiedler, explaining and rejecting this theory, suggests that “to say that only males may image Jesus sacralizes masculinity.”
Put another way, Gloria Steinem, speaking at the National Press Club last week, quipped: “When God looks like the ruling class, the ruling class becomes God.”
Re-branding the Church
Despite its tortured logic with regard to the rights and role of women, both as human beings and as members of the Roman Catholic Church, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”) is a papal tour de force, both as a piece of literature, and for the institution Pope Francis puts forth as the church of his dreams.
The most radical changes called for by the pope in his exhortation have little to do with the critique of capitalism that has grabbed the headlines, but rather a proposed shift in the power dynamic of the existing hierarchy—he envisions a less centralized power structure—and a purge of corruption (described as “spiritual worldliness”) in the Vatican bureaucracy. But it is the change he seeks in the church’s image, which he has already set about by famously refusing to live in the sumptuous setting occupied by his predecessors, that has dazzled journalists and commentators.
In Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s language is vernacular and, in its English translation, at least, pleasing in cadence. It is quite a departure from the prose that ordinarily fills official Vatican documents. In it, Francis speaks of himself in the first person, and admits certain faults of the church. In confirming the church’s opposition to abortion, for instance, Francis states:
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?
Such an admission of the church’s shortcomings in tending to the needs of the desperate pregnant woman would have been unthinkable by this pope’s recent predecessors; in doing so, Francis casts himself in a more favorable light while doing nothing to change the doctrine that robs women of their full agency, and hence, their full humanity. It is also a doctrine that can rob a woman of her life.
The entire document, in fact, advances little change in the substance of church teaching, and more a change in style and tone. It is, at its essence, a blueprint for winning converts to the faith, and reeling in disaffected Catholics back to the church. It is a survival playbook for a church abandoned by its European flock, and losing substantial numbers among its North American constituency. In Latin America, the church faces steep competition with evangelical Protestant sects, and in Africa, it’s competing with those sects and with Islam. The stern and condescending Father-knows-best condemnations of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI—who launched a holy war against Latin America’s native Liberation Theology movement—proved to be deeply alienating.
A nice pope who seems to be of the people, who writes in an accessible style, who appears to understand the difficulties faced by those wriggling under the boot of global capitalism can only help the church’s predicament. And so Francis recasts the church’s social teaching on ministering to the poor in the language of progressive economists and the Occupy movement, and challenges unnamed Catholic politicians and business leaders (Rep. Paul Ryan [R-WI], House Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate, comes to mind) to abandon “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”
Such theories, Francis writes, pointedly, have “never been confirmed by the facts.”
Yet, in his defense of the faceless poor, Francis seems to miss the fact that women are more likely than men to be in poverty, and that is because of the very kind of structural inequality that his church models for the world as an image of holiness.
Doing Well by Doing (Some) Good?
I do not mean to suggest that the pope is insincere in his call to defend the poor. I believe that he is. And his pronouncement certainly does put those Catholics who advance the cause of Ayn Rand and the fortunes of the Koch brothers in an uncomfortable position. If that helps to save the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. food stamps, from the chopping block, that’s all to the good. If the bishops put more of their diocesan budgets into to bringing real services and comfort to the poor, that would be outstanding. But it would be naive not to note that Francis’s call to serve the poor also serves the pope’s obvious effort to rebrand the church, still suffering the moral bankruptcy of its child-abuse scandal, as a force for good.
So, too, does the pope’s admonishment, apparently aimed at members of the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), to avoid going on “witch hunts” of those deemed doctrinally impure. Although again, the pope declines to provide examples, it’s hard not to think of the Vatican’s 2012 attack on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for facilitating the spread of “radical feminist ideas,” when reading those lines. The bishops and the Vatican lost big in the court of public opinion on that one, when it was revealed that American Catholics like their nuns much better than they do their prelates.
Francis cites the withholding of the sacrament of Communion from the impure—as has been done to punish pro-choice Catholic politicians—as not particularly helpful. He urges priests to stress the joy of the Gospel in their homilies, and advises them not to deliver sermons that comprise lists of obligations.
In an interview given earlier this year to the Jesuit journalist, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, Francis suggested that church officials stop harping on church teaching that opposes abortion and condemns homosexuality. He didn’t suggest that any change was warranted to those doctrines; just that it was not really helping the church to keep emphasizing them. (Interestingly, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker [R], who is Roman Catholic, recently told a press gathering organized by the Christian Science Monitor that while he is anti-choice and personally opposed to marriage equality, he preferred to talk about fiscal issues.)
“Exclusion, Mistreatment and Violence”
In the section of Evangelii Gaudium titled “The Inclusion of the Poor in Society,” Pope Francis throws this bone, without irony, to women in poverty:
Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights.
All women, of course, “endure situations of exclusion” from the leadership of the church, and that very exclusion sows the seeds of their mistreatment both within the church and in the greater society. A powerful message, marginalizing women as creatures unworthy of respect and incapable of authority, is inherent in the very image of the church’s leadership.
Women are to content themselves with whatever grace trickles down to them via the transformative powers invoked by the male priest.
The Roman Catholic Church, with its own nation-state, temporal power around the world, and command of media attention, is arguably the most visible religious institution in the world. Any entity that treated any other class of people as the church treats women would rightly, in the 21st century, be a pariah institution. But since it’s women we’re talking about, it’s all right. And the sad thing is, I don’t think the pope even sees the internal contradiction in his words.
Surely you can give the pope some props for his comments on the evils of free-market economics, one liberal male friend said to me, when I expressed my disgust at the kudos raining upon the pope with the publication of his magnum opus. Wow, said another, you’re really going to lay into him for not making changes yet on the position of women in the church?
So here are my props on economics section of the pope’s treatise. This from Evangelii Gaudium, is just terrific:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
But by that same logic, an honest person must then say “thou shalt not” to a theology of gender exclusion and inequality.
Such a theology kills.
The post Killing Them Softly: Pope Francis Condemns Income Inequality, Sanctions Gender Inequality appeared first on RH Reality Check.
A reproductive health-care clinic that was recently forced to close due to stringent restrictions passed by the Texas legislature has once again opened its doors to clients after a doctor affiliated with the clinic obtained admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Whole Woman’s Health in Fort Worth, one of five Whole Woman’s Health (WWH) clinics in the state, announced Tuesday that it would reopen. This leaves the WWH clinic in McAllen as the only one of the five clinics to still be closed.
The Texas legislature passed several restrictions on reproductive health care this summer. After a 13-hour filibuster by current gubernatorial candidate Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), the legislature passed HB 2, which included a slew of restrictions, including a mandate that doctors affiliated with clinics that provide abortion services obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO at Whole Woman’s Health, told RH Reality Check that “yesterday was a victory mainly because we can now serve women again and I can bring my great staff back to work.” As she explained, WWH was forced to lay off 34 employees at multiple clinic sites in the past three weeks due to the new regulations.
Because the process to gain admitting privileges is not standardized at hospitals across the state, doctors seeking admitting privileges must navigate different types of bureaucratic red tape. Hagstrom Miller told RH Reality Check that WWH now has a doctor at four of five of their clinics with admitting privileges; each of the clinics previously had three or four doctors on staff.
“Whole Woman’s Health in Forth Worth and the provider there had to perform acts of heroism, gymnastics, and rigorous stubborn determination to survive,” said Hagstrom Miller. “Yet, still the other three doctors that have served Whole Woman’s Health of Fort Worth so well for years up till now are still out of work and without privileges. It’s absurd.”
Despite the clinic reopening, Hagstrom Miller remains concerned about the overall effect the Texas legislature is having on women’s health. “It’s tragic. Absurd. And it changes by the day,” said Hagstrom Miller. “So yes this news … is a ‘win’; but it’s like a rug burn on Goliath’s knee, and Goliath is still very much in charge.”
The post Abortion Services Restored at Whole Woman’s Health in Fort Worth, Texas appeared first on RH Reality Check.
From the moment First Lady Michelle Obama stepped into the national spotlight, there have been articles decrying her “un-feminist” choices. One of the most recent, “Leaning Out,” has already been excoriated by Melissa Harris-Perry. Yet, another piece much like it is already running in TIME. In these articles—which are commonly about women who are Black, affluent, and happy—there’s an assumption that being a good feminist involves making a specific set of pre-approved choices that may or may not be relevant to the individual making them. The response to Michelle Obama’s decision to be “mom-in-chief” seems to imply that she should be willing to sacrifice her role as an actively involved parent of two young daughters in favor of following an agenda that appeals to other people. Yet issues that affect children, like food and education, are important to many feminists. What these criticisms fail to acknowledge is that for women who are not single and childless/childfree, feminist choices often include a focus on their families and communities. This is particularly true of Black feminists.
Black women in America have to contend with a unique set of stereotypes, particularly around motherhood. Whether it is “Mammy” or the “welfare queen” being projected onto us, Black women are fighting for the right to parent their own children. Neither trope is accurate, but they are popular, and they do inform the way Black motherhood is perceived. Yes, the “welfare queen” trope tends to be the province of conservatives. It’s a popular narrative that depicts poor Black women as greedy mothers with lots of children who are not loved or truly wanted. But it’s only one side of a coin that dehumanizes Black mothers. The other side can be found in progressive rhetoric that demands Black women do what other people think is best.
One of the reasons pieces like “Leaning Out” are so offensive is that they tend to reflect the idea that Black women owe their care and concern to everyone but their family. Is this intentional? Probably not. But the intent has no bearing on the impact. Our bodies were property, our labor was not our own, and to have so-called allies demand we serve them and not ourselves will always be abhorrent. Mammy tropes center the idea of Black women working for others while their children are either nonexistent or completely absent. Malia and Sasha Obama are living life in a fishbowl, and what could be more feminist than making sure that they can grow up to be strong, successful Black women?
Feminism is supposed to be about equality and women being able to make their own choices. Yet, when famous Black women make choices that are best for their lives, there’s never any shortage of concern-trolling from people who don’t have to live with those choices. We talk a lot about patriarchy and paternalism, but we rarely speak of the way many feminists feel entitled to tell Black women what they should be doing. The maternalistic tone taken by many white feminists and even other feminists of color toward Black women is rarely seen as problematic. When we talk about solidarity inside the feminist movement, we have to talk about differences not just in oppression, but also in goals.
For Black women, our struggle is not necessarily about access to the workplace; Black women have always had to work in America. Our struggle is to be recognized as human beings. To have our choices be treated with the same respect offered to anyone else. Whether we’re talking about Michelle Obama, Beyonce, or just the average woman on the street, the reality is that some feminists have children, and their decisions aren’t any less feminist because they are done in the best interests of those children. In fact, as feminism has never mastered being all things to all people, the reality is that no one is in a position to decide for another woman what kind of work she should do, how she should engage with her family, or even which of her choices represent the “right” kind of feminism.
As terms like womanism, intersectionality, and women of color enter the mainstream, it is important to remember that they do not exist in a vacuum. They were created by Black women to address the ways in which we feel excluded from mainstream feminism. Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Loretta Ross, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks are more than names to pluck convenient quotes from when it suits you. They are Black feminists, and they are part of a long tradition that can be traced back to Ida B. Wells-Barnett and beyond. So when your idea of feminism in 2013 harkens back to the racist, sexist rhetoric thrown at Wells-Barnett by Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, then what kind of movement are you trying to build? If your definition of feminism is rooted in Mammy myths, what can be built with you? Are you fighting for equality for all, or your right to be equal in oppressing Black women?
These aren’t questions with simple answers. It’s easy to get so invested in this idea of sisterhood and solidarity that you ignore the harm done by unexamined anti-Black biases. Black feminism has always gone beyond the boundaries of narratives that center on the self and into discussions of what should be done so that not only are Black women safe from harm, so are our children and spouses—even the underpinnings of what allows us to survive in a hostile environment. Michelle Obama is indeed the First Lady, but she is also a Black woman born and raised on the south side of Chicago. The Obama girls aren’t likely to wind up exposed to gang violence, but as someone who was not as fortunate as her own daughters, Michelle is well aware that they need special protections, that with a father who is both revered and loathed they have to pull together as a family simply to survive the history they have made.
As we speak of what harms feminism, of what nightmares invade the feminist subconscious, we must remember that we are not all fighting the same forms of sexism. We are not all reaching for a place where we can escape a gender-based pedestal. We are not all seen to have virtue, much less be in need of protection. For some of us, the goals we set center on survival; they include community problems that affect us because of race, not just gender. Living at the intersection of racism and misogyny means more than dueling with identity politics—it also means setting examples for our children and our communities that may mean nothing to outsiders, but everything to those of us who are also living at that intersection.
Michelle Cottle recently wrote a deservedly maligned hit piece in Politico Magazine about First Lady Michelle Obama called “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” It was the umpteenth article to come out that could have been titled “Why Isn’t Michelle Obama Meeting Everybody’s Expectations?”
Inevitably, such articles must point out how popular the first lady is, and how much everyone likes her—except, supposedly, feminists. Really? Did someone take a poll? Was there a referendum? Are feminists just the handful of professional opinion writers and one university staffer quoted in Cottle’s article? If so, these are sad days for the movement; the activists of Respect ABQ Women, for one, are sure to be ticked when they find out they don’t exist.
Mainly, though, I would like to take issue with Cottle’s dismissal of Michelle Obama’s gardening as the first in a list of “safely, soothingly domestic causes.”
As Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, is quoted as saying in Cottle’s article, “How can you hate a vegetable garden?”
Here’s how, courtesy of the Mid America CropLife Association, an industry association for large agricultural chemical manufacturers, from March 2009:
Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an “organic” garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products and to recognize the importance of agriculture to the entire U.S. economy.
This statement from the group’s letter to the first lady is worth some analysis: “Congratulations on recognizing the importance of agriculture in America!” It comes off as condescending, and it is. Though the agribusiness industry works hard to downplay the importance and power of agriculture in the United States, unless you happen to be an elected official. In public, they hide behind “family” farmers who run massive factory feedlots or whose crops span hundreds of acres. In the corridors of power, at the behest of agribusiness, semi-official United States farm policy has been “get big or get out” since the Nixon administration.
Agriculture, a massive and highly consolidated industry run by a few powerful monopolies, works largely on a model of dictatorial control over farmers and ranchers, backed by a paid, private court system for negotiating contract disputes. The absolute geographic monopolies of meat packers and crop commodity companies often means that if a conventional farmer criticizes these extremely vindictive corporations, they often have no one to sell to and may have to leave the business.
Even when farmers try to get out of this system, by going organic or trying other distribution models, they still aren’t safe from malicious lawsuits over genetically modified organism (GMO) contamination of their crops. Undaunted in leading the way toward a new model are the latest generation of female farmers in the United States prioritizing a sustainable and organic agricultural practice that rejects synthetic crop chemicals.
Most of these women farmers work at a small scale, earning less than $25,000 a year. It’s easy to look at this as a new trend but it isn’t; not historically, not as a world cultural norm.
Women have farmed, have grown food that sustained people’s lives, for as long as there has been farming. Except that when women do it, it has usually been referred to as gardening, or perhaps being the farmer’s wife.
In developing countries, women account for 60 to 80 percent of food production, but receive only 5 percent of government agricultural services. While organic and particularly small-scale agriculture has a much smaller place in U.S. food production than it does in many other countries—something that’s been true since the Dustbowl era and the Great Depression, when we began a major shift away from smallholder agriculture that’s accelerated faster over time—it’s still underfunded relative to its market share.
The multinational conglomerates that dominate U.S. and world agriculture would like to keep things that way, with any alternatives to large-scale factory farming and chemical agriculture ignored, underfunded, or delegitimized. They would rather people not find out that artificial scarcity and poverty are bigger drivers of hunger than the size of the food supply, or that expanding organic agriculture is compatible with improving global food security. They would prefer you to believe that we are all going to starve unless everyone uses their genetically modified crops and factory farming methods.
In the face of that, First Lady Michelle Obama decided she was going to have an organic vegetable garden.
Not being on her staff or a member of her inner circle, I have no idea if Mrs. Obama shares my views on the importance or role of organic agriculture. But I’d be surprised if she didn’t know even before getting that industry letter that some people regard it as a dangerous political statement to make a point of growing food without synthetic crop chemicals, some of which have been linked to rising obesity, among other concerns. Since crop chemical manufacturers have effectively prevented most systematic government research into the public health effects of their products as they are likely to be present in the environment for farm workers and consumers, information about potential harm comes out in isolated bits of information that are impossible for most people to keep track of. Eating organic is, while imperfect and too often expensive, the only way to opt out of this massive, uncontrolled public health experiment.
I also haven’t been given the inside scoop on the rationale for her healthy eating campaign, but the food industry loves it when people think that recommending a diet high in fresh, low-sugar foods is apolitical—something nice, meaningless, or insubstantial. Large corporations spent several decades and many millions of dollars stifling research on the health effects of sugar alone, and lobbying to end any official government mention of even the possibility of a relation between sugar and any health problems. Everyone with a big cash stake in the food industry, from meat producers to chemical manufacturers, weighs in on U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional standards and health recommendations without regard to anything but securing higher profit margins.
So it’s kind of a BFD, as Joe Biden might say, to raise these topics at all.
Both the implied support for organic food and a diet focused on fresh, unprocessed foods, are stances that I was glad to see the first lady taking. Coming from the food policy world, I’d say they’re highly political and incredibly important to the country’s health and future.
Do I wish she’d handled the politics around food issues differently? No—though I do appreciate the work she’s done to raise awareness, work for which I’d note that she is not being paid. Michelle Obama’s friendly, low-key educational campaign has done a great deal to directly reach children as they’re forming habits for a lifetime, children that more typical forms of activism would not have been able to speak to. If kids are going to have any counterweight to the bombardment of advertising for processed food, and can get that from a beloved first lady who’s an impressive role model, I count it as more good in the world than most people are likely to achieve in a lifetime.
Positive improvements in people’s lives are ultimately measured by the net benefit to the individual, not the stridency of the argument for those improvements. Given a choice between any number of healthier children and any number of opportunities to rage against the food industry machine, I’d take the healthier children.
Mrs. Obama also accomplished all this on top of deciding to make sure that her own children had at least one parent to always be there for them, at a time in their family’s life when their other parent has a job with an incredibly long, punishing schedule. As many commentators have noted, it’s a revolutionary choice for a Black woman to make, when traditionally their nurturing skills have been devalued unless they were looking after a white family’s children, as if their own, Black children were not really worth the same effort.
Full-time parenting is also a path that many parents, of many backgrounds, usually mothers, have found themselves choosing when they judged that their children needed more attention than it was possible to provide them in conjunction with paid employment. I could defend that in a nuanced way that … that would be totally beside the point.
To endlessly nitpick over women’s individual parenting decisions is to turn feminism from a vital liberation movement directed at oppressive systems into another story of women tearing each other down over the ways we find to survive those systems, turning the empowering narrative of choice sharply against all of us. Once she’s decided to be a parent, if it’s an individual woman’s responsibility to pick a tortuously correct path to motherhood, then there is no room left to discuss the responsibility of society—government, employers, partners, community members—to create a safe and supportive world in which to raise children.
The fact that women will inevitably be made to feel as though every choice we make is wrong somehow should not be taken as a sign that women are bad decision-makers. Rather, it’s proof that the system of oppression we face is invested in making that oppression seem natural and justified, rather than manufactured and malicious. Standing by as a Black woman is repeatedly subjected to that treatment over her personal choices does even more harm, as racist caricatures of Black women have been used at every turn to hold back women’s rights and keep us playing some version of the endless game of respectability politics that we always lose: proving that we’re not like that. Open season on Black women needs to be over.
I digress a bit, because I came here to talk about food. But maybe I don’t, because big politics often hides in the cracks of things that are supposed to seem normal, justified, apolitical, or even natural.
What could be more self-evident than how unimportant food is? Especially when women care about it. Women’s concerns are obviously silly, like the children they foolishly care for. Especially Black women, who are even more wrong about everything they ever do than the typical woman, amirite?
It would be hard to come up with a set of underlying assertions more in service to existing power structures. Food is a multi-billion dollar industry and a necessity of life. Women are a bit more than half the human race, and our potential is woefully underdeveloped. Children are, as the lady sang, the future. And the United States has been dining out on the publicly disrespected work of Black women for too long.
As long as human society remains oppressive, hungry, sick, neglectful of children, and grossly unequal, the place of feminism is to criticize the systems that keep it that way and to build up the oppressed, not to endorse this cruel state of affairs as the inevitable order of the world. If a writer can’t bring themselves to be concerned with lofty affairs like the well-being of children and the quality of our food supply, they’re not up to the task of getting to define feminism in the public eye.
Image: Associated Press / YouTube
Consider the stories of two Ethiopian women—Wubalem and Chaltu—who found themselves in similar situations that led to very different outcomes. Both are young, married, and seeking to create the best lives possible for themselves and their families, and both wanted to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Both Wubalem and Chaltu live only five kilometers from the nearest public health clinic. Under Ethiopian law, both have the right to safe, legal abortion. Yet, because of unnecessarily broad interpretation of U.S. government policy, one was denied this fundamental right.
Wubalem is 22 years old and lives in a rural area of southwest Ethiopia. Shortly after her recent marriage, she was raped by a close relative and further traumatized when she discovered she was pregnant. Desperate to end the pregnancy—and knowing she was legally entitled to do so because it resulted from rape—she went to the nearest public health clinic and requested an abortion.
Wubalem was shocked when health-care workers there told her that the clinic, which receives support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), does not provide abortions. She would need to travel over 60 kilometers to a facility that offers this legal service. In desperation, she returned home and attempted to end the pregnancy on her own, by inserting a large twig into her uterus.
Two days later, hemorrhaging and with a high fever, Wubalem was rushed to the health center. After almost dying from a severe infection, Wubalem learned that she had a ruptured uterus and will never be able to bear children—a devastating and totally preventable outcome.
Chaltu, also 22, lives in a coffee-growing region closer to the capital city of Addis Ababa. She has two children, the youngest only 10 months old. When Chaltu learned she was pregnant, she and her husband agreed that they could not have another child so soon, especially since Chaltu had a very difficult delivery less than a year ago.
Chaltu traveled with her husband to the nearest public health clinic, which does not receive USAID support, where she was able to obtain a safe, legal abortion on the grounds that another pregnancy could endanger her health. Chaltu returned home the same day after a very simple procedure and resumed caring for her children.
Wubalem and Chaltu are not real women but composites whose experiences mirror those of many Ethiopian women. Their stories provide a stark reminder of the impact of a harmful U.S. foreign-assistance policy on women’s health in developing countries. How is it possible that U.S. foreign aid, which does so much good around the world, can also prevent a woman from receiving an abortion that is legal in her own country?
The answer is overly restrictive interpretation of the Helms Amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act. In place since 1973, the Helms Amendment states that “none of the funds made available [under the Foreign Assistance Act] shall be used to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” Legally, this restriction does not extend to abortions performed following rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, as women and girls in these situations clearly are not using abortion as a method of family planning.
But for the past 40 years, USAID and its grantees have implemented the Helms Amendment as a complete ban on abortion. This means that in Ethiopia and in many other developing countries, health-care facilities that receive U.S. government funds treat women only after they are already suffering or dying from a botched abortion, under the umbrella of sanctioned post-abortion care.
For more than two decades I worked for USAID’s international family planning assistance program, including leading the Office of Population from 1993 to 1999. I saw the significant impact of U.S. government assistance on expanding the availability and use of modern methods of contraception in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But family planning alone will not eliminate the high levels of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Women also need access to safe, legal abortion. This is an essential measure to reduce maternal deaths and injuries in developing countries. For the past 14 years, I have been privileged to serve as president and CEO of Ipas, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to providing comprehensive abortion care, including contraception, and to enabling women to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.
At the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in mid-November, I chaired a session on “The Impact of Harmful Legal and Policy Requirements on U.S. International Family Planning Assistance.” The session highlighted how women in developing countries who rely on USAID-supported health-care facilities are denied access to safe, legal abortion to which they are legally entitled—as well as counseling and referral to these services—as part of comprehensive, integrated reproductive health care. Those who are most affected by this denial of services and information are young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable women.
The current restrictive interpretation of the Helms Amendment is at odds with U.S. domestic policy on abortion, whose allowance of government funding for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and life-endangerment is supported by even the most conservative members of Congress.
I call on the Obama administration to correctly implement the Helms Amendment now, by allowing the U.S. Department of State and USAID to support abortion overseas in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman. This simple act would enable millions of women like Wubalem to gain access to safe abortion care that is legal in their own countries. It would no longer deny the rights of women in other countries to make their own reproductive choices freely and safely.
Failure to act perpetuates an unconscionable imposition of U.S. abortion politics on women in developing countries who are least able to advocate for their own needs.
The post Two Women, Different Outcomes: How U.S. Foreign Assistance Policy Harms Women appeared first on RH Reality Check.
On Tuesday, a federal court blocked an Indiana targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law that was designed to make medication abortion more difficult and expensive to access, and which targeted a Planned Parenthood health center for closure.
Unlike other laws that regulate the use and dosage of the drugs involved in a medication abortion, SEA 371, passed in the 2013 legislative session, changed the definition of “abortion clinic” to include facilities that provide only the abortion pill mifepristone to terminate a pregnancy. The law also requires facilities that offer non-surgical abortions to meet the same licensing standards as facilities that perform surgical abortions. That includes requirements that the facility have separate procedure, recovery, and scrub rooms. The law exempts physicians’ offices from the requirements.
There’s only one health-care center in the state that performs medication abortions but does not offer surgical abortions: the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette. Had the law gone into effect, it would have required the facility to renovate by January 1, or else it would have been forced to close by state health officials.
In blocking the law from taking effect, U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled that Planned Parenthood, which challenged the law after it was passed, was likely to win its argument that the law violated its equal protection rights by singling it out for regulation and closure. But the judge rejected the rest of Planned Parenthood’s arguments that the law was unconstitutional because it was not rationally related to patient safety or care.
The narrow ruling means the Lafayette clinic can stay open for now, but anti-choice advocates in the state, including Attorney General Greg Zoeller, have promised the fight is not over. “This new law reflects the policy judgment of Indiana legislators elected by our citizens,” Zoeller said in statement. “The Court’s decision faulting the law for treating nonsurgical abortion clinics different from physicians’ offices must be thoroughly reviewed.”
The state has 30 days to decide if it will appeal the judge’s ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The post Federal Court Blocks Indiana Law Targeting Planned Parenthood Clinic appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Over the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to try at least once a week to take a moment and remember all the things for which I am thankful… two wonderful children, great health (so far), a career I love, wonderful friends, amazing colleagues, and the opportunity to be an active participant at some level in important public debates.
Though I think it is critical to remember the things for which I am thankful throughout the calendar year, at this time many of us are engaged in a collective to reflect on who we are, what we have, and for what we are thankful.
So I want to take advantage of this moment to say thank you to the many, many people who inspire me every single day. Many of these people cross several of the categories below so for that and other reasons, I will not name persons or organizations specifically.
Thank you to the staff of RH Reality Check. I am incredibly lucky to work with a group of people who are extraordinarily smart, dedicated, and hard-working. They bring it each and every day and work long hours to produce what has become an award-winning publication, one that this year was named number six in the top 25 reproductive justice organizations in the United States. It would have been impossible for me to understand just how much work it takes to produce what we do every day until I was involved in doing it myself… and it is a huge task involving everything from responding on the spot to news, commissioning articles, reviewing and editing, and fact-checking the best content we can produce from among more than 30 paid writers, to choosing images that balance various needs, to ensuring that we provide space for various voices and viewpoints, to making sure our work is shared through social media. It’s hard to describe to others how much work this takes, but it is deeply appreciated and I thank them for their devotion to the health and rights of all persons.
Thank you to RH Reality Check‘s funders. I will not name them all here as it would be impossible, but we are deeply, deeply grateful for the tremendous support we receive from private foundations both large and small, as well as from the literally hundreds of individuals who have contributed to our work in amounts from $5.00 to $1000.00 over the course of this year. Thank you for your belief in and support of our work. We seek to make you proud of your investments in us. A very, very special thanks to those who have helped guide us in fundraising and have provided authentic and trusted guidance and input. You know who you are and you know we could not be here without you.
Thank you to the RHRC board of directors: Our board is made up of tremendously dedicated long-time leaders in their field who not only believed in what we could be and where we could go, but who also use their talents and their resources to help us get there.
Thank you to the many contract writers and freelancers who have contributed fabulous work to RHRC this past year, who have borne with us through editing and fact-checking and redrafting and positioning, and who have contributed their very best to the goals of providing evidence-based news, analysis, commentary, and investigative research on a daily basis.
Thank you to the heroic, brave, and dedicated professionals who, despite being the target of constant harassment, legally, financially, and physically, nonetheless work every day to provide sexual and reproductive health care, including safe abortion care, to people in need. You all truly are heroes and you are appreciated much more than you can ever guess.
Thank you to colleagues across the progressive community, whether they be working directly in reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations, or in our partner organizations seeking to ensure that people are paid fairly, can exercise their rights to vote, have access to food, housing, health care, and legal rights, and who work in other ways far too numerous to mention to try to make this country a model of its best self and who work selflessly and tirelessly in the interest of building an equitable world. Thank you all for your enduring inspiration, dedication, vision, and the many, countless things you have taught me. On my worst days, I look to you for the motivation to go the next step.
Thank you to the many people in the reproductive and social justice movements, women of color, Latinas, red-state activists, GLBT activists, progressive religious leaders, and others who often must fight harder than others to be heard and to exercise their rights and who do so while facing unrelenting discrimination. Thank you to the progressive leaders challenging women’s rights movements to evolve more quickly and to be more representative. Thank you for teaching me, thank you for debating me, thank you for challenging and inspiring me. Thank you for forgiving me when I am wrong.
Thank you also to those women political leaders—whether they are in the states or the U.S. Congress—who are stepping up and stepping out to push a truly progressive agenda.
And finally, thank you to our readers, you, the person who now has come to the end of this letter, for your support, dedication, and interest in these issues, and for the fights you wage each and every day to support women, at home, in your communities, in your state, and nationally. Without you, we would not be here.
I am deeply grateful for all of you. And together I am deeply hopeful and optimistic that we will change the world.
The post Giving Thanks: A Letter to Our Readers, Colleagues, Friends, and Staff appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Earlier this month, only a few days apart, the Tampa Bay Times and TMZ made public-records requests to the Tallahassee, Florida, police department. Both were looking for a police report filed nearly a year ago by a Florida State University (FSU) student who accused Jameis Winston—FSU’s star quarterback and the front-runner for college football’s top honor, the Heisman Trophy—of rape.
After TMZ broke the story, coverage quickly began focusing on the site’s credibility and a possible police cover-up, accompanied by every version of victim-blaming imaginable. Following positive DNA test results from the woman’s rape kit, which linked Winston definitely to her that night, the media boiled the case down to a typical he-said, she-said debate. Winston, through his attorney, now claims it was consensual sex. The victim’s family, in response, released a statement saying, “To be clear, the victim did not consent. This was a rape.”
FSU has more than 40,000 students in a city of less than 187,000. I attended the school from 1998 to 2002, and saw Tallahassee flooded during home football games; restaurant wait times were astronomical, and traffic was horrendous. It is not an exaggeration to say that on those weekends, football was life in that city.
This season, after a long drought of disappointing showings, FSU’s team has finally returned to the top of college football. Many credit Winston’s play and leadership as pivotal to the team’s current #2 ranking in the polls. As Stassa Edwards recently wrote on the Ms. Blog, Winston is seen as “more than a football player” in Tallahassee— “[h]e’s a hero or a saint.” Not only do the hopes and dreams of millions of fans rest on his throwing arm, quick legs, and ability to read a defense, but the economy of the city and the university do as well.
A single weekend when both FSU and its opponent are ranked in the top five, over $10 million flows into the city. (That number dips when the games are not as high-stakes.) In 2011, the football team alone generated $34 million in revenue, a significant portion of the $78 million that the entire athletic program brought in that year. When large athletic programs do well, applications increase and more students from out-of-state attend and pay higher tuition. Alabama is a great example of this. College football is big business.
It is no wonder that this particular case of a football player accused of rape has made headlines, monopolized large portions of SportsCenter’s coverage, and become yet another public referendum on the veracity of rape victims.(Spoiler alert: a lot of people assume the woman in this case is lying.)
It’s also very tempting to see this case as an isolated incident, so as not to have to question if there is a connection between the most popular and lucrative sport in this country and the rape culture that permeates so much of our lives. But as history has shown us, we know that not to be the case. Earlier this year, at the end of of the rape trial involving two Steubenville High School football players, Dave Zirin at The Nation wrote about why its important to interrogate where jock culture and rape culture overlap:
I am not asking if playing sports propels young men to rape. I am asking if the central features of men’s sports—hero worship, entitlement, and machismo—make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.
And they are replicated. Winston’s case isn’t even in isolation at FSU. In addition to Stassa Edwards, Adam Weinstein and Marci Robin have written pieces recently drawing attention to how football culture and rape culture both operate within Tallahassee and on FSU’s campus. On top of that, less than six months ago, in June 2013, FSU wide receiver Greg Dent was suspended indefinitely from the team after he was charged with second-degree sexual assault. In the coverage of the case against Winston, there is almost no mention of Dent.
In 2013 alone, there have been cases reported at Ohio State, Arizona State, Vanderbilt University, McGill University (which is, admittedly, north of the border in Canada), and the University of California, Los Angeles; the latter two happened just this month. The Vanderbilt case, which involved five football players, is ongoing and has been for months, with very little media coverage outside of Nashville, despite how horrific the crime was, how poorly the prosecution seems to be handling the case, and how high-profile the school is.
Last year, in 2012, there were allegations against players at the University of Texas, Appalachian State University, and the U.S. Naval Academy. The Naval Academy trial is still ongoing. The U.S. military is dealing with issues of sexual assault across all of its branches, which has been major news recently due to federal legislation being debated in Congress. But the Naval Academy case from 2012 is very similar to a rape that occurred at the same school in 2001, the earlier one ending not in a trial but simply a dismissal of the accused from the academy. And the Appalachian State case is similar to one from 1997 at that school.
I can keep going: Miami and Connecticut in 2011; Notre Dame and Montana (coach and athletic director may have been involved in the cover-up) in 2010; Michigan in 2009; Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2005; Brigham Young University, Arizona State (the school knew the rapist was a threat and did little to protect his victim), and Kansas State in 2004; Notre Dame in 2002 (one player pleaded guilty, transferred schools, played at Kent State, and then went into the NFL); and the University of Washington in 2001. Colorado football players were accused of raping women in 1997, 1999, and 2001.
On the high school level, Steubenville has drawn attention to other cases, including one in Torrington, Connecticut, and, more famously, one in Maryville, Missouri, where the rape victim’s house was burned down in a likely act of intimidation by members of the community.
Sexual assault and violence against women are issues at the highest level of football: the National Football League. According to Forbes, the NFL is “the most lucrative [league] in the world,” with an annual revenue of $9 billion—it’s the ultimate money-maker. A 2011 RH Reality Check article noted multiple rape cases involving NFL players, including one of the most well-known—that of alleged serial assaulter Ben Roethlisberger.
There is a reason I can rattle off these cases: The culture around (and therefore, the economy of) football today is dependent on a society that minimizes and/or ignores rape. College programs, in order to lure top players—who they are not allowed to pay—to their schools, stroke the players’ egos and present the fantasy that beautiful women will be their reward for living on their campus. Dave Zirin points out that players being “treated like gods by the adults who are supposed to be mentoring them” is a critical element in how some men get to the point where they expect others to simply do what they want. Yet, at the same time that they are being held up as gods by some, others see these players only as potential dollar signs. For those in charge of teams, departments, and leagues, football is all about using up bodies in such a way that they profit from them. The stripping away of the humanity of a potential rape victim by a rapist is similar in many ways—though not directly parallel—to the dehumanization that takes places when university administrators, team owners, and league commissioners commodify the bodies of these players.
I can imagine a football culture that does not work this way. It would involve including a lot more women in all kinds of roles within teams, university athletic departments, and league administrations. It would include mandatory annual rape prevention training focused on teaching consent and empathy for the victim. (That we don’t teach these things already was a takeaway from the Steubenville trial.) It would ban the use of college women in recruitment, and it would treat women as regular fans of football.
In the end, whether or not Jameis Winston is guilty, we know he is deeply invested in a football culture that is incredibly problematic, especially where it intersects with rape culture. Football culture clouds our ability to see him as anything other than a famous kid with a nice-guy persona and amazing athletic skills. Rape culture demands that we mistrust the victim, question her credibility, and try to poke holes in her story. It creates this familiar narrative in which people who have invested their own hopes and dreams in Winston claim his innocence immediately and refuse to hear anything else.
No matter what happens in the Winston case, I do know this: Money will continue to flow, and games will be won. Football will march on and over whatever bodies it must. And many will cheer it on as it does.
The post Jameis Winston, and the Overlapping of Football Culture and Rape Culture appeared first on RH Reality Check.