Public shaming of women is unacSEPTAble behavior

14 Mar

Late last week, while browsing my Facebook feed, I clicked on a video with a caption that implored me to watch so that I could help identify a Philadelphia mother shown endangering her child. I had seen the video pop up several times, shared by quite a few people, and I’d passed it by, knowing the chances I’d recognize the mother were low (as I’ve spent approximately 1.5 weeks total of my life in that city) and that I would likely be upset by the contents of the film. This time my curiosity finally got the best of me though, and I clicked. For five minutes I sat with my eyes glued to the screen. I watched a seven-year-old girl do her best to take care of her mother in a situation with which she was clearly all too familiar, and it was heartbreaking. But as the scene crawled along, I had bigger questions.

Many readers know the video, which I will not link here because I want the voyeurism to end yesterday. The setting is the Philadelphia SEPTA public bus system, and the main characters are a pretty little blond girl and her presumably high mother, who exhibits the telltale “heroin nod”, a drowsy and quiet sort of slow tipping over at the waist that looks like you’re watching a sped-up display of the doomsday your chiropractor predicts you may face in old age if you don’t let him start six months of spinal adjustments immediately. Or imagine what it would look like if you wanted to disappear but the only way to do it is to slowly crumple inward until your hair brushes the floor and you disappear into a puddle on the ground.

Over and over the mother drifts in and back out of what looks like a heroin slumber, and her daughter watches her closely, tipping her back up by pushing her forehead with her palm when she starts to fall out of her seat or when a passenger is trying to get past her. She lovingly puts her head against her mother’s, to keep her conscious but also, it appears, because she loves her mother’s touch. When their shopping bags spill into the aisle, she cleans them up and puts them beneath her own seat, all the while saying, “Mama, mama, wake up” and “They can’t through, Mama”.

When the video went viral, a few comments on it read “Shame on you for filming this.” I, on the other hand, am happy it was filmed. Had the witness simply called the police, law enforcement most likely couldn’t have gotten there before the little family got off the bus, but the film is evidence. What I have a problem with is how it was handled from there. The police and social services were never called – not during filming and not after. What happened next was that the video was submitted to a Facebook page called People of SEPTA, which appears to be a local-flavor imitation of the mean-spirited People of Wal-Mart website – except that there is some anonymity in posting surreptitious photos of people shopping at the nation’s largest big-box store, and public transportation consumers in Philadelphia are a relatively small subset who can very easily find themselves, or a loved one, chosen as the latest victim of public mockery.

The video went viral from the Facebook page, with comments ranging from a few expressing concern for the judgment of witnesses to the majority which were rants about parenting skills, most calling the mother horrible names while expressing sanctimonious concern for the daughter. I think it’s safe to say that if you care about the wellbeing of a child, you should not call their mother a bitch or wish them dead. That little girl very clearly loves her mother; she’s likely the only one she’ll ever have.

Word of the video got back to police, who investigated. The police very publicly chastised not just the videographer but everyone on the bus who ignored, watched, or filmed it instead of contacting law enforcement. The mother was identified, not by police but by people who recognized her and called her out publicly on Facebook; she reportedly deactivated her Facebook profile after being harassed and receiving death threats. Follow-up news pieces say that the mother was not criminally charged but the child was removed from her custody, and that social services is working with the family. Now I ask you: if we want what is best for the little girl in that video – who caressed her mother so lovingly – should we shame, vilify, and humiliate her publicly outed mother? Or should we ensure that mother gets every resource available to treat her possible addiction and other problems so that they can be reunited? Should we celebrate humiliating videos by posting them to Facebook or should we be sending them to the police or other appropriate authorities, to resolve the situation privately?

Because congratulations, Internet. You just beat someone while they were down. You may have broken a family that still had hope before that video hit Facebook. You bullied that woman – and you bullied that little girl, too. That video will never go away, and it will haunt both of them. At the very least, that little girl will forever be “the girl from the SEPTA bus” and she is innocent.

As a mother with a list of personal struggles, the video and its reception hit me hard. I don’t want to be judged like that. I don’t want my daughter identifiable in a viral video of that nature. As a feminist it hit me too. The vitriol from viewers and the rush to condemn and publicly humiliate is the same passionate hate-filled behavior I see from the other side in the reproductive healthcare access movement. Film the patients, post film online, shout “baby hater” and worse at them; blindly lash out at women to “protect the innocent”, when no thought is given as to how to actually help anyone involved. I’m sensing a pattern here, and there needs to be a bigger conversation about how we value and respect one another. Whether your bullying happens on a sidewalk or from a computer in your own home, it is never okay. Pretending your end goal is to protect children when your mode of operation is to shame and humiliate women is even worse.

“She was on the side of the Lord”- Anti Choice Rhetoric, Religion, and Ownership

19 Feb

This is a guest post by Leigh Sanders. 

One thing volunteering as an escort at a reproductive health clinic has taught me is anti-choice protesters have an exorbitant amount of time to oversee the reproductive lives of their neighbors. Since they believe they are acting on religious orders to participate in this sort of secular voyeurism, they have been willing to physically and emotionally harm those that get in the way of their mission. Therefore, we are trained as clinic escorts to never engage with protesters. I am limited in my intervention to meeting patients at their vehicles and offering to shield them with my big rainbow umbrella from the unholy provocation that loudly follows us to the door. Throughout history women and girls have been subjected to this sort of harassment when they exercise self-determination.

I made the mistake of walking up to a car with two anti-choice  folks this morning and one of the women got out and righteously proclaimed she was “not one of us, because she was on the side of the Lord.” I had to wonder whether the Lord would actually claim her. I mean technically, she is saying the Lord is the kind of guy who would spend his down time shouting, criticizing and frightening the hell out of people. It would seem that the Lord would be busy on the other side of those women’s choices, the side that ensures children never go hungry, employment is plentiful, housing choices affordable and sexual violence eradicated.

So here is what working on the side of the Lord looks like to people who protest at abortion clinics. They stop cars from parking by acting official, as if they might be working for the clinic. When the unsuspecting person rolls down the window, propaganda, void of scientific fact, is shoved inside their car. For instance, the pamphlet uses the picture of a stillborn baby to depict an abortion despite the reality that nearly every single abortion in this country occurs on or before the 8th week. The clinic escort must intercede so the patient can arrive promptly for their scheduled appointment because the protester’s aim is to make them miss their allotted time.

Once the patients proceed to the front door, the protesters start yelling at them about the psychological “trauma” they will suffer afterwards, their impending status as a “baby-killer” and the many “resources” available to them that they are not utilizing. Today, one woman yelled back “Resources? What resources? You mean welfare?”  The male protesters explained they meant the resources that come from “loving Jesus.” There is a less aggressive group of protesters that arrange pictures of Jesus to face the clinic and while holding rosaries sing hymns about hell and damnation. They are the “good” ones because they do not seem motivated to physically harm anyone. Then there are the ones like the woman who specifically addressed her allegiance with the Lord; they greet the incoming cars as if in a funeral procession holding signs that presumptuously proclaim “Your Mother Kept You.”  The protesters surround the clinic until the last patient arrives and then their work is done. It is not known whether Jesus is proud of them for their stamina to harass or disappointed with them for their failure to shame. Either way they will return on Monday, ever seeking the Holy Grail of religious intolerance.

The police do not get called because the protesters are not breaking any laws. Of course, neither are the girls and women who are entering the clinic. Yet, their rights are at the mercy of fanatics who use deception, violence, judgment, intolerance and moral superiority to scar the lives of people they have never met. Because the one thing an anti-women’s health terrorist abhors more than abortion, it is a society that grants women sovereignty over their own bodies.

 

Q/A with The Clinic Vest Project

5 Feb
Image via The Clinic Vest Project

Abortion Gang (AG): What’s the Clinic Vest Project and why was it started?

Clinic Vest Project (CVP): The Clinic Vest Project is a project started by Clinic Escort Organizer and Pro-Choice Activist Benita Ulisano. The purpose of the project is to provide free escort vests and training materials for escort groups in need. It was started in response to escorts emailing me and asking if our program in IL had spare vests. Since our vests are Illinois Choice Action Team specific we could not give them ours, so I thought, why not have a whole bunch of generic vests printed up to give away to anyone who needed them.

AG: Why are clinic escort vests important?

CVP: They differentiate us from anti choice protesters when clients arrive at the clinic. The vest itself is a symbol of compassion, support and comfort for clinic clients.

AG: How do you get the word out about your project?

CVP: I get the word out through social media and word of mouth. You can find us at our Facebook page.

AG: Is there a part of the country that requests the most vests?

CVP: So far, no. I have sent vests to seven groups, MS, NJ, IN, PA, VA, MN and Toronto Canada. Hoping to send lots more!

AG: What advice can you give to folks who want to start an escort group in their area?

CVP: Go for it! Once a relationship and need has been established with the clinic, the best thing to do is to get a group of like minded activists together for training and dive in! If activists are interested in starting a group and need training materials and vests, they can contact The Clinic Vest Project at clinicvestproject@yahoo.com.

Victory in the courts for North Carolina women

4 Feb

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles came to the defense of North Carolina women on January 17, 2014, ruling that a provision in a state law requiring providers to perform an ultrasound four hours prior to an abortion was unconstitutional based on restriction of free speech. The law, called the Woman’s Right to Know Act, was passed by a Republican-controlled general assembly in 2011 and promptly vetoed by Democratic then-governor Bev Perdue. Both houses were able to override the veto and thus it became law; however the ultrasound portion of the law was enjoined as reproductive justice advocates promptly sued on grounds of constitutionality. The requirement was in limbo for two and a half years, but Justice Eagles ruled just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court declined hearing a challenge to the unconstitutionality of a similar law in Oklahoma.

North Carolina’s ultrasound abortion requirement not only would have required an ultrasound four hours prior to the procedure – use of ultrasound to determine gestational age and location are standard medical practice – but mandated that the physician orient the ultrasound monitor so that patients had to view it (though they had the option to avert their eyes), describe the fetus including size and external and internal bodily observations, and offer the patient the opportunity to hear the fetal heartbeat. While the patient could decline the last component, physicians were required to continue their description of the fetus despite protest or request to cease.

This four hour period is actually arguably more inconvenient than the original stipulation, though the four hour period was the result a previous court review that found a 24 hour waiting period to be an excess burden. The law in its original approved form required in-person counseling and the ultrasound one day prior to an abortion. After review, the counseling was permitted over the phone but the 24 hour period stood. The ultrasound waiting period was changed to four hours. Therefore, a patient had a counseling session at one point, then had to go into the clinic a day later for the ultrasound, and wait for a large portion of the day for a procedure. There were no exceptions permitted for this, including for cases of sexual assault and fetal anomaly.

Justice Eagles had powerful words in her decision, calling the law “one-size-fits-all” and “an impermissible attempt to compel these providers to deliver the state’s message in favor of childbirth and against abortion”. Only Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin have similar laws on their books, though seven states require that patients must be offered the opportunity to see the ultrasound. In the Woman’s Right to Know Act, not only were no exceptions made, but Justice Eagles expressed concern that regarding the forced “state’s message to women who do not want to hear it or who are at risk of significant psychological harm from receiving it”. But ultrasounds are already standard practice and general practice includes permitting women to see their ultrasounds. Carolina Abortion Fund board member and former clinic employee Kelsea McLain says, “…I performed about 400 [ultrasounds]…My process involved asking the patient what she wanted to see, or know, if anything. I was surprised at how many women ended up wanting to see their ultrasound and almost everyone wanted to know how far along they were. I’d say maybe a tenth of them would change their mind.”

Thus it is conceivable that forced ultrasound viewing and verbal description would actually decrease the number of women changing their minds (as frustration tends to lead to anger and women may simply emotionally shut down and insist on moving through the process), and this legislation was actually intended to restrict access, either blocking women who do not have financial means for a two day event or causing scheduling conflicts and making the appointment-making process more challenging.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement, “Today’s ruling marks a major victory for North Carolina women and sends a message to lawmakers across the country: It is unconstitutional for politicians to interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions.” Julie Rikel of the Center for Reproductive Rights called it a great win for the first amendment, saying, “What the judge said here is that the state is not allowed to use doctors to force its own ideology onto patients, especially when the doctor feels that doing that could harm the patients.”

Anti-woman groups were not celebrating though. Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition dramatized to the Raleigh News & Observer, “The founders would roll over in their graves if they knew that the First Amendment is being used to keep women from receiving sound medical advice about their own bodies.” State House Majority leader Paul Stam, a co-sponsor of the bill along with co-sponsors of the famed North Carolina “Motorcycle Vagina” legislation, stated his confidence that a state appeal would follow shortly.

But Governor McCrory thankfully had other ideas, surprising even RH Reality Check, who previously predicted appeal “almost certain”. On January 25, the Governor’s office issued a statement saying that the financial and time obligations required to defend this single provision of the law were not justified and that “[t]he heart of the legislation remains intact and patients will still receive access to important information and ample time needed to make decisions”. The administration’s surprising decision is perhaps in light of the renewed vigilance with which North Carolina reproductive justice advocates have watched the administration after the summer 2013 antics in which the “Motorcycle Vagina” TRAP legislation was born. After increasing pressure and outcry, including now frequent mockery of the state’s political affairs on the global stage of social media and cable news, McCrory’s administration has appeared to ever so slowly soften on some of its most polarizing issues, including the subject of abortion access to which he promised while campaigning to protect access to.

Congratulations to the plaintiffs in this suit against the state, to North Carolina and national reproductive health advocates who are fighting tirelessly against each antic the Republican-led assembly displays, and most importantly to women in North Carolina or who have to travel to North Carolina to access abortion.

The River Runs Yellow: The Elk River Spill The Intersection of Environmental and Reproductive Justice

29 Jan

Water from the faucets is flowing a deep and toxic shade of yellow. Parents cannot bathe their babies in a warm tub without burning their skin with chemicals, pour a glass of water in the middle of the night without stomach pains following, or cook a basic meal with water from the tap. A drive to the closest store for bottled water can take an hour or more down winding roads that are difficult to navigate in the snow. The water is poisoned with two chemicals whose long and short term effects and side effects are unknown, and it is seeping into the ground, affecting backyard gardens and farms, wells, septic tanks, and running water.

This is not happening across the ocean, in some land far away – although it may feel like it. It is happening 359 miles from Washington, DC, 228 miles from Pittsburgh and 162 miles from Columbus. It is happening in homes, hospitals, restaurants, and schools. It is happening in Charleston, West Virginia and in and along the Ohio River, where early this month MCMH and PPH were spilled into the Elk River by Freedom Industries. There are parts of Appalachia where the sticky sweet smell of licorice permeates the air — you can almost feel the chemicals land on your skin. Perhaps the most shocking part about the spill is that someone noticed. This beautiful land and the generations of families who live there are fighting on many fronts. But, maybe the greatest threat to justice in Appalachia is environmental. Coal has left an indelible mark on the land and has deeply effected the choices people can and do make when choosing whether to parent and how to raise their children.

While the state is working to increase regulations on the two women’s health clinics in the state, state agencies responsible for the investigation and cleanup of the spill had their budget cut 7.5% for the second consecutive year the day before the spill. Women, their families, and their supporters are marching throughout West Virginia for the ability to access abortion and holistic reproductive care, meanwhile they are drinking water that may be eliminating their ability to make choices about their bodies in the first place. Crude MCHM, the chemical foam used to wash coal and the first of the chemicals to be leaked into the water supply for over 300,000 residents has barely been tested or studied. Does it cause reproductive failure? Cancer? Miscarriage? Fetal Anomalies? Death? No one is sure. And it may be years before we ever know…. If ever.

In a few weeks I will be walking down frozen dirt roads, taking Instagram pictures of icicles on soft pine trees with my dog following close behind on a road in Appalachia, not far from this spill. When we get back to the house we will unbundle, I will get us each some water, and I will take a bath. I have no idea what this water will do to me, if it has been touched by this spill or some other, if it will effect me or my someday children. And, I will be outraged that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin thinks that protecting citizens means letting them wonder whether their water is safe.

Environmental justice is not an issue for environmental and green advocates alone. The ability for parents to raise their children in environments free from unregulated poison – to be able to send their children to school where they can wash their hands safely, to come home and eat a meal, and wash up before bed without fear is essential. Environmental justice is reproductive justice.

Life support is a reproductive justice issue, too

27 Jan

It’s a story that by now most of America has already heard, and no matter what side of the fence you sit on, it is heartbreaking. In the early morning of November 26, 2013, 14-week pregnant Marlise Muñoz of Texas was found unconscious in her home and rushed to a hospital. Her husband Erick was told that she most likely suffered a pulmonary embolism, she was brain-dead, and that the fetus may have been deprived of oxygen. Marlise and Erick were both trained paramedics, and Erick believed that she would never choose to prolong her suffering, so he and her family chose to terminate her life support.

The hospital, however, had different plans, and informed the family they would not remove her ventilators and respirators, citing a Texas law that hospital spokesperson Jill Labbe says prevents them from “withhold[ing] or withdraw[ing] life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient”. The law was passed in 1989 and amended in 1999, and while the hospital maintains that it has followed the letter of the law, medical ethics experts say they are misinterpreting it. Legal experts and Muñoz’s family are speaking up to change the law. The essential question is whether the law applies to brain-dead patients or whether it was intended for pregnant women in comas or vegetative states.

While my effort to research the history of this particular law to trace anti-choice influence failed, a New York Times article did attribute Drexel University bioethicist Katherine A. Taylor with the information that this and similar laws nationwide were adopted in a period in which the public was concerned with “advance directives about end-of-life care like living wills and health care proxies…The provisions to protect fetuses, she said, helped ease the qualms of the Roman Catholic Church and others about such directives”. Another medical ethics expert, Jeffrey P. Spike of the University of Texas – Houston, said in the same article that other brain dead women had been kept on life support to keep the fetus alive, but every case he was aware of was supported by the family’s wishes.

While this is not a case that involves abortion, it is interesting to note that at 14 weeks gestation, Marlise Muñoz, had she been conscious, could have legally chosen to obtain one for any reason. Yet after brain death occurred, her husband who legally would hold power of attorney rights could not make an end of life decision for her and their unborn child, who most likely would either not live or have gravely impacted quality of life due to lack of oxygen.

And let me clear, because the fetus we now know has been very seriously harmed. At 14 weeks gestation, all the doctors knew was that the fetus had a heartbeat. They said they could do more testing between 22 and 24 weeks, and this week, at 22 weeks, they have now conceded that the fetus is not viable. It has fluid build-up on its brain, its lower extremities are so deformed that gender cannot be determined, and it may have a heart problem. The suffering of Marlise Muñoz and her family has been mercilessly prolonged while the state forced her to be an incubator for a fetus that could not survive anyway. This was hardly a guessing game; medically there was very little chance that the fetus would survive. NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote an editorial for the LA Times detailing why John Peter Smith Hospital was misinterpreting law and also argued that the law was unconstitutional. In a later exchange with Emily Bazelon at Slate, he says there are “almost no cases of trying to bring a 14-week-old to term in this circumstance”.

The story does seem to be coming to a just but sad end, as a Texas judge on Friday, January 24, ordered the hospital to remove Marlise from life support by 5:00 p.m. on Monday. The hospital may appeal but Labbe has said, “the courts are the appropriate venue to provide clarity, direction, and resolution in this matter”. The judge declined to speak to whether the law in question was constitutional.

While the Muñoz family is hopefully reaching the end of this terrible battle and can lay to rest Marlise and the once potential child they had looked forward to welcoming into the family, this case must serve to open the eyes of those concerned with reproductive justice issues. This law is the sort that sounds good on paper but is pushed by anti-choice zealots to further the precedent for giving the fetus rights that supersede those of women. Thirty-one states have laws on the books restricting end of life decisions for terminally ill pregnant women, and Texas is one of 12 with the most strict laws, requiring life support even in earliest pregnancy. Let me rephrase that: in more than 60% of states, women, their families, and even their doctors may have no say-so in a decision to be removed from life support if the woman is pregnant. In almost one-quarter of states, it does not matter if the pregnancy just began and the fetus has been harmed to the point of having no quality of life. It seems to me that when a woman has the legal right to terminate a pregnancy, a woman who is legally dead should not be kept mechanically alive to incubate a fetus despite her next of kin’s wish to remove life support.

Marlise’s family has said several times they don’t view this as a pro-life or a pro-choice issue, and while I must respectfully disagree, it is important that we respect her memory and do not take part in continuing to make their experience so painful. While anti-abortion protestors congregated outside of the courthouse on Friday and Marlise’s family had to push through them, reproductive justice advocates should honor Marlise as a woman and mother and beloved family member. Marlise and her unborn child deserved a more dignified end of life than what they have had and her family deserves peace and healing. This law robs everyone involved of their dignity and does nothing to protect or respect the people facing such devastating experiences.
The hospital announced Sunday morning that it would comply with the judge’s order and not appeal the decision, removing Marlise Muñoz from life support by 5 PM on Monday. Less than an hour later, the family released a statement that she had been removed from life support.

Picking a medical school that trains abortion providers

23 Jan

I visited colleges with my best friend when I was 16, hoping to jolt myself awake from my junior year case of senioritis. I predictably discovered that I didn’t know what I was looking for. We decided upon two (decidedly superficial) tests: First, did the admissions office give free frisbees? Were they the ones with monogrammed liberal arts school seals on them? Were they weighty, with a good lip, or were they cheap three-quarter sized neon knock-offs? And secondly, did the cafeteria offer chocolate milk, and if so, was it whole milk? Skim? Good chocolate syrup or a generic chalky powder?

I eventually chose one of those schools; realizing the vast number of factors actually more important than their chocolate milk or their free frisbees. And I developed into a person who cares about more and different things…but now I’m applying to medical school, with still two tests of my future happiness there. They are both of the social-justice variety, based in my professional interests, and tests of what kind of school I am interviewing at:

Test #1: Are there curriculum hours committed to abortion-training, and will the school help me find rotations that allow me to learn this skill set?

Test #2: Are there curriculum hours, a student group, and administration-commitment to training tomorrow’s doctors to care for folks in the LGBT community?

My most recent interview and visit left me not only certain I wouldn’t attend, but utterly discouraged. When asked about LGBT-inclusive healthcare training at his school, my student interviewer looked baffled. He mentioned the first name of “a girl who is involved in the student group, probably”. He also casually mentioned how uncomfortable he would be to ask “if my patient slept with boys or girls”. In response to the inquiry about abortion care, he felt empowered to share that he is a libertarian, so approves of a woman’s right to choose, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable performing an abortion or even referring someone to a different provider. He was also quite sure that “the school probably wouldn’t take action” against me if I pushed to do a rotation specifically focused on abortion care.

I’ve been able to stay excited in the often draining days leading up medical school by planning what kind of doctor I will be. Every doctor has a specialty (right now, I think gynecology and obstetrics for me), but every doctor also has a defined philosophy. Who will I be as a provider? How will I demand excellence from myself? These questions bring me back to the framework of reproductive justice: I will be a better doctor if I can understand every patient, their unique situation, and the forces in their lives that lead them to one decision and not another. Reproductive justice means an intersectional understanding of the struggles and triumphs my patients will experience in their journeys toward reproductive self-determination, and understanding my place as a medical professional.

Access to competent, quality, and respectful health care for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender individuals is reproductive justice. Access to competent, quality, and respectful abortion providers is reproductive justice. And despite being utterly thrilled and excited to interview at several medical schools, my experiences asking about these important issues have been disheartening at best, terrifying at worst. As respected as the medical profession is, and as difficult as it is to be admitted to school, doctors can only be as good as their training. My ideal medical school would train and nurture students to become tomorrow’s trusted, inclusive, and knowledgeable health-care providers, willing and able to help anyone who comes to them regardless of their choices, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation. It wouldn’t be bad if they had good frisbees and chocolate milk, too.