On April 4, the Constitutional Court of Chile banned the free distribution of emergency contraception. The reason: the Court claims this method is "abortive," despite unequivocal World Health Organization information to the contrary.
Editor's Note: With this post we welcome Angela Castellanos, a journalist based in Bogota, to Rewire. Angela will join our Global Perspectives team reporting on reproductive and sexual health and rights issues internationally.
It is hard to imagine a country banning contraceptive methods authorized by the World Health Organization, now in 2008. Believe it or not, that is what is happening in Chile, a country which once was known as one of the Latin American pioneers in contraception policies, and now is rolling the clock back nearly 40 years.
On April 4, the Constitutional Court of Chile banned the free distribution of emergency contraception (EC) in the public health system. The reason: the Court claims that this method is "abortive" and therefore it is against the Constitution, which states the right to life. The argument is based on the presence of the hormone levonorgestrel, contained in various other contraception methods (i.e. pills and cooper intrauterine devices) — which could also be declared forbidden.
The World Health Organization has unequivocally stated that "Levonorgestrel emergency contraceptive pills have been shown to prevent ovulation and they did not have any detectable effect on the endometrium (uterine lining) or progesterone levels when given after ovulation. Emergency contraception pills are not effective once the process of implantation has begun, and will not cause abortion."
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Once again, men determined the rights of women. In fact, nine men of the Constitutional Court snatched away the reproductive rights of nearly five million women of childbearing age. This decision comes in addition to the one that forbade therapeutic abortion, adopted at the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
Its consequence are already clear: an increase in clandestine abortions and likely the maternal mortality rate, as many women cannot afford a safe surgical procedure to terminate their pregnancies. Public sector health care staff held protests against the ruling, claiming that the ruling is contrary to women's access to health care.
Women's groups, unions, NGOs, health institutions, and human rights organizations organized demonstrations in the most important Chilean cities, and signed a public declaration rejecting the ruling and appealing the State to observe the reproductive rights.
Informed women think that they will replace EC by a bunch of ordinary contraceptive pills that contain levonorgestrel. However, this alternative does not replace the public recognition of women's rights, and the role the government can play in reducing instances of abortion and teen motherhood.
Actually, abortion and teenage pregnancy were some of the worries at the heart of the reproductive health policy promoted by the current government, led by the female president Michelle Bachelet, which offered low-income women access to EC by reforming the National Norms on Fertility Regulation. According to the new regulations announced in September 2006, the public health services were authorized to prescribe and provide — free of charge — traditional contraception methods as well as EC to all women from 14 years old, without their parents' consent.
Soon after, the detractors objected to the reform, so the President declared it a Supreme Act. The legal debate was driven by 36 members of the Low Chamber of Parliament from the rightist Alianza por Chile, with the support of the Catholic authorities and "Pro Vida" (For life), a group against abortion.
It seems very relevant that legal allegations came up when EC became freely distributed within the public health system, while no one protested between 2001 and 2006 when it was sold in pharmacies. For the government and progressive sectors of civil society, this is a "discriminatory" and "non equitable" decision, because it barred access for young and poor women. According to the Fifth National Survey of Youth, in Chile more than 40% of women from the low income levels became mothers between 15 and 24 years old, compared to only 14% of the middle and high levels.
The controversy has involved not only the government, but the whole society. The Catholic Church insists on defending the Constitutional Court decision and call for forbidding EC in private pharmacies. In fact, the Catholic Church put pressure on the Court during the legal debate. "During the allegations, in November 2007, the Monsignor of Santiago was seated in the first row, this is an example of the kind of pressures from ideological forces," stated Lidia Casas, in an interview with this correspondent. Casas, a female lawyer, represented the members of Parliament supporting the free distribution of EC in the public health system.
An economic interest could explain the motivations of the members of Parliament who raised the legal debate. In fact, their political forces represent the powerful economic groups, which are leading the country through an open market model. Some NGOs working for Chilean women, such as DOMOS, raise the question: Is EC a threat for economic power, which needs to ensure a cheap labor force to replace the current generation of workers? This question makes sense, because the active population in Chile and the fertility rate are quite low. In addition, such economic interest could explain the apparent contradiction between the promotion of a modern country and the adoption of regressive measures.
Unique military gender politics that make it hard for some servicewomen to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.
At the beginning of May, pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced that, in partnership with nonprofit Medicines360, it would begin offering its new intrauterine device (IUD) Liletta at a reduced price to military treatment facilities and veterans hospitals across the United States. The company would also support “an educational effort to raise contraception awareness among healthcare providers treating U.S. military service women,” according to its press release.
Military personnel and medical professionals agree Allergan’s initiative represents an important step toward expanding access to the IUD, which along with other long-acting reversible contraceptives (like injections) are particularly well suited to the demands of military training and deployment schedules. But this push to increase IUD use can’t be fully understood outside the context of the unique challenges and stigmas facing women of reproductive age in the U.S. military (who numbered just under 200,000 as of 2011, the latest available data obtained via FOIA by Ibis Reproductive Health).
Despite theoretically having access to a wide variety of contraceptive options, women in the military still report higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian peers, and it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly why. What is clear is that the unique military gender politics that make it hard for some women to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability, including Allergan’s, can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.
Nearly every time a U.S. military branch changes policies to include more women, critics raise the old argument that allowing women into the service, particularly in combat roles, will lead to sex between soldiers and thereby distract from the mission. Because of that, the military generally prohibits sex during deployments between service members not married to each other (exact policies vary across the branches and across units, and some are less strict). Taken as a whole, the U.S. military’s policy basically amounts to an abstinence-only approach, with women shouldering nearly all of the risk and blame when soldiers do decide to have sex on deployment.
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Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq.
Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.
“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”
Across all branches of service, pregnant women are typically not allowed to serve on deployments, and, though the length of time varies by branch, women are not allowed to deploy in the six to 12 months after they give birth. According to spokespeople from each of the branches, the reasoning behind the policies is to protect servicewomen and give them the time they need to recover from birth. All of the women I spoke with for this piece told me that soldiers—both male and female—often believe a woman who gets pregnant right before or during a deployment is simply trying to avoid her work.
“The first thing someone talked about when a woman got pregnant was that she was trying to get out of a deployment,” said Lauren Zapf, a former Naval officer, mental health clinician, and fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. “Whereas if men announce that they’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of backslapping and congratulations.”
According to Ibis Reproductive Health’s analysisof Department of Defense data, about 11 percent of active-duty military women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2008 and 7 percent reported an unintended pregnancy in 2011—in both years, this was far more than the general population. Younger, less educated, nonwhite women were much more likely to become pregnant unintentionally, as were those who were married or living with a partner, according to Ibis. Contrary to military lore, the pregnancy rates did not differ between those women who had deployed and those who didn’t during that time, the study found.
It remains unclear why exactly military women have higher reported rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian counterparts, but one reason has likely been their inconsistent access to birth control and limited access to abortion services. As with most institutions, there’s a difference between official policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis on military bases and in medical exam rooms. Just because most military branches officially require routine birth control consultations doesn’t mean women will always get them, according to Ibis researcher Kate Grindlay, who is one of very few independent researchers looking into this issue.
“One of the challenges that we found [in our research] was that these things were not being done in a consistent way,” Grindlay said. “Some providers having these conversations in a routine way, some weren’t.”
Access to birth control—and the conversations that lead up to it—has improved greatly for military women in the past 20 years. Elizabeth McCormick, a former Black Hawk pilot who served in the Army from 1994 to 2001, recalled that “no one talked about birth control” in any of her pre-deployment medical events in the 1990s. By contrast, some of the women I spoke with who served more recently said they didn’t have issues getting the care they needed.
However, in a 2010 Ibis survey of deployed women, 59 percent of respondents said they hadn’t discussed contraception with a military health-care provider before deployment and 41 percent said they had difficulty obtaining the birth control refills they needed while away from home. Servicewomen also reported being denied an IUD because they had not yet had children, even though nulliparous women can use the devices.
These inconsistencies are part of the problem Allergan says it hopes to address with its education efforts for military health-care providers. The company hasn’t explicitly said what those efforts will look like.
Another part of the problem, according to former Marine Corps officer and Cobra helicopter pilot Kyleanne Hunter, might be cultural. Conversations with military medical providers likely present another major barrier to proper contraceptive care because most military doctors are not only men, but also officers, who, outside the context of a hospital exam room, can give orders that must be respected.
Young female enlisted service members who have internalized the military’s rigid power structures might be reluctant to speak honestly and openly about reproductive care, posited Hunter, who’s currently a University of Denver PhD candidate studying the national security impact of integrating women into western militaries. She said the same dynamic often prevents women from coming forward after they have been sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.
“It adds one more layer to what’s already an uncomfortable conversation,” Hunter said.
When Bethany Saros returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, after leaving Iraq for her pregnancy, a conversation with a male doctor solidified her decision to quit the Army altogether.
“I had to go through a physical, and there was a Marine doctor, and he said, ‘Was there enough room on the plane for all the pregnant ladies that came back?’” she told me, still taken aback by the incident.
Grindlay said efforts like Allergan’s to increase the use of IUDs in the military are “very beneficial” to servicewomen. She also applauded a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to require standardized clinical guidelines for contraceptive care across the armed forces. Under the new provisions, women in the armed forces must receive counseling on the “full range of methods of contraception provided by health care providers” during pre-deployment health care visits, visits during deployment, and annual physical exams.
But there’s still work to be done in order for the military to provide full access to reproductive health care, particularly when it comes to abortion. Tricare, the military’s health and insurance provider, only covers abortions “if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk,” and certain countries in which the military operates ban the procedure altogether.
In a sampling of 130 online responses for a medication abortion consultation service reviewed by Ibis in 2011, several military women reported considered using “unsafe methods” to try to terminate a pregnancy themselves, according to Grindlay. One of the women, a 23-year-old stationed in Bahrain, said she had been turned away by five clinics and had contemplated taking “drastic measures.”
According to the 2011 Ibis report, many women sought abortions so that they could continue their military tour. Others feared a pregnancy would otherwise ruin their careers.
Virginia Koday, a former Marine Corps electronics technician who left the service in 2013, said in a phone interview that women can face losing their rank or getting charged for violating military policy if they become pregnant overseas. “Getting pregnant in Afghanistan is good cause to terminate your own pregnancy without anyone finding out,” she said.
“The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood,” wrote Bethany Saros in a 2011 Salon piece about her unplanned pregnancy.
For these women, one act of unprotected sex had the potential to derail their career. For the men, it was just a night of fun.
Kyleanne Hunter said that while she doesn’t have a “whole lot of sympathy” for women who become pregnant on deployments (they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place, she argues), she disagrees with the double standard that allows the men involved to escape punishment.
“Both parties need to be held exactly to the same accountability standards,” said Hunter. “If the woman is punished, then whoever she is involved with should be punished a well, because it takes two. She’s not alone in it. There’s no immaculate conception going on there.”
The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—much to the lamentation of anti-choice advocates.
Donald Trump commented on the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision this week—but only after days of pressure from anti-choice advocates—and Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed explaining how one state’s then-pending decision on whether to fund Planned Parenthood illustrates the high stakes of the election for reproductive rights and health.
Following Anti-Choice Pressure, Trump Weighs in on Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision
Trump finally broke his silence Thursday about the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week, which struck down two provisions of Texas’ HB 2 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
“Now if we had Scalia was living, or if Scalia was replaced by me, you wouldn’t have had that,” Trump claimed of the Court’s decision, evidently not realizing that the Monday ruling was 5 to 3 and one vote would not have made a numerical difference, during an appearance on conservative radio program The Mike Gallagher Show. “It would have been the opposite.”
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“So just to confirm, under a President Donald Trump-appointed Supreme Court, you wouldn’t see a majority ruling like the one we had with the Texas abortion law this week?” asked host Mike Gallagher.
“No…you wouldn’t see that,” replied Trump, who also noted that the case demonstrated the important role the next president will play in steering the direction of the Court through judicial nominations.
The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—prompting much lamentation from anti-choice advocates. Despite having promised to nominate anti-choice Supreme Court justices and pass anti-abortion restrictions if elected during a meeting with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders in New York City last week, Trump made waves among those who oppose abortion when he did not immediately comment on the Court’s Monday decision.
“I think [Trump’s silence] gives all pro-life leaders pause,” said the president of the anti-choice conservative organization The Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, prior to Trump’s comments Thursday, according to the Daily Beast. Vander Plaats, who attended last week’s meeting with Trump, went on suggest that Trump’s hesitation to weigh in on the matter “gives all people that are looking for life as their issue, who are looking to support a presidential candidate—it gives them an unnecessary pause. There shouldn’t have to be a pause here.”
“This is the biggest abortion decision that has come down in years and Hillary Clinton was quick to comment—was all over Twitter—and yet we heard crickets from Donald Trump,” Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said in a Tuesday statement to the Daily Beast.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, expressed similar dismay on Wednesday that Trump hadn’t addressed the Court’s ruling. “So where was Mr. Trump, the candidate the pro-life movement is depending upon, when this blow hit?” wrote Hawkins, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “He was on Twitter, making fun of Elizabeth Warren and lamenting how CNN has gone negative on him. That’s it. Nothing else.”
“Right now in the pro-life movement people are wondering if Mr. Trump’s staff is uninformed or frankly, if he just doesn’t care about the topic of life,” added Hawkins. “Was that meeting last week just a farce, just another one of his shows?”
Anti-choice leaders, however, were not the only ones to criticize Trump’s response to the ruling. After Trump broke his silence, reproductive rights leaders were quick to condemn the Republican’s comments.
“Donald Trump has been clear from the beginning—he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, and said he believes a woman should be ‘punished’ if she has an abortion,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency, in a statement on Trump’s comments.
“Trump’s remarks today should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who believes women should have access to safe, legal abortion. Electing Trump means he will fight to take away the very rights the Supreme Court just ruled this week are constitutional and necessary health care,” continued Laguens.
In contrast to Trump’s delayed reaction, presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton tweeted within minutes of the landmark abortion rights decision, “This fight isn’t over: The next president has to protect women’s health. Women won’t be ‘punished’ for exercising their basic rights.”
Clinton Pens Op-Ed Defending Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire
Clinton penned an op-ed for the Concord Monitor Wednesday explaining that New Hampshire’s pending vote on Planned Parenthood funding highlighted “what’s at stake this election.”
“For half a century, Planned Parenthood has been there for people in New Hampshire, no matter what. Every year, it provides care to almost 13,000 people who need access to services like counseling, contraception, and family planning,” wrote Clinton. “Many of these patients cannot afford to go anywhere else. Others choose the organization because it’s the provider they know and trust.”
The former secretary of state went on to contend that New Hampshire’s Executive Council’s discussion of denying funds to the organization was more than “just playing politics—they’re playing with their constituents’ health and well-being.” The council voted later that day to restore Planned Parenthood’s contract.
Praising the Supreme Court’s Monday decision in Whole Woman’s Health, Clinton cautioned in the piece that although it was a “critical victory,” there is still “work to do as long as obstacles” remained to reproductive health-care access.
Vowing to “make sure that a woman’s right to make her own health decisions remains as permanent as all of the other values we hold dear” if elected, Clinton promised to work to protect Planned Parenthood, safeguard legal abortion, and support comprehensive and inclusive sexual education programs.
Reiterating her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funding for abortion care, Clinton wrote that she would “fight laws on the books” like it that “make it harder for low-income women to get the care they deserve.”
Clinton’s campaign noted the candidate’s support for repealing Hyde while answering a 2008 questionnaire provided by Rewire. During the 2016 election season, the federal ban on abortion funding became a more visible issue, and Clinton noted in a January forum that the ban “is just hard to justify” given that restrictions such as Hyde inhibit many low-income and rural women from accessing care.
What Else We’re Reading
Politico Magazine’s Bill Scher highlighted some of the potential problems Clinton could face should she choose former Virginia governor Tim Kaine as her vice presidential pick—including his beliefs about abortion.
Foster Friess, a GOP mega-donor who once notoriously said that contraception is “inexpensive … you know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” is throwing his support behind Trump, comparing the presumptive Republican nominee to biblical figures.
Clinton dropped by the Toast on the publication’s last day, urging readers to follow the site’s example and “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you.”
Irin Carmon joined the New Republic’s “Primary Concerns” podcast this week to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Healthv. Hellerstedt on the election.
According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of the Libertarian Party in this year’s election could affect the presidential race, and the most likely outcome is “upsetting a close race—most likely Florida, where the margin of victory is traditionally narrow.”
The Center for Responsive Politics’ Alec Goodwin gave an autopsy of Jeb Bush’s massive Right to Rise super PAC.
Katie McGinty (D), who is running against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania, wrote an op-ed this week for the Philly Voice calling to “fight efforts in Pa. to restrict women’s access to health care.”
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an attempt to restore voting rights to more than 20,000 residents affected by the state’s law disenfranchising those who previously served time for felonies, ThinkProgress reports.
An organization in Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the almost 70,000 people there who have previously served time for felonies and are now on probation or parole, alleging that they are being “wrongfully excluded from registering to vote and voting.”