Roundup (Afternoon Version): Marriage Is Not A Condom, Free Abortions In Spain?

Amie Newman

Nancy Goldstein agrees with the Pope (sort of)! Spain's abortion laws may increase craigslist.org searches for rental property in the country, opposing embryonic stem cell research = opposing fertility clinics?

Sorry, Pope, Marriage Isn’t A Condom

Nancy Goldstein writes on NPR.org yesterday in response to the Pope’s declaration that condoms won’t solve the proliferation of HIV/AIDS transmission throughout Africa. It’s hard not to want to scream but Nancy lays it out calmly. Yes, the Pope is right, she writes. Condoms certainly won’t wipe the HIV/AIDS virus from the continent, nor stop the transmissions if people don’t use them. Much more is needed, says Goldstein:

Access to health care and education, for one. Information about how people can protect themselves and their loved ones against HIV transmission — and yes, that includes learning how and when and why to use condoms. Viable drug treatment on demand, syringe-exchange programs and other harm reduction measures. And a sea change in the status of women and men who have sex with men — in Africa, in the U.S., everywhere. Let’s face it: Anyone who is dependent on others for money, shelter, protection or status isn’t in much of a position to negotiate condom usage. Add children, addiction, homelessness or domestic violence to this problem, and preventing HIV drops to the bottom of that person’s list of priorities.

In fact, a guest opinion (a Catholic, no less) for the Washington Post’s On Faith column suggests now might be the right time to "Impeach the Pope."

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Economy Puts Focus on Family Planning

NPR is rockin’ the reproductive health and rights debate, apparently. Yesterday, NPR featured an on-air exploration of the state of family planning and reproductive health services in our fragile economic times. It’s no surprise to Rewire readers that women are in desperate need of care now more than ever. From NPR.org:

Some people are calling the clinic to see if they can get free birth control. They include middle-class clients who have decided to foreego preventive heath care because they just can’t afford it. Even older women are finding they are without insurance, perhaps for the first time. Others ask questions about abortion.

Free Abortions in Spain?

Spain’s "Minister of Equality", Bibiani Aido, defended a proposal to allow young women to access abortion services without parental consent. Aido’s view:

If a woman aged 16 to 18 can decide to get married and have children, she is mature enough to decide if she wants an abortion. 

There is also a proposal on the table to allow government funding for abortion services for abortion procedures performed up to 14 weeks. In a statement that makes one google "housing in Spain":

The Minister said the Government could not bow to ‘fundamentalists’ on the matter as they had to govern for the majority.

Against Stem Cell Research? Don’t Have IVF Treatment Either

Ross Douthat and Michael Kinsley debate the anti-choice stance against embryonic stem cell research and whether it also extends to embryo destruction in fertility clinics; and ultimately what is the most politically savvy road to implementation of anti-choice legislation expressly related to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. As Douthat writes:

Most Americans already know that the pro-life movement has a maximalist
view of what abortion law should be, I think, which means that
restating your maximalism at every opportunity isn’t a savvy approach
to negotiation – it’s a good way to get people to tune you out. 

For more of the most current news and information on reproductive rights and health:

March 17: AP: Archbishop: Pro-choice Catholics Shouldn’t Receive Communion
http://www.digtriad.com/news/national_world/article.aspx?storyid=120980&catid=175

March 17: News Leader: Pro-choice politicians come closest to majority opinion
http://www.digtriad.com/news/national_world/article.aspx?storyid=120980&catid=175

March 17: Idaho Statesman: Idaho miscarriage bill faces opposition:
Allowing certificates for early fetal deaths could lead to a lawsuit.
http://www.idahostatesman.com/newsupdates/story/701786.html

March 18: Reuters: Vatican defends pope’s stand on condoms as criticism mounts
http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSLI43220920090318

March 19: SLT: Abortion facts: Teach about birth control in schools
http://www.salon.com/wires/ap/scitech/2009/03/18/D970HM7O0_med_baby_boomlet/index.html

March 18: Houston Chron: Preventing teen pregnancy begins with family
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/health/6319457.html

March 18: Houston Press: Mexican Birth Control and Undocumented College Students
http://www.houstonpress.com/2009-03-19/culture/mexican-birth-control-and-undocumented-college-students/
http://www.sltrib.com/ci_11952665

March 19: AP: US births break record; 40 pct. are out-of-wedlock
http://www.salon.com/wires/ap/scitech/2009/03/18/D970HM7O0_med_baby_boomlet/index.html

March 18: KFOR: Poor economy leads to rise in permanent birth control procedures
http://www.kfor.com/news/local/kfor-news-permanent-birth-control-story,0,7630344.story

March 19: Time: How to End The War Over Sex Ed
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1886558,00.html

March 18: Buffalo News: United Way drops policy tied to abortion
services: New position allows funding for wellness, income or
education
http://www.buffalonews.com/cityregion/story/611262.html

 

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.

Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”

When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.

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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.

A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.

Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures

Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:

Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.

While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.

As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]

In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.

Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.

In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.

March wrote in the Times:

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.

March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.

Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.

He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Times article that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.

Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.

Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.

“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.

At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.

Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.

From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence

Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.

In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.

Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.

It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.

Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.

At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.

Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.

Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.

In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.

“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.

“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”

They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.

The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.

“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”

They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”

CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”

Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.

This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.

Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.

CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.

“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.

CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.

“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.

“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.

In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.

In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.

“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.

The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement

The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.

“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”

Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.

His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.

Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”

Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.

In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.

Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:

My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?

“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”

Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.

“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.

Commentary Sexual Health

It Shouldn’t Take a Chlamydia ‘Epidemic’ in Texas to Make Us Care About Teens’ Sexual Health

Martha Kempner

It was an outrageous—and ultimately false—story of 20 teens in a small high school in Texas having chlamydia that finally got media outlets to discuss whether kids need medically accurate information.

In recent weeks, numerous media reports have questioned whether abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are failing our high school students and leaving them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies. Interestingly, it was not new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing the record high number of STIs among teens across the country, nor was it the mountains of research showing abstinence-only programs don’t work that made news. It wasn’t even the increased funding that Congress quietly passed for these failing programs last month that put this type of sex education in the spotlight. Instead, it was an outrageous—and ultimately false—story of 20 teens in a small high school in Texas having chlamydia that got media outlets, including the Washington Post, the U.S. News and World Report, People.com, and The View, to discuss whether kids need medically accurate information.

I appreciate the attention on this issue, and I hope the debate can go on even as we begin to learn the truth about what’s happening in Crane, Texas. But I am disappointed that yet again, the mainstream media and general public seem only to pay attention to teens’ sexual health needs when we can tie them to a situation so alarming or scandalous it can practically write its own headline.

This story began in early May, when the superintendent of the Crane Independent School District, Jim Rumage, sent a letter to parents alerting them that chlamydia was “on the rise” in the local high school. According to reports, the letter said that about 20 students out of the 300 in the school had tested positive for this bacterial STI. The article that ran on a local news website said that the CDC had declared this to be “epidemic proportions.” Rumage told reporters, “We do have an abstinence curriculum, and that’s evidently ain’t working. [sic] We need to do all we can, although it’s the parents’ responsibility to educate their kids on sexual education.”

From there the story took off, with articles and television pieces across the country and even internationally questioning how so many students could have an STI. (Rewire covered it in a podcast.) Most, like Rumage himself, ended up blaming the school’s poor sex education. Raw Story, for example, scoured the district’s website and pointed out that although the school does not offer a human sexuality course, it does run an optional three-day program that focuses on remaining abstinent until marriage. That story also noted that in 2012, an advisory panel recommended that the school adopt Worth the Wait, an abstinence curriculum produced by Scott and White Hospital in Texas that relies on fear and shame and suggests condoms provide very little protection from STIs.  

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This is not out of the ordinary for Texas, which has a long history of abstinence-only programs. When former President George W. Bush was governor, he started the Lone Star Leaders, one of the first state programs promoting abstinence until marriage. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Texas has spent a total of $156 million in state and local funds on abstinence-only programs since 2003. And in March, the Texas House of Representatives voted to cut $3 million of funds currently allocated for HIV and STI prevention and devote them instead to abstinence-only programs, despite the fact that their state has the third-highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the country.

Though much of this abstinence funding is used outside of schools, Texas schools do often take a similar approach to sexuality education. State law does not mandate any sexuality education, but does say that it must focus on abstinence if it is taught. Though schools can discuss contraception and STIs, the law says that class must “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior.” Moreover, the laws says that courses must “emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity, if used consistently and correctly, is the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.”

It appears that superintendent Rumage agrees with this aspect of the law. He told a local paper: “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease … That’s not a bad program.”

I suppose he’s not entirely wrong. If his students weren’t having sex, they could not get chlamydia. But clearly they are not being abstinent, nor are their peers across Texas. According to the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 43 percent of high school girls and 49 percent of high school boys in Texas have engaged in sexual intercourse. Texas also has the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy across the country. And, in 2012, there were nearly 40,000 cases of chlamydia among teenagers 15 and older reported in Texas.

These statistics should be enough to get everyone paying attention to the poor sexual health of teens in Texas, and similar statistics are available for states across the country. But the media tends to gloss over these health indicators or report them in a brief news story without ever investigating what we are doing wrong. Apparently, it takes a story like Crane to make the general public take notice.

Only what we have learned since the story broke is that the “outbreak” of chlamydia that was reported in Crane was greatly exaggerated. Some reporters began questioning the numbers because the local health department listed only eight cases of chlamydia in the whole county. Rumage has since agreed that his number was incorrect and explained that he got his information from a local doctor and that he misheard or possibly misunderstood. When the doctor said that more than 20 students had been tested for chlamydia he took that to mean they all had the infection. In fact, only three cases have been confirmed among students, though not all test results have come back.

But three high school students with chlamydia is bad news. Chlamydia is an easily treatable bacterial infection, if caught early, but it often has no symptoms and young people won’t know they have it unless they know to get tested for it. If they don’t get tested and treated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease which, in turn, can lead to infertility. Moreover, the fact that three have chlamydia means that they are having unprotected sex and putting themselves in danger of contracting other STIs that can’t be cured, such as herpes and HIV. Given that we don’t know their gender, they are also at risk of getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy.

But is three students with chlamydia bad enough news to have made international headlines?

I doubt it. My guess is that if it had been clear from the start that this was not actually an epidemic, it wouldn’t have gotten past the local newspaper. Three chlamydia cases in one school is certainly alarming, but it’s not scandalous, and it doesn’t make for much of a headline.

I would argue, however, that it should. Every case of chlamydia or gonorrhea or herpes among teenagers should make headlines, or at least make us demand change, as should every teen who becomes unintentionally pregnant. These things can be prevented, and it is our responsibility as adults to give teens the information and tools necessary to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancy. We also have to help them think critically about their sexual decisions, because if more than 20 kids in one high school needs to be tested for chlamydia, it means that at least some of them are having unprotected sex with multiple partners. Teens are capable of making responsible choices, but they can’t do it without the help of adults and education.

We may never have heard of Crane, Texas, or questioned its sexuality education if the truth had been known going in. Now that we have, though, we should not let the conversation drop. According to some reports, the school board in Crane was set to reexamine its sex education program early this week. I hope that the recent scrutiny on the town—whether deserved or not—spurs the board to improve its program and I hope that media stays on the story to keep the pressure on. I also hope that moving forward, it will not take an epidemic to get us to focus on the sexual health needs of teens—because the next epidemic will likely be real and it will be the teens who suffer.