Our Truths, Nuestras Verdades is one of those publications that falls into the category of "too many people don’t know about this treasure and should" (full disclosure: I was on the original Board when the publication was an independent zine). The bilingual magazine is now published by the uniquely wonderful organization, Exhale, which seeks to elevate the voices and experiences of women who have had abortions to the top of the abortion dialogue in this country. Artwork by Becky Leonard
In fact, Exhale’s Executive Director (and Founder) Aspen Baker’s words are featured on Rewire in the post Peace for the Abortion War this week where she writes eloquently about the ways in which women who have had abortions have been silenced, stigmatized and shamed:
The truth is our stories and personal experiences with
abortion are far more nuanced than the simplistic – and antagonistic – debate
that rages around us. After my own
abortion, I remember thinking that the public debate had virtually nothing to
do with how I felt and what I needed. I remember feeling in awe of the fact
that I could safely and medically end a pregnancy and realizing that my whole
life wasn’t at the mercy of nature or circumstance. My decision to have an
abortion felt like a decision to play God and that was powerful and scary
beyond words. Choosing to not change my life was a life-changing experience for
me. Afterward, I needed space and time and understanding to process all of this
and reflect on my own values and beliefs about the meaning of life, including
my own. But, when I tried to engage with the broader political debate over
legal abortion, I was asked to simplify my decision and silence the emotional
impact of my abortion in favor of defending my right to have had one in the
first place, or to become a victim of abortion rights and deny my ability to
cope and grow and be whole after such a life-changing experience.
Our Truths, Nuestras Verdades, then, acts as a megaphone, a best-friend, a diary, and a soapbox all rolled into one, for women who have had abortions (and men whose partners have, and clinic workers, and women who are thinking of having abortions, and women who may someday have one…). It is a space for women to explore, honestly, and without fear of judgement, retribution, anger, or shame their own abortion experiences and all of the emotional and mental reflections that go along with that kind of an exploration.
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This issue deals with the humor that women have found, hidden or not so hidden, in their abortion experiences or the humor that one can find in the reverberating political dialogue. To that end, our own Amanda Marcotte has a great piece in which she plows right through the myths surrounding women who have abortions entitled, "Placards, Lies and Stereotypes", reminding us all that absurd anti-choice rhetoric in no way matches the reality of women’s lives. My favorite?
Women Who Get Abortions Don’t Realize What A Great Joy Motherhood Is. This ridiculous idea is so prevalent that many a middle-age mother on her way to a clinic may wonder if she should feel like a college student crashing the prom. Actually, the childless woman getting an abortion is the unusual case. Since 60 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, the woman sitting next to you at the clinic has probably wiped some butts in her time and knows the difference between the joy of having children and the problem of having them when you just can’t. And many who haven’t had children yet may in fact want to know the joys of motherhood — just not right now.
Ah, yes. The old "women who have abortions don’t understand motherhood". And yet, oddly, the men who protest safe, legal abortion access do. Fortunately, Amanda knows exactly what she’s talking about.
My other favorite in this issue of the magazine are the snippets from the online survey Our Truths conducted. The question? Did laughter or humor ever help you feel better or cope with your abortion experience? Far from shying away from laughter and humor, Our Truths bravely asserts that for some women, though not all, humor – either before, during or after their abortion experience – is both a coping mechanism and a way for them to feel better. One woman writes:
"As I sat with my feet in the stirrups after waiting for hours to even get into the procedure room, a nurse came in and said, ‘Your socks match your eyes.’ Laughter and humor helps me feel better about everything."
While still others yearned for an escape that laughter may have brought but did not find it:
"I wish there could have been something funny or humorous surrounding (my abortion), but I kind of fell apart."
For as many women as there are who have abortions, this is how many different experiences of abortion there will be. Far from pretending that abortion is something that needs to be hidden away, stripped from women’s lives as soon as it’s over with, wiped from their memories or relegated to a deep, dark place to be revisited only in a dream or in a moment of self-recrimination, a woman’s abortion experience needs to become part of the fabric of her life. It does not mean that every woman need write about her experience, or share her experience with family or stranger but that it need not occupy a place of shame – in fact exploration of the experience can bring a sense of catharsis that allows for one to see moments of humor or relief.
This issue of Our Truths, Nuestras Verdades can be found here (PDF). But if you want an actual physical copy head to www.4exhale.org.
Today's congressional inquiry not only derides fetal tissue research, but attacks abortion care. The inaugural hearing in March 2016 gave Republicans a platform to compare fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation. Republicans derided Democrats for exaggerating the importance of fetal tissue.
Republicans in Congress sixteen years ago were more vested in supporting life-saving fetal tissue research than they were in mischaracterizing such research to score political points.
The times, and the talking points, have changed.
In 2000, GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives conducted an investigation into fetal tissue practices based on a deceptive Life Dynamics video featuring a disgruntled former tissue procurement company employee. Dean Alberty alleged that two of his employers, Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF) and Opening Lines, which acquired and distributed human fetal tissue to researchers, trafficked fetuses for profit. He also claimed that abortion providers altered procedures to obtain better tissue specimens.
Life Dynamics, which remains a prominent anti-choice group, paid Alberty thousands of dollars during and after the time he worked in the tissue procurement business. Republicans summoned Alberty to be their key witness, but he later admitted under oath that he had lied about business operations in the Life Dynamics video and in an interview with the then-prominent ABC television news program 20/20.
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“Your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot,” said then-Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC), who now serves in the U.S. Senate.
Sixteen years later, credibility doesn’t seem to carry the same weight for anti-choice Republican lawmakers as a new set of videos alleging problems with fetal tissue donations have simultaneously been discredited but are still being used as the basis of hearings some have called a witch hunt.
Precedent doesn’t bode well for Republicans and their supposed whistleblowers.
Alberty, for example,expanded on his allegations of fetal tissue misconduct in the 20/20 interview with then-correspondent Chris Wallace, who now anchors Fox News Sunday. 20/20 separately targeted Opening Lines founder Dr. Miles Jones in an ostensibly damning undercover video included in the segment.
Alberty was unequivocal about wrongdoing. “This is purely for profit. Everything was about money,” he told Wallace.
Wallace, for his part, narrated that Alberty had accepted thousands of dollars to act as an informant for Life Dynamics while continuing to work in the tissue procurement business. Why believe Alberty, then?
“I will stand behind my words until I die,” Alberty said. “I will go in front of Congress if I have to and testify under oath.”
Alberty appeared before the subcommittee the morning after the 20/20 segment aired. By that time, he had changed his story in an affidavit and a deposition that Democrats referenced to undermine his claims.
“When I was under oath I told the truth,” Alberty admitted during the hearing. “Anything I said on the video when I’m not under oath, that is a different story.”
Clayton called for members of the panel to get Daleiden under oath to tell the truth or face legal repercussions for perpetuating his claims. However, Republicans misrepresented Clayton’s testimony by saying she called for StemExpress to turn over accounting records. Blackburn soon subpoenaed those records and threatened “to pursue all means necessary” as the investigation proceeds.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, has no doubts about why Republicans continue to rely on third-party witnesses rather than Daleiden.
“I don’t think they want to bring David Daleiden in because they know that he’s a shady character and an unreliable witness,” DeGette said in an interview with Rewire.
Anti-Choice Tactics Influence Current Inquiry
As the only lawmaker to serve on the past and present investigations, DeGette sometimes feels like she’s “in a real-life version of Groundhog Day.”
“We keep having these same kinds of hearings, over and over again,” DeGette said. “In my opinion, there’s continuing pressure on the Republican Party from the far-right anti-choice movement to have these hearings, even though the claim of sale of fetal tissue has been repeatedly disproved.”
Anti-choice tactics, if not the key players, behind what congressional Democrats have branded a “witch hunt” to undermine fetal tissue research are similar today.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the past and present inquiries is Republicans’ attitudes toward fetal tissue research—and their ability to separate research from abortion.
The shift can be summed up in one word: politics.
“I think the difference is a structural one with a political origin,” Raben, the former DOJ official, told Rewire in an interview.
Republicans in 2000 investigated fetal tissue practices as part of a standing subcommittee. House Republicans today created the select panel, sought members to serve on it, and despite the lack of any evidence, continue to fund it through tax dollars that otherwise would not be diverted to sustained attacks on fetal tissue research.
“In the face of lousy evidence, they’re going to keep going,” Raben said.
In 2000, even anti-choice Republicans repeatedly deferred to science on fetal tissue research.
“Today’s hearing is not about whether fetal tissue research is a good or bad thing, and it is definitely not about whether a woman should have a right to choose to have an abortion, which is the law of the land,” former Energy and Commerce Chair Tom Bliley (R-VA) said in 2000. “Whether we are pro life, pro choice, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, I think and hope that we can all agree that present federal law which allows for this research should be both respected and enforced.”
At that time, leading Republicans on the subcommittee also extolled, in the words of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the “life-saving research” that their investigation aimed to protect.
Upton’s approach today does not reflect what happened the last time an anti-choice group manipulated evidence and fed it to congressional Republicans. The contents of CMP’s heavily edited smear videos “can’t help but make you weep for the innocents who were sacrificed in such a cavalier manner for alleged profit,” Upton wrote in a op-ed published in the weeks after the release of the first CMP recording.
Although Upton does not serve on the panel, he effectively sanctions the investigation as chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Under House rules, standing subcommittees draw funding from the budget of the full committee with jurisdiction. The full committee chair is in charge of managing additional funds from the House Administration Committee, which sets aside $500,000 per session of Congress to supplement operating budgets, according to a senior House Democratic aide with knowledge of the chamber’s rules.
The aide said the panel follows the same procedures, receiving an undisclosed amount from Energy and Commerce and an additional $300,000 from Administration.
Administration Democrats unsuccessfully protested the transfer at the end of last year. “Spending taxpayer money on this select panel is wasteful on substantive grounds and unnecessary on practical grounds,” they said.
The transfer followed the House’s informal two-thirds/one-third funding split between the majority and minority parties, with the Republicans receiving $200,000 and the Democrats $100,000, the aide said. Full committee leaders are charged with distributing the funds, meaning that Upton had to do so with the $200,000 for Blackburn, the aide said.
Rewire contacted Upton’s office with questions ranging from whether the chair approves of the panel’s approach to how much more financial resources he will direct from the full committee’s budget to the panel. Rewire asked for Upton’s views on fetal tissue research, including if he shares Blackburn’s derision for the research and if he considers fetal tissue and “baby body parts” to be separate.
In response, a committee spokesperson emailed a brief statement. “The efforts of the Select Panel have always been based on learning the facts,” the spokesperson said. “The panel has been given a one-year term to conduct that mission, and will continue their important work. Chairman Upton has been a supporter of the panel’s charge and their efforts to protect the unborn.”
Republican Leaders Disregard Appeals to Disband Panel
Although Upton’s office told Rewire that the panel was given one year, the resolution that created the panel suggested it could go longer. The resolution only specifies that the panel will come to an end 30 days after filing a final report.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that certain states with racist pasts had to have voting changes “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice. Basically, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion, this protection was no longer needed because racism was over.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent was furious. She accused the majority of overstepping its authority and ignoring the ways that race discrimination still grips this country, writing, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
When the case came down, Shana Knizhnik, a first-year law student at New York University, was outraged too. Knizhnik almost immediately created a Tumblr as a tribute to Ginsburg, calling it Notorious R.B.G.—a phrase borrowed from a classmate’s Facebook posting, in homage to the rapper Notorious B.I.G.—and using Ginsburg’s “umbrella” line as its first post.
From this, an Internet sensation was born. Cities around the country have RBG-inspired cocktails; the Cartoon Network’s show Clarence has a character named after her (Wrath Hover Ginsbot, who is “appointed for life to kick your butt”); babies, kids, and grown-ups (my wife included, just last week) now dress up as RBG for Halloween; she is mentioned in all sorts of popular media, from Scandal to Saturday Night Live; and at least three people across the country have documented RBG tattoos.
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With such a genesis story, you might have expected Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a book inspired by the Tumblr and released from HarperCollins last week, to be a tongue-in-cheek look at RBG in popular culture, with perhaps a few cursory references to her experiences. Even the book design reflects this: Its appearance looks fun and breezy, including the cover image of Justice Ginsburg in a crown, thescribbled case annotationson the inside (one of which, in full disclosure, I contributed), and the many photos and cartoon drawings that break up the prose.
You’d be wrong, though. Instead, Knizhnik teamed up with journalist Irin Carmon to write a lively, accessible, and smart look at RBG’s life, career, and impact on American law and feminism.
It may seem unbelievable that a justice so modest that she once proposed to her colleagues on the D.C. Circuit that they release unanimous opinions without the author’s name on it, so straight-laced that her children once documented every instance of her laughter in their own book called Mommy Laughed,is the now-ubiquitous public figure Notorious RBG. In fact, the moniker itself is an exercise in contrasts. The book notes:
To [Knizhnik], the reference to the 300-pound deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G. was both tongue-in-cheek and admiring. The humor was in the contrasts — the elite court and the streets, white and black, female and male, octogenarian and died too young. The woman who had never much wanted to make a stir and the man who had left his mark. There were similarities too. Brooklyn. Like the swaggering lyricist, this tiny Jewish grandmother who demanded patience as she spoke could also pack a verbal punch.
As Knizhnik and Carmon write, from an early age RBG distinguished herself not only with her unusual intelligence but also with an unrivaled work ethic. She fell in love with her husband at Cornell University because, unlike the other men who “were in awe” of her beauty, he was wowed by her brain and “wooed and won her by convincing her how much he respected her.”
Marty Ginsburg, her husband of 56 years who died in 2010, was a key part of RBG’s life. Though Marty was a highly successful tax lawyer, he happily let his career take a backseat to RBG’s after being made partner at his firm. In fact, when she was appointed to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court in 1980, he left his practice in New York to move to Washington and support her career, something unheard of at the time for a husband to do. When there was an opening on the Supreme Court, Marty lobbied everyone he possibly could in Washington to have RBG appointed. She supported him too, helping him through an early bout of testicular cancer while in law school together and raising their young kids while he focused on developing his practice. In the end, though, he wound up happily playing second fiddle to his brilliant jurist wife.
The book chronicles their relationship and love in the context of RBG’s development as a pathmarking (a word she loves) feminist lawyer, and ultimately as the second woman on the Supreme Court. Despite always being the smartest person in the room, RBG faced early pushback while attending Harvard Law School, being told by the dean she was taking the seat of a qualified man. The professors who supported her had to almost beg federal judges to take her for a clerkship, with several openly saying that they wouldn’t hire a woman. And when corporate law firms wouldn’t hire her out of her clerkships, RBG took the advice of a Columbia Law professor who suggested she help him with a book about Swedish civil procedure.
This research changed her life. She traveled to Sweden for the book, where she absorbed the ongoing debates, far advanced from those in the United States in the early 1960s, about women’s role in society. This experience developed her dedication to fighting for women’s liberation’s—as well as for men’s liberation. As the book makes clear, throughout her time as a law professor and at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, RBG fought for gender equality across the board, believing that the only way women could truly be free was if men also were liberated from the stereotypes of masculinity that bound them.
Manyof thecases she took to the Supreme Courtreflected this belief—those on behalf of men (like her husband) taking on non-traditional gender roles and the government treating them poorly as a result. RBG was convinced that challenging the sexism behind men’s stereotypes would also free women from the shackles of bigotry as well. Largely because of her dogged pursuit of feminist justice, in a series of cases in the mid-’70s, the Court changed the way it viewed sex discrimination under the Constitution.
RBG was a star litigator who had changed an entire body of law, and she was rewarded by President Carter appointing her to the D.C. Circuit, the federal appeals court in Washington. There, RBG didn’t make many waves, instead hewing closely to Supreme Court precedent and garnering a reputation as a moderate. In fact, based on one study mentioned in Notorious RBG, she voted with Robert Bork 85 percent of the time—yes, that Robert Bork, the uber-conservative, failed Supreme Court nominee who is widely recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of extreme originalism. When Justice Byron White announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1993, President Bill Clinton took months before settling on RBG as White’s successor. At the ceremony announcing the nomination, Clinton hailed RBG as a moderate.
Part of this perception came from her longstanding criticism of Roe v. Wade. As much as RBG supported abortion rights and thought them essential to women’s equality, she had written and spoken repeatedly about her belief that Roe was decided too broadly and under the wrong principles. She thought an opinion based on women’s equal citizenship rather than privacy, and which avoided the unnecessary discussion of the trimester framework, would have been more grounded in the Constitution and better for the country as a whole. She didn’t question the importance of abortion for women’s rights or the correctness of the case’s ultimate result in striking down Texas’ prohibition on abortion, but that nuance was lost on the general public. Because she had criticized Roe, she was seen as a Democratic appointment who would not be radical.
Two decades later, with an Internet meme dedicated to her powerful words on behalf of liberal causes, Clinton’s “moderate” appointment seems to have been either a mistake or a clever head-fake. As the book makes clear, RBG has not written many powerful liberal majority opinions in her time on the Court, though her opinion finding that the Virginia Military Institute’s prohibition on women attending the school was unconstitutional sex discrimination acted as a wonderful cap to her past career as a women’s rights constitutional litigator. Beyond that, Notorious RBG doesn’t discuss her important majority decisions around access to the courts for the poor or criminal justice. Overall, however, the Court has been too conservative during her tenure for her to write many other majority opinions in the high-profile cases that have divided it.
Instead, as the book so powerfully details, RBG has found her voice, particularly in the past several years, as the newest Great Dissenter on the Court. A title previously held by Justices John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Thurgood Marshall, the Great Dissenter speaks in powerful words and is often vindicated by history. That is the position in which we now find RBG. Her pithy and pointed dissents about employment discrimination, voting rights, abortion restrictions, contraceptive access, Medicaid expansion, and affirmative action, all well-chronicled in the book, have garnered her the admiration of millions. No doubt, RBG and her legion of followers hope that history vindicates her as well, and that one day in the near future she’ll be writing majority opinions on those topics.
In light of everything the book covers about RBG’s life—her deceptively frail appearance, her love of opera, her extreme intelligence and bookishness, her lifelong commitment to social justice through law—perhaps the greatest RBG contrast is her enthusiastic acceptance of the Notorious RBG label. In her ninth decade of working harder and being smarter than almost everyone else around her, as Notorious RBG makes clear, it’s not only the most creative Supreme Court nickname ever, but it’s also probably the best-deserved one too.