Helen Epstein, scientist-turned-journalist and author of The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight against AIDS, has a sharp new article in the Guardian titled "There is no room for sexual morality in an honest conversation about Aids." It's an important message from someone who has focused many of her writings on HIV on the issue of fidelity, and it does an excellent job of unpacking the risks associated with a morality-based approach to fidelity promotion-particularly for women.
It also does a nice job of stepping outside the ideological platitudes that so often structure the HIV/AIDS conversation, and opting instead for an informed exploration of how complex change actually looks in practice. Epstein writes:
I've been thinking about this for nearly 15 years, and it's become increasingly clear to me that the key to fighting Aids lies in something for which public health has no name or programme. It is best described as a sense of solidarity, compassion and mutual aid that is impossible to quantify or measure. It has to be this way. Because our sexuality is shaped by society and because sex itself involves more than one person, behaviour change is a collective act, not one of individuals acting alone.
Nicely put. Epstein bases her analysis on her experiences as a scientist-researcher in Uganda in the 1990s, drawing a comparison (despite cultural and epidemiological differences) between Uganda's response to HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s (resulting in a 70 percent decrease in the infection rate) and the gay community's response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s in the U.S. (resulting in an 80 percent decrease in the infection rate).
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Along the way, she makes some important points: first, she stresses that HIV rates in Africa are not high because Africans have more sexual partners than people in other regions of the world (research demonstrates that the contrary is true, in fact), but rather because Africans are more likely to have concurrent sexual relationships. It was the acceptance of this epidemiological reality-as well as a focus on the related reality that everyone is vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, not just truck drivers, sex workers, and other so-called promiscuous people-that made Uganda's first HIV prevention campaigns so effective.
Of course, things are different in Uganda now, and the country that was once hailed as Africa's greatest HIV prevention success story has now become a destination for HIV/AIDS carpetbaggers and ideologues worldwide. Most distressingly, now that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet have disavowed the practical, science-and-solidarity-based messages, opting instead to stump for abstinence and crusade against condoms. They are supported by the Bush administration and a slew of U.S.-funded right-wing Christian organizations with no experience in HIV prevention but plenty of experience in morality promotion. As a result Uganda's infection rate is on the rise.
It's an unconscionable situation. Putting aside the cooked-up conclusions from the right-wing cheerleaders at the Heritage Foundation, research has shown time and time again that abstinence-only programs are a complete and utter waste of time for everyone but the people getting paid to promote them. HIV-positive Ugandan activists like Beatrice Were have done an excellent job of articulating the dangers of a fidelity-based approach to HIV prevention, which often leads women into a false sense of security, failing to emphasize that fidelity only protects you if your partner is faithful too. As Epstein points out, it's one thing to talk about partner reduction in places where people commonly have concurrent partners, but talking about fidelity in moral terms (and thereby associating HIV with moral failure), is a strategy destined to make the problem worse.
Epstein highlights the perils of a morality-based approach through an analysis of a poster in Botswana that was part of a U.S. government funded HIV prevention campaign. The poster showed a condom and a boxing glove alongside the slogan, "It can take the fiercest punches." She reflects:
The ad reflected the prevailing view among epidemiologists at the time, that HIV was spread by "high risk groups" – meaning, typically, promiscuous people. This was true in most of the rest of the world, but not in Botswana. The boxing glove ad and others like it may have promoted a false sense of security, and by associating HIV with womanizing and violence, the ads may also have unintentionally reinforced the shame and denial that has made Aids prevention in southern Africa so difficult.
Good point. As Epstein's article emphasizes, there are two kinds of approaches to HIV prevention: those that divide people, and those that unite them against HIV. By dividing, we don't simply cause suffering, stigma, and alienation in a world that already offers enough of all three things during the average lifetime. We also silence and exclude, in the name of morality, those who could be our most powerful allies.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.
“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.
Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.
The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed.
“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”
The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.
The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.
After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.
“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.
During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”
A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.
In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’sHealth, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.
So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.
With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.
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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”
Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.
And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.
Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.
There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”
If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.
They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.
But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.
After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.
But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?
If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.
Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.
It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”
But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?
Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.
If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.
Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.
Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.
And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.
There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.
The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.
Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v.Carhart,when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.
Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.