Live-Blogging from the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS

Emily Douglas

Live-blogging from the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS.

Observers are streaming in to the Interactive Meeting with Civil Society at the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS. Convened to give civil society groups a voice in UN proceedings, the Interactive Meeting will examine "myths and realities" of universal access to HIV prevention and treatment. The meeting will highlight the concerns of the constituencies that have been insufficiently targeted in universal access efforts thus far — sex workers, sexual minorities, people who use drugs, and women and girls. I’ll add more information once the meeting gets underway.

11:46am: We’ve now heard from Gulnara Kurmanova, from the International Women’s Health Coalition, on barriers to access for sex workers, and from Leonardo Sanchez, from Amigos Siempre Amigos, on sexual minorities.

Kurmanova emphasized that basic human rights violations against sex workers compromise their access to health care (sex workers frequently report being unable to access anti-retroviral therapy and basic health care in detention centers after raids). Kurmanova called for decriminalization of sex work, but also noted that even in countries where sex work has been decriminalized, stigma and discrimination persist. And sex workers’ perspective should be taken into account in developing prevention programs.

Leonardo Sanchez noted that with sexual activity between men still illegal in two-thirds of countries worldwide, the stage is set not only for marginalization and discrimination but also violence against sexual minorities. He decried the "shameful exclusion of sexual minorities" in program planning and execution.

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11:56am: Winnie Sseruma, speaking on the effects of HIV/AIDS on women and girls, emphasized economic empowerment of women to change social norms and promote women’s independence and leverage in negotiation. She also called for comprehensive sexuality education for girls, including condom negotiation strategies and "access to male and female condoms instead of just talking about it."

12:30pm: The floor was opened to statements from civil society representatives.  A sex worker from Peru called out the lack of attention given to violence at the UN proceedings, particularly the manifestations of violence in sex workers’ lives.  Women must be allowed to carry condoms, as men are, she added.  She also emphasized the importance of the frame of "sexual rights," saying that, "A woman who has her sexual rights will find it easier to exercise all of her other rights."

Throughout the proceedings, speakers decried the travel restrictions on people living with HIV, in the US and in other countries.  The meeting concluded with a call to abolish all HIV-related travel restrictions and the recommendation that the High Level Meeting never again be conducted in a country with a travel ban. 

The concluding speaker also spoke strongly on behalf of sex workers’ rights, noting that sex workers are stigmatized while those who abuse them or from whom they contract HIV — often their husbands, brothers, fathers, or other family members — escape consequences and are even lauded. She also spoke strongly for the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voices in planning programs and allocating resources.

The day at the UN started with a General Assembly plenary meeting, in which heads of state and other country representatives outlined their countries’ commitment to HIV prevention and care for those already infected.

Tomorrow I’ll be blogging from panel discussions on gender equality and AIDS and on PEPFAR.  Stay tuned for more reactions to the UNHLM from SIECUS, too!

Commentary Politics

A Telling Response: Trump’s Mistreatment of Women Evokes Yawn from GOP Leadership

Jodi Jacobson

Republican leaders have been largely dismissive of Donald Trump's misogynistic track record—which speaks volumes about the party's own treatment of women.

This weekend, the New York Times published the results of interviews with more than 50 people, many of whom attested to the fact that in both private and public life, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made “unwelcome romantic advances” toward women and exhibited “unsettling workplace conduct over decades.” Translation: He objectified, sexually harassed, and made unwelcome comments and advances toward women with whom he worked, whom he met in social settings, or who participated in his reality show empire. He even, according to one person quoted in the Times, sought assurance that his own daughter was “hot.” Yet GOP leadership has been largely dismissive of Trump’s track record—which speaks volumes about the party’s own feelings on women.

While important in its detail, the Times story is anything but surprising. Trump is a historical treasure trove of misogynistic behavior and has talked about it openly. In an interview with Esquire, for example, Trump stated: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” He has frequently made derogatory comments about the looks of female politicians, journalists, actresses, and executives: He’s claimed that “flat-chested” women can’t be beautiful and mused about the potential breast size of his infant daughter. He’s suggested that sexual assault in the military is “expected” because men and women are working together and that the thought of someone pumping breast milk is “disgusting.”

Forgive me if I am not shocked that reports indicate he’s no feminist. Female voters know this: Even conservative news outlet National Review fretted about the fact that both Trump and former presidential aspirant Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are both highly unpopular among female voters, noting that “seven out of ten women (67 percent) have an unfavorable view of Trump, and only 26 percent view him favorably… and [some] polls have his unfavorability ratings among women even higher, at 74 percent.”

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In interviews this weekend, the Times‘ report elicited what was effectively a yawn from Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, the guy charged with leading the GOP both in terms of the party’s platform and in helping its candidates across the country get elected. On Sunday, Fox News‘s Chris Wallace asked Priebus whether the reports of Trump’s mistreatment of women bothered him. Priebus responded by asserting that “people just don’t care” about all these stories, although when pressed, he suggested that Trump would have to answer to his own statements.

But that dodges the question. Priebus is the head of the party and also needs to take responsibility for his nominee’s behavior, as does the party itself. He did not say, “I deplore the remarks Trump has made during the campaign,” or, “as a party, we need to reflect deeply on why our candidates and policies are so deeply unpopular among a group that makes up more than half the U.S. population.”

Priebus said none of that. He just shooed the issues away. The fact he did not even attempt to address the substance of the Times article is the most telling news of all.

The real problem is that it’s the GOP leadership that just doesn’t care. This morning, the Guardian reported that “After a week of make-up meetings with Donald Trump, Republican party leaders have arrived at a new strategy to accommodate their presumptive presidential nominee: ignore his problematic attitude to women, his tax issues and his fluctuating positions on trade, immigration, foreign relations and a host of other topics, and instead embrace the will of Republican voters.”

The reality is that Trump’s “problematic attitude toward women” is not an isolated problem. For the GOP leadership, it is not a problem at all, but the product of their fundamental policies and positions. The GOP has been waging war on women’s fundamental rights for nearly two decades; it’s just gotten more brash and unapologetic about the attitudes underlying the party’s policies. The GOP is full of candidates who think pregnancy resulting from rape is a blessing; who minimize and stigmatize the role of access to contraception and abortion in public health and personal medical outcomes; who demonize and marginalize single mothers; and who won’t pay for basic services to help the poor. The GOP platform is built on policies that seek to deny women access to reproductive and sexual health care, including but not limited to abortion, thereby also denying them the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. So the fact that both the party leaders and the media spun themselves into a tizzy when Trump suggested he would imprison women who had abortions was all theater. That is GOP policy.

The GOP majority in Congress and in state legislatures continues to deny low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women—living wages, labor protections, and paid family leave. At the state level, Republican governors and legislators have obliterated funding for education, child care, aid to single-parent families, aid to children with disabilities, and basic health-care services. And Trump is far from unique in this election cycle among GOP presidential candidates: Republicans in the running from Ted Cruz on down have used women as objects when it is convenient, with Cruz going so far as to parade his two young daughters on the campaign trail in bright pink dresses, seemingly to underscore their “innocence” and to stoke fear of transgender persons seeking access to the most basic facilities, though many of those are young girls themselves.

It’s not only Donald Trump’s mistreatment of women. It’s that the GOP’s platform is based on sheer misogyny, and the leadership has to ignore it or they’d have to rethink their entire platform and start from scratch.

Analysis Law and Policy

Dear Incompetency Ruling Is the Latest Dangerous Signal From Courts on Anti-Abortion Violence

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Two different courts in as many weeks handed down rulings potentially sending some terrifying cues to the anti-choice movement.

On Wednesday, Colorado District Court Judge Gilbert Martinez ruled that Robert Lewis Dear Jr., the admitted Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, will not immediately stand trial for the November 27, 2015 siege that killed three people. Dear faces 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, from the attack.

Martinez’s ruling, which came after two competency exams and hours of contested courtroom testimony, was that Dear was not legally competent to stand trial. Dear spoke out during the court proceedings against him again and again, despite court warning. Dear also has some fringe political beliefs that could fairly be described as delusional—he believes the FBI has been tracking him, that President Obama is the Antichrist, and that the federal government has been systematically targeting Christians since the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

Based on the evidence disclosed so far, however, it is hard not to second-guess Martinez’s ruling here. Being behaviorally unpredictable or existing on the political fringe is not the same thing as being legally incompetent to stand trial. It’s dangerous for the court to decide otherwise.

Under Colorado law, a defendant is considered “incompetent to proceed” if, as the result of a mental or developmental disability, they do not have the sufficient present ability to consult with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist in the defense, or if they do not have a “rational and factual understanding of the criminal proceedings.”

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I’ve put the emphasis on a couple of key points, because they are important for understanding the difference between whatever psychiatric diagnosis Dear got and the legal standard for whether or not he is competent to stand trial.

First: Sufficient present ability. That means does Dear, at this moment in time, have the ability to talk to his lawyer? Not “does he want to,” but “can he?”

Second: With a reasonable degree of rational understanding. Now there’s some legalese for you. But broadly speaking, it means: Can Dear reasonably and rationally understand the proceedings against him? For example, does he understand his charges? Can he participate in the court hearings as his case proceeds? Again, not “does he want to,” but “can he?”

And here’s what we know so far from court testimony and the few documents Martinez has allowed to be unsealed: Dear crafted a homemade bulletproof vest prior to November 27, which he said he wore on him when he took siege at the clinic. We also know through court testimony and documents that prior to the siege, Dear collected propane tanks and ammunition, which he brought and set up around the clinic first. He said he shot at those tanks. He missed. But he told investigators his goal was to create as much carnage as possible.

We even know that Dear stopped at a crisis pregnancy center about a mile down the road to confirm whether or not it was the Planned Parenthood clinic in question.

We know a lot more about what happened once Dear surrendered to law enforcement, how he cooperated with investigators up until his defense team was appointed, who then suggested an insanity defense. We know Dear didn’t want to plead insanity and instead wants to argue the siege was justified—that, as with Paul Hill, Michael Bray, and Scott Roeder, violence is necessary in the name of preventing what he sees as the “greater evil” of legal abortion.

Dear himself has stated both to the media and the court that he knew exactly what he was doing on November 27 before he was arrested in that Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. He surrendered. He wants a trial.

He may never get one, though. All the evidence of Dear’s planning, of his specific targeting of Planned Parenthood, of Dear’s insistence he have a platform in the form of a criminal trial—by ruling Dear incompetent to stand trial because of his “political delusions,” Judge Martinez overlooks Dear’s very real but sincerely held religious belief that abortion is a moral wrong that has no legal justification.

The good news is that Wednesday’s decision is temporary. Competency, as the law defines it, is a fluid state. Which means a defendant like Dear can come in and out of legal competency, even if he’s never fully “cured” of the diagnosis that got him declared incompetent in the first place.

The immediate effect of Martinez’s ruling is to send Dear to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. That’s where Dear will be treated for what forensic psychologists diagnosed as his delusional disorder. Under Colorado law, “mental disability,” like that delusional disorder, means a “substantial disorder of thought, mood, perception, or cognitive ability that results in marked functional disability,” which would significantly interfere with Dear’s ability to adapt to society.

In other words, the question is whether a defendant like Dear can keep himself integrated to a reasonable degree in society. The law states that Dear can be held no longer than his possible sentence—in his case, life in prison or possibly the death penalty—in efforts to rehabilitate him to legal competency. If the state psychologists and the court decide Dear will never become legally competent, they could begin the process of civilly committing Dear to a mental health facility for the rest of his life. They could also release him on bond with conditions that he must meet in order to remain out of state custody, such as remaining on medications or regularly meeting with psychiatrists.

Dear’s diagnosis centers on what the psychologists describe as Dear’s conspiratorial beliefs the federal government is targeting Christians and that the FBI has been watching him for decades. I’m curious as to how those beliefs are going to be “rehabilitated,” given that right-wing politicians and personalities use rhetoric similar, if not identical, to Dear’s. Even one of the psychologists herself admitted this fact during court testimony.

Really troubling, though, was the conclusion that Dear’s beliefs on abortion, the target of whatever fringe political beliefs he may espouse, do not fall into that delusional diagnosis. Those, psychologists testified during the first day of Dear’s competency hearing, are simply Dear’s deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs as to the moral wrong of abortion. 

Let me be clear. I am very uncomfortable with the government making conclusions as to which political beliefs are delusional and which are not. But I am even more uncomfortable with this idea that obstruction against reproductive health care can be explained away, and thus legally insulated, by religious beliefs. Political fringe beliefs, apparently, are enough to warrant a diagnosis of a disorder; anti-choice rhetoric, according to these courts, is a religious belief irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Should Dear ever be found legally competent, that would effectively continue the criminal case against him, months, maybe years later. The soonest prosecutors can request Dear be reevaluated to be declared competent to stand trial is three months from Wednesday’s ruling. But I’m guessing it’s going to take more time than those three months. Call it a hunch.

In the meantime, it’s good to remember that as we saw with Angel Dillard’s case last week in Wichita, Kansas, a trial is no guarantee of any justice or vindication of abortion rights. And like Wichita, Colorado Springs has a deeply ingrained anti-choice movement. Who’s to say a jury wouldn’t excuse Dear’s actions based on those religious beliefs, in much the same way one did in Dillard’s case?

Dear’s case raises troubling questions, then, for reproductive rights advocates: Do we really want him to stand trial? What about the risk of a jury embracing the idea that targeted violence against abortion providers and their patients just comes with the territory for someone who believes in delivering full-spectrum health care, including reproductive services?

What about the fact that anti-choice violence is so normalized in our culture that the courts, in two different cases in as many weeks, will go out of their way to excuse it? Given the increasingly violent anti-choice rhetoric and political climate, do we really have any choice but to fight back in every venue we can, including the courts?

I don’t have a good answer to any of those questions.

I know that these cases, when read together, potentially send some terrifying cues to the radical anti-abortion movement. Dear is now another “lone wolf” delusional person who was arrested for just happening to act out his violent delusions at a Planned Parenthood. Kind of like that young man in Wichita who walked into an abortion clinic to apply for a job. With a homemade bomb in his backpack. Dillard is just another fire-and-brimstone prison minister acting on her sincere religious beliefs that God called her to write a letter to Dr. Mila Means warning her about future car bombs. Not to incite any violence towards Means. Just to save her.

I had a law professor try to explain to me once that the law is often slow to catch up with popular opinion. Just look, for example, at marriage equality: Large swathes of the country had already accepted that discriminating against same-sex couples is wrong before the Supreme Court got around to agreeing with them.

So, then, what does that say right now about anti-abortion violence, if the courts in these cases too are slow to catch up with popular opinion? I think it means that we’ve got a long ways to go before abortion providers and patients can feel like their interests are being heard by the justice system. At all.