The Power of One Woman’s Story

Andrea Lynch

Andrea Lynch honors Marta Solay, who shared her compelling story with Colombia's Supreme Court in order to help legalize abortion in cases where a woman's health or life is in danger.

Sometimes the best response to a bad policy is a good story. Good stories inspire our natural empathetic faculties. They dispel myths, stereotypes, and misinformation. They remind us that when we are stating our positions on political issues, what we are really talking about is people's lives, and the degree to which we feel that our views should be allowed to determine other people's decisions. In short, good stories put us face to face with our collective humanity, and force us to clarify how far we will go to defend a position that we know can cause people harm.

I recently read an incredibly moving story that was told during an event called "The Story of My Body," co-sponsored by the International Women's Health Coalition (where I used to work) and Glamour Magazine on International Women's Day this year. At the event, four female performers told the stories of four women from around the world: Emilia from Nigeria, Gungor from Turkey, Anita from India, and Marta from Colombia. Each story focused on a particular way in which women are prevented from knowing, owning, controlling, or deciding about their own bodies—simply because they are women. All four women's stories were powerful, but for me, Marta's stood out.

In 2005 Marta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and simultaneously informed that she was three weeks pregnant—despite the fact that her doctor had supposedly sterilized her after the birth of her third child. Continuing the pregnancy would put her life in danger, but at the time, abortion was illegal under any circumstances in Colombia, and she could not find a doctor who would agree to perform a safe abortion. Marta was too scared to seek an illegal abortion—it would mean putting her life in danger, as well as risking imprisonment, and both of those outcomes would have left her three daughters motherless. So she continued the pregnancy—scared, depressed, and unwell. Her daughters' father left her. She gave birth to a daughter, Daniela, at seven months. A few days later, she started chemotherapy.

Marta's story doesn't end well: earlier this month, she lost her battle with cervical cancer. But before she died, she was able to make a difference for other women in Colombia. Following her 2006 testimony before Colombia's Supreme Court, the judges voted 5-3 to legalize abortion in cases where a woman's health or life was in danger, or where the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Their landmark decision put an unprecedented emphasis on women's human rights.

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Marta's story is required reading for the 52 members of the Nicaraguan National Assembly who voted unanimously to ban abortion under any circumstances in Nicaragua—including in cases where a pregnant woman's life is in danger—back in October 2006. It's required reading for ex-Nicaraguan president Enrique Bolaños, who signed the ban into law in November 2006, and current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who continues to support it, despite the fact that the ban has already caused the deaths of several pregnant women (including these two). It's required reading for politicians across Latin America who refuse to stand up for women's right to life even though millions of women throughout the region—where abortion is largely illegal—seek illegal, clandestine abortions every single year. It's required reading for the Pope, and for Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who instructed Catholic individuals and organizations to withdraw their support for Amnesty International this week because Amnesty has recently taken an institutional position in support of women's right to abortion in cases of life- and health-threatening pregnancies, or in cases where women women's pregnancies are a result of sexual violence or incest.

Cardinal Martino condemned Amnesty's decision (which they have stood by) based on the claim that "the Church teaches that the murder of a human being can never be justified." But here's the thing: if a "fetus" now counts as a "human being," then I think it's safe to say that "denying a woman who is dying of cancer access to the only operation that could save her life" (as well as "letting a pregnant woman who is having a miscarriage die on the operating table") count as "murder." And if Marta's story doesn't inspire a moral dilemma amongst those who oppose abortion under any circumstances, then I think we can be fairly sure that "respect for human life" is not, in fact, on their agenda.

Analysis Law and Policy

With Tribal Jurisdiction in the Hands of the Supreme Court, Native Women Rally for Their Rights

Kanya D’Almeida

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

When she was 26 years old, Diane Millich suffered an abusive relationship. A member of the Southern Ute Indian tribe, she lived with her non-Native partner on a reservation in southwest Colorado, where in the space of a year she endured over 100 incidents of being “slapped, kicked, punched, and living in horrific terror.”

She made 20 attempts to leave the man, calling every authority she could think of to come to her aid. Again and again, her plea for help came up against the same answer: There was nothing law enforcement personnel could do to protect her, a Native woman, from her white husband. The Southern Ute tribal police lacked authority to apprehend the non-member, while the La Plata County deputy sheriff had no legal grounds for assisting her on tribal lands.

This legal quagmire, she said, fostered in the couple the notion that the husband was above the law. Time and again law enforcement personnel responding to domestic violence calls in her home would leave, having done nothing but explain that their hands were tied. On one occasion, she said, “after a beating, my ex-husband called the county sheriff himself to show me that no one could stop him. He was right; two deputies came and confirmed they did not have jurisdiction.”

Millich initially shared her experience back in 2012, in a House briefing regarding reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the federal law that seeks to improve the criminal justice response to violent crimes against women. This past Monday, she picked up the threads of that story outside the Supreme Court of the United States, where more than 200 people gathered in protest over a Court hearing that advocates say threatens to roll back years of established tribal sovereignty.

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Addressing a crowd on the lawn across from the high court, Millich explained that even when her husband tried to shoot her with a 9mm gun at a federal Bureau of Land Management site where she worked at the time, authorities were unable to prosecute him. In fact, the issue of who had jurisdiction over the shooting was so unclear that investigators used a measuring tape to determine the precise spot from which the shot had been fired.

Because of an amendment to VAWA passed in 2013, Native women can bring criminal charges against domestic abusers in tribal courts. But today, the warren of laws regarding tribal jurisdiction that kept Millich from prosecuting her abuser is in danger of being weakened even further, as the nine justices of the Supreme Court consider the merits of a case known as Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a dispute that arose when a tribal minor alleged that an employee of the company repeatedly molested him in a store on Mississippi tribal lands in the summer of 2003.

The boy’s family sued for damages in tribal court, a move the corporation has fiercely resisted on the grounds that tribal courts lack jurisdiction over non-Natives. A total of five lower courts upheld the tribal court’s right to adjudicate the case, leading Dollar General to appeal directly to the Roberts Court, asking it to define once and for all “the scope of tribal authority to adjudicate tort [civil] claims against nonmembers.”

For decades, tribal courts have exercised the right to do just that, largely as a result of exceptions laid out in the 1981 Montana v. United States ruling, which allows tribal adjudication of tort claims when it comes to consensual relationships and situations that “threaten the political integrity, economic security or the health and welfare of the tribe.”

“This case falls squarely under Montana, as every single [lower] court has recognized, including the tribal district court and the tribal supreme court, as well as the federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney at Pipestem Law Firm who sat in on the oral hearings Monday, told Rewire.

“Ever since 1981, the Supreme Court has had numerous opportunities to say definitively that tribes cannot exercise civil jurisdiction over non-members, but it has not done so. It has never categorically eliminated civil jurisdiction altogether and that is what Dollar General is asking for today—they asked for nothing less than the complete elimination of all civil jurisdiction, because according to them it is simply unconstitutional to make non-Natives answerable to any tribal court jurisdiction when they willingly decide to enter tribal lands.”

Thus, advocates charge that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the corporation could have devastating consequences, particularly for Native women and children.

Organizers of Monday’s protest, including the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, and the Indian Law Resource Center, said that a positive ruling in favor of Dollar General would block the few remaining channels through which Native women seek recourse for domestic and sexual violence at the hands of non-Natives.

Even by conservative estimates, rates of sexual assault among American Indian and Alaskan Native women are staggering. Department of Justice data suggests that Native people “are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races.” Approximately 34 percent of Native women will experience rape and 61 percent will likely be assaulted in their lifetime. The fact that an estimated 86 percent of the perpetrators are non-Native men, according to Amnesty International, heightens the stakes of the impending Supreme Court ruling.

In a stark visual representation of the scale of the epidemic, participants in the protest wore or carried squares of cloth sewn onto shawls bearing the stories of sexual assault survivors as they marched in a circle chanting “Shame on Dollar General.” Later, they laid them down in the lawn across from the Supreme Court building, forming a vast quilt of red and purple fabric.

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads "It's Not My Fault".

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads, “It’s Not My Fault.”

“So far we’ve collected over 1,200 quilt squares from survivors around the country, and displayed them 25 times for tens of thousands of people to see,” Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the Monument Quilt Project, told Rewire on the sidelines of the demonstration.

“By stitching our stories together we create and demand public space to heal and we also build public understanding of the United States’ culture and policies that create the current crisis of rape for Native Americans, including the government’s policy regarding tribal jurisdiction,” she said.

In her public address, Nagle said that as a survivor she is tired of being told that she is “broken.”

“I am not what’s broken,” she said. “What’s broken is a racist legal framework that allows violent people to prey on Native women and children with no consequences, the fact that whenever I’m in a group of Native women and we start talking about violence and sexual abuse, every woman in the room has a story … What’s broken is a society built on domination and greed where a corporation’s bottom line is more important than justice for a child survivor of sexual assault.”

She said one survivor even wrote on her quilt square, “Dollar General, your attack on tribal jurisdiction is an attack on my body.”

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, author of the NIWRC amicus brief on the case, said that the arguments made on Monday were “incredibly difficult to listen to.” Far from focusing on the experience of the survivor, she said many of the judges seemed more interested in Dollar General’s arguments that a non-Native corporate entity could be stripped of its constitutional right to due process by being forced into a tribal court.

“But even when Justice [Stephen] Breyer asked the Dollar General representative to explain what was wrong with tribal courts, they could not provide a single answer, or give an example of an American citizen whose due process rights have been violated in a tribal court,” she said.

She said the notion that tribal courts are somehow inferior to state courts is both offensive and inaccurate, given that tribal systems of government, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, predate all other forms of government in this country and provide the basis for the U.S. Constitution itself.

Court transcripts further revealed that much of the hour-long hearing was devoted to the question of consent—the cornerstone of the first Montana exception—with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and others debating whether or not the corporation expressly consented to tribal jurisdiction, despite the fact that Dollar General, in leasing land from the tribe to operate the store on the Mississippi reservation, agreed in writing to be governed by both tribal and federal regulations.

“Never once did a justice ask, ‘What about that little boy? Did he consent to being sexually assaulted on his own tribal lands?’” Nagle said.

Other legal experts called the entire proceeding “dehumanizing and racist.” Sarah Deer, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who also heard the arguments, said they revolved around the myth that tribal juries—or what Dollar General referred to as “All-Indian” juries—are inherently unfair. “It’s important that we keep our framework around citizenship,” she said. “Because it’s not ‘Indians’ who sit on our juries; it’s citizens of our tribes.”

“The whole thing, the images and the protocols, struck me as being very patriarchal,” Deer told Rewire. “The theme was corporations and their rights—not tribal power or the victims. Granted, the centrality of this case is a mechanical jurisdictional question, but to have no humanity in over an hour of discussions is hard to wrap your head around.”

Significant bodies of scholarship dedicated to the issue of sexual violence against Native women have acknowledged that this very process of dehumanization has contributed to a feeling of impunity among perpetrators that then feeds a pattern of abuse.

In its 2007 Maze of Injustice report, still widely cited given the dearth of current statistics involving Native women, Amnesty International traced the roots of the current rape crisis back to the founding of the United States, when sexual violence was used as a tool of conquest, right up to 1968 when a federal appellate court ruling (Gray v. United States) “upheld a statute under which an American Indian man who committed a rape in Indian Country received a lower penalty if the victim was a Native woman.”

Such legal frameworks that posit Native people as somehow inferior, and which Native lawyers and advocates had assumed were a thing of the past, now threaten to reemerge if the Supreme Court’s June ruling goes in favor of Dollar General, experts say.

“It feels as if all the things I thought had been settled back in the 1990s are back on the table like nothing’s changed,” Deer said. “The abortion battle is starting again, and now this—it’s demoralizing.”

One participant at the rally, a representative of the Cherokee Nation who gave her name only as Cinema, told Rewire that she came to the protest because she could no longer be silent. “I see this case as just one other way in which capitalism and sexism interact, with corporate greed threatening to tear away at our basic human rights. It’s very familiar in terms of how this country was formed—around genocide and the stealing of resources, including people, for profits.”

 CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Diane Millich’s name.

Commentary Abortion

Pop-Up Abortion Storytelling Campaigns Showcase the Power of Youth Activism

Katie Klabusich

Throughout these efforts, students say, labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” took a backseat to story-sharing—perhaps offering insight about ways that young activists, far from being apathetic or disinterested, are engaging their peers about issues of reproductive rights and justice.

The power of storytelling to combat stigma and the power of art to open hearts came together last month as students on 95 college campuses around the country participated in the 1 in 3 Campaign’s “Week of Artivism.” From April 13 through 19, activists posted “pop-up” displays, some with the permission of their administrations, others as guerrilla actions. These featured real people’s abortion stories in a variety of locations, including quads, students unions, and even bathroom stalls. Throughout these efforts, students say, labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” took a backseat to story-sharing—perhaps offering insight about ways that young activists, far from being apathetic or disinterested, are engaging their peers about issues of reproductive rights and justice.

The findings of a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute support this affinity for storytelling. Millennials report that personal experience with abortion is the biggest factor in their views on reproductive rights policies. Eight in ten who have had an abortion and more than 60 percent of those who know a close friend or family member has had one say it should be legal in all or most cases.

That tendency to equate the personal with the political may explain the way that young activists have gravitated toward campaigns that focus on storytelling, and the “Week of Artivism” was no exception. Student organizers watched their efforts spark a dialogue on their campuses as awareness about the need for reproductive health care access led to widespread, nuanced discussion of views on abortion. They say it didn’t seem to matter whether the art was posted for a week or a day; once their peers were presented with life experiences and information they hadn’t considered before, the conversation continued in classrooms and around campus.

According to student activist and Michigan State Students for Choice public relations coordinator Emma Walter, the pop-up art and discussion actions also tapped into the way millennials “look to build new vehicles for change” through social media and creativity.

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“The graphics received a very positive response from students,” said Walter. At Michigan State, she explained, “We held the event outside to capture the foot traffic where it would receive more attention. We were quite pleased with the reception from students, as many took time to view the stories and also share their support through taking their own pictures with the displays.”

Campaign director Julia Reticker-Flynn explained that kind of interactive response is what the 1 in 3 Campaign was designed to provoke.

“We see art as integral in creating this shift in culture,” she said. “Our aim during these weeks is to provide an opportunity for young people to create artistic displays in their communities that challenge stigma around abortion and ignite a new conversation—one steeped in empathy and respect.”

Conversations around shame had already begun to take place before the campaign at Colorado Mountain College, where Molly Goldberg, student activist coordinator for Amnesty International, was moved to participate in the pop-up art because of a previous attempt by a stranger to stigmatize abortion.

“I’ve always been a human rights activist and reproductive rights have been important to me, especially because I’ve had an abortion myself,” said Goldberg. Although she’d prioritized other issues in the past, she said, “I had an epiphany when we were out after an [anti-drone] action with Amnesty International.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, someone who approached the group of activists randomly began telling them how abortion was wrong—that it “ruined women.”

“A woman in the group of eight of us said, ‘I had an abortion and it didn’t ruin me,’” Goldberg recounted. “And then all of us said we had had one too—all eight of us. I realized it’s common, but still so stigmatized.”

At Colorado Mountain College, the administration took down the displays, which Goldberg said could have been a timing issue. Her group had unknowingly picked “school visit day” for the guerilla action; the administration, she said, could have just been avoiding conflict with prospective students’ parents.

Still, she noted, this reaction was itself emblematic of the stigma people who have abortions face. “In some ways the administration’s actions spoke volumes as to why we were doing the action; they took it down because of the stigma and it really pissed people off,” said Goldberg.

The displays coming down definitely didn’t stop the conversation on campus, either.

“I heard stories from kids that their entire three-hour math class turned into a debate on choice,” said Goldberg. The discussion was complex, she reported; as students shared their own stories, some peers who had formerly taken positions of banning abortion except in cases of rape or incest shifted their viewpoints.

Reticker-Flynn said the sharing of stories did more than change minds on some campuses: “Students at Washington University in St. Louis said that the visibility of these stories reminded students who have had an abortion that they are not alone.” Goldberg, too, noted that the incident with her administration also prompted her to think about how individual people are affected and silenced by stigma.

“I wonder if the reason [abortion] can be traumatic for some women is the stigma; society has made it a traumatic experience for them,” she said. 

Irene Suh, co-president of Students for Choice at the University of Michigan, said that the pop-up art’s statistics on who has abortions and how common they are were especially effective on a campus she describes as “predominantly white” and relatively economically privileged.

“People are still very surprised—even people supportive of the choice to have abortion—at the ‘1 in 3’ statistic,” said Suh. “People think of it as a very rare occasion. Then they read these stories and they think ‘Wow, this could be me; I totally could have been in this situation.’” 

For Suh, recognizing her privilege and realizing that low-income women and women of color disproportionately struggle to access reproductive health care has shaped her activism. “Not only is it really stigmatized, but it’s hard to access,” she said. “I had no idea this was an issue for people.”

Both Goldberg and Suh describe the success of the “artivism” campaign as fostering conversation through an intersectional feminist lens.

“I think the most surprising conversations were with a lot of the male students who were feminist allies,” said Goldberg. “The conversations actually led into feminism and the debate around the inclusivity of feminism, how it can be a bad word, and how it sometimes doesn’t include women of color. It was surprising that people were understanding how the social justice issues affect each other.”

Suh’s history with sexual abuse led her to valuing bodily autonomy as well as effective, comprehensive education on personal agency. Since becoming more involved in abortion rights, the scope of her activism has broadened along with her perspective.

“Coming into college I supported abortion, but I didn’t know why it was important—just that the root of the issue is that people want to assert bodily autonomy,” said Suh. “For religious and political issues, this very common medical procedure one in three women have is stigmatized. I started thinking about other issues—especially the struggles for racial justice—and how reproductive justice is integral to that.”

Suh has worked to assert her agency and feels privileged to have control over her body, even if it was a process. She’s fighting to make that same control a reality for everyone.

“It took me a while to get there,” she said. “My hope is that by talking to people and sharing stories like through the 1 in 3 Campaign, we’re allowed to stand up and say, ‘We can do this!’”

The type of unflinching positivity and drive exhibited by student activists like Suh flies in the face of the reputation with which millennials are frequently saddled. Media and some older organizers can frequently disregard students or younger people as “slacktivists.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, our country’s youth are written off as lazy and self-absorbed—or at least indifferent and apolitical, especially on abortion rights. 

All of the student activists who spoke with Rewire vehemently contested the widespread characterization of them and their peers.

“I disagree with the portrayal of millennials as a monolithic disengaged group,” said Walter. “My generation is just as engaged as previous generations in our approach to social issues.”

Goldberg sighed with almost tangible annoyance.

“Everyone talks shit on millennials and says that they’re self-centered and I haven’t had that experience at all,” she said. “They’ve been very open to changing the world, which sounds idealistic, I guess, but it’s true.”

That idealism comes from their connectivity, according to Goldberg. “I think the access we have to social media and the knowledge we have about it is used as a reason to write us off, when that is actually an advantage,” she said. “We are more connected to people around the world than anyone has been before and those connections inspire us to take action. Millennials are able to be idealistic because we’ve seen it—the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media and connectivity is bringing us together.”

Suh echoed the virtues of online connections: “The mass media wouldn’t be educating the public, so people are getting online and talking to their communities.” 

Both Suh and Goldberg expressed aggravation at the characterization of their generation as specifically uninvolved in or unable to understand governance.

“It’s frustrating—especially with the last election—with everyone saying young people didn’t vote,” said Suh. “There’s this assumption that we’re all being selfish and focusing on what we want to do. The reality is that people in my age group are incredibly educated on these issues.”

According to Reticker-Flynn, the students who contacted the 1 in 3 Campaign about bringing the “artivism” project to their schools are committed to equity and innovative outreach.

“Many of the students participating are leaders of reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations on their campuses,” said Reticker-Flynn. The goal was to build on the work and energy of those individuals to spread both messaging and involvement.

“It is the hope that through this action, student leaders will be able to reach students who are new to these issues and engage them in powerful conversations,” Reticker-Flynn added.

“We have great ideas on engaging,” said Suh. “The bounds of feminism have been pushed by young people making these issues palatable. That’s a really great [contribution] that maybe we don’t get enough credit for.”