At a time when uncertainties about the Haitian elections are high, when anxieties over the cholera epidemic are rampant and prevalent rumors identifying peacekeepers as epidemic originators persist, the humanitarian organization must allocate resources to combat emerging rape allegations.
The Washington Times reported Tuesday on emerging rape accusations of teenage girls by UN peacekeepers in Haiti, most notably in the city of Leogane, some 25 miles west of Port-au-Prince. According to the article, her mother forbade then 15-year-old Natasha from filing an official complaint about the crime. Now 17, she accused a Sri Lankan peacekeeper of raping her two years ago. Reporters withheld Natasha’s real name to protect her identity.
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Moreover, six years ago, in 2004, similar rape accusations of another 15-year-old involving a Brazilian peacekeeper surfaced among 33 other cases, which prompted an investigation by the UN peacekeeping mission. Polin Aleandre articulated, « There are likely many more cases. » She is a social worker that claims five street girls ages 9 to 13 received sexual advances from peacekeepers in front of the national palace. « Sex has a huge stigma in Haiti, and rape even more so. People don’t talk about it at all, » Aleandre added.
Notably, a plurality of sexual abuse scandals stormed the Un peacekeeping mission in Africa in 2008. Among scores of victims was Elizabeth, a 13-year-old girl from Ivory Coast. She recounted her ordeals to BBC News, « They grabbed me and threw me to the ground and they forced themselves on me… I tried to escape but there were 10 of them and I could do nothing, » she said.
Similar patterns recorded in Southern Sudan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are explicitly highlighted in “No One to Turn To,” a report published by Save the Children Fund in 2008. In spite of renewed commitments by the UN in recent years to address this plaguing problem, these vulnerabilities have tarnished the image of the humanitarian organization, once a viable solution to global crisis.
Denying the allegations, U.N. spokesperson David Wimhurst declared, after conducting three investigations, no substantiated evidence became known in Natasha’s charges. “We take it very seriously, » he argued. « Clearly, the majority of our people are behaving themselves, and indeed, since some of these allegations don’t pan out, I would say, it’s not a huge problem. » Meanwhile, the Washington Times’ report indicated since January 2004, the United Nations has investigated 319 peacekeepers for accusations of sexual abuse or exploitation, resulting in the repatriation of 144 military personnel, 17 police officers and 18 civilian officials.
After its investigation, Save the Children Fund recommended better reporting mechanism and the strengthening of worldwide protection systems. However, some activists insist that some victims are either too afraid or too intimidated by the U.N. bureaucracy to come forward.
These circumstances have raised legitimate concerns in Haitian communities who, according to some reports, have lost an estimated 3,000 children monthly to the Dominican Republic’s lucrative human trafficking market since Jan. 12, 2010.
Until reproductive rights and justice leaders make disability rights an integral issue for the movement, anti-choice advocates will continue to dictate—and skew—the conversation in order to restrict abortion.
All over the country, from Denver to Minneapolis and beyond, billboards recently sprang up featuring a smiling white boy cradling a white infant. “My brother is a blessing,” reads the text above the children’s heads. “He has Down syndrome.”
The ads, sponsored by the national group PROLIFE Across AMERICA (PAA), come emblazoned with a telephone number offering “trained professionals who can help educate, provide facts, and counseling” to pregnant and “post-abortive” women—facts that will presumably include, based on PAA’s website, wildlyinaccurate claims like “94 percent of women regret their decision to abort.”
PAA’s billboards, however, are just one tiny example of the ways in which those in the anti-reproductive rights movement are muddling their messages with false disability rights advocacy, reinforcing discriminatory frameworks and creating more obstacles for actual people with disabilities in the process. So far, however, most reproductive health and justice activists have themselves failed to prioritize disability rights as an essential goal. Until they do so, the conversation about the best ways to support people with disabilities will continue to be dictated—and dramatically skewed—by anti-choicers.
A Cynical, Sick Strategy
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Designed to tug at the heartstrings, the message of PAA’s Down syndrome-focused ad is clear: Babies with disabilities—particularly children with Down syndrome—need to be “saved” from abortion.
What’s more, the billboard’s takeaway hinges on a few factual inferences. It says that people with disabilities matter, and that they can be blessings to a family. Given that people with disabilities are too often stigmatized as burdens, rather than individuals with dignity and agency, these are both true and important declarations.
However, the presentation of the billboard itself gives the first clue that there is more motivating its creators than advocacy for people with disabilities. For one thing, it makes a point of presenting the younger boy as the one with the disability, stating that he is the blessing, rather than both children. This language reinforces a discriminatory narrative: that people with disabilities are Others, to be pointed out and scrutinized by everyone rather than accommodated as a default part of the group.
PAA’s billboard places the emphasis on the child’s disability rather than the child himself and the world he lives in. A better narrative would have acknowledged and attempted to combat the primary obstacles that people with disabilities confront. These are not genetic, mental, or physical, as the ad implies. Rather, they are societally created: uncut curbs that can be crossed only by people who are not using wheelchairs and scooters, automated touchscreens that work only for people who are not blind, or police officers who are not trained to de-escalate situations involving people with mental disabilities.
This disconnect between legitimate advocacy and PAA’s billboard message is symptomatic of one of the anti-choice movement’s major objectives. Much like with their pushes for sex-selective abortion bans, which rely on racist rhetoric to make it more difficult for women of color to obtain abortions, anti-choicers seek to justify restricting reproductive health care under the guise of fighting for disability rights.
While nine states have 20-week post-fertilization abortion bans that have acute effects on individuals and families who decide to end pregnancies after learning of fetal conditions that may not be visible earlier in pregnancy, North Dakota is the only one to explicitly ban abortion on the basis of what the state calls “genetic abnormality.” Proponents of this law believe it gives a right to life to those fetuses that might, through the process of birth, become people with disabilities. This is dubious, given that many disabilities are not present at birth, not genetic in basis, or both.
Moreover, the language of the law is itself offensive. It is as if variations between bodies are “abnormal” only when they pertain to disabilities—as opposed to differing hair color, sex, or sizes. And because North Dakota provides no way to ascertain whether someone chose an abortion “solely” for “genetic abnormality” or “sex,” the practical impact of the law is to place women, doctors, and other members of the medical community under suspicion.
Although the law is, for now, only on the books in one state, it is markedly similar to model federal legislation crafted by Americans United for Life. Moreover, its terminology is echoed by the National Right to Life Committee, which says in talking points crafted for its followers that “you can show them that aborting a child because of possible abnormality is nothing less than blatant and deadly discrimination against people with disabilities.”
Working for “Life,” But Against Disability Rights
Even as the anti-choice movement feigns concern about disability in the womb for the purpose of banning and further stigmatizing abortion, it is still an integral part of a radically conservative approach to governance that actively works against the interests of people with disabilities.
Perhaps no one personifies the issue better than former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who routinely invokes the love he has for his young daughter Bella, who has Trisomy 18, as an argument for restricting abortion rights everywhere and for all reasons. When it comes to banning abortion, at least, Santorum’s no-exceptions approach makes him appear to be ideologically consistent.
But that is far from the case on all issues. In a piece Santorum wrote titled “Celebrating Bella: Our Gift from God,” he said:
It’s important for us to continually affirm life and our belief in the fundamental right to life by supporting those who work to ensure that all families with special-needs children are able to provide for them.
Working to support families who have children with disabilities is not what he’s doing when he trots Bella out to argue against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a treaty that firmly acknowledges disability rights as human rights—and that remains shamefully unratified by the United States. Santorum falsely claimed that CRPD would transfer parenting authority to a “faceless and distant United Nations bureaucrat,” a charge that Secretary of State John Kerry said was “just not factual” and that Eleanor J. Bader debunked for Rewire.
But the issue is bigger than one billboard, one politician, or one treaty. The fact of the matter is that the anti-abortion rights movement consistently fails to act to improve the lives of people with disabilities who are already here.
If you want to support people with disabilities, you need to put your money where your mouth is. You need to support funding for education, health care, and social services. Yet this pious constituency that claims to care so much about saving babies does not do that.
In a 2012 article for the American Prospect, Judith Lewis Mernit outlined how many self-described “pro-life” legislators at state and federal levels use their votes to undermine services that are vital for people with disabilities, by slashing services like early education and therapy for children with developmental disabilities, targeting for removal or reduction state-level early intervention programs for children receiving matching funds under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and proposing changes that would undermine the availability of Medicaid.
As a presidential candidate, Santorum vowed to “cut back a lot on the Department of Education” without mentioning whether he would spare IDEA from such cuts. Meanwhile, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the perpetual House sponsor of a 20-week abortion ban, told the National Review Online that having been born with congenital defects himself and having a late brother with Down syndrome informs his long career of anti-abortion rights advocacy. Yet he also co-sponsored a bill to repeal Medicaid expansion—which expedites and grants health-care access to more people with disabilities. Legislators like these enjoy strong backing from anti-choice groups, which typically fail to mount resistance or even muster a comment about this behavior from their star champions.
In fact, anti-abortion rights organizations usually stay out of debates that have nothing to do with abortion, letting the proverbial bullets strike their beloved babies and children where they may. Unless, of course, they can insert abortion within those discussions. Last year, the National Right to Life Committee took no position on Medicaid expansion; its Cleveland and Cincinnati affiliates, meanwhile, sued to block it within Ohio, claiming the typical “abortion-inducing drugs” falsehood leveled against Obamacare. But in an unusual move, its statewide Ohio affiliate actually supported expansion. Even so, this step toward advocacy in favor of improving quality of life for those people who actually have been born is the exception among anti-choice groups, not the rule. As Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, told Irin Carmon at MSNBC, “We were the first and probably only perceived social conservative organization that came out and supported Medicaid expansion.”
When the government is not supposed to provide support, the solution offered by Santorum and his allies is to have charities and faith-based organizations step up to support people with disabilities and their families. This is not a moral option, nor is it sustainable or practical. Our government has a responsibility to assure the dignity and equality of everyone, including people with disabilities.
For that matter, it is not appropriate to create situations in which nonprofit faith-based organizations must step in to provide services when truly public, government-accountable ones are intentionally defunded. Individuals’ needs don’t go away, so this inevitably leads to “common ground” solutions, through which progressives and conservatives can hug it out by redirecting tax dollars to churches and religious organizations that provide at least some services to people with disabilities.
These agencies, however, often don’t have to adhere to anti-discrimination laws because of religious exemptions. And, for that matter, it’s dangerous to delegate care of people with disabilities to groups that actively refuse to provide all forms of reproductive health care, especially when even secular health providers can fail to account for the reality that people with disabilities are people—and just as in need of reproductive health care as everyone else.
Changing the Conversation
There is no question that those in the anti-abortion rights movement are insidiously using narratives around disability rights to push for restrictions on the procedure. This is evidence, however, that progressive activists must prioritize disability rights as a vital reproductive justice issue, especially as the availability of prenatal testing for genetic traits becomes more ubiquitous in the United States.
More than 90 percent of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of fetal Down syndrome, for example, choose to have an abortion. Although Down syndrome is associated with higher maternal age, today pregnant women of all ages are routinely offered simple screenings that reveal the statistical likelihood of chromosomal conditions. If a greater chance of Down syndrome is revealed, a woman may choose to undergo amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling to confirm a diagnosis.
It should be noted that some women thoughtfully forgo prenatal screening altogether. “We declined prenatal testing because we would welcome another child with Down Syndrome,” author Amy Julia Becker wrote in the New York Times in September 2010. While making it clear that she is not opposed to prenatal testing and acknowledging that it has benefits, Becker offers a critique commonly espoused by members of the disability rights movement:
The way these tests are administered, the way information is provided to women and the way our culture talks about and conceives of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities contribute to my concern that prenatal testing more often serves to devalue all human life and to offer parents and doctors an illusion of control.
This critique should be adopted widely and vocally within the reproductive justice community. Hear me out: Absolutely, pregnant women should have access to prenatal testing, as well as accurate, timely information about their results. A woman who decides abortion is best for her should be accommodated without shaming or restrictive laws, regardless of whether prenatal testing has suggested or confirmed that if her pregnancy goes to term, a baby with a disability will be born.
However, such testing is often framed as a way to “empower” parents over “risks” versus “normal outcomes,” to paraphrase the marketing brochure of MaterniT21 PLUS, one brand of prenatal test. Becker pointed out in her Times article that doctors-in-training told her that before they met her daughter, “they thought Down syndrome was the worst thing to happen to a child.” Other personal essays, such as this piece from Amy Atkins, have recounted midwives reacting with horror at the comparatively high chances of an infant being born with a chromosomal condition. These attitudes all contribute, in part, to the disgusting and pervasive discrimination against disability within and outside of the reproductive rights movement.
Reproductive justice is about more than supporting people in their decisions about pregnancy; it includes a call for adequate resources so that people can have healthy pregnancies and raise children in safe communities, regardless of privilege or lack thereof. Under a reproductive justice framework, those at the margins are pushed to the center of analysis and activism. It’s well past time for that analysis to more robustly include the needs of those people with disabilities, as well as the families who support them.
Backing policies to improve the lives of people with disabilities, embracing disability rights leaders as reproductive justice leaders in their own right, and insisting that the medical community provide unquestioned support to women who choose to continue or end a pregnancy after receiving a prenatal diagnosis—these are not threats to the fundamental right to choose abortion. There should be no stigma attached to choosing to raise a child with a disability, just as there should be none for choosing to end a pregnancy for any reason.
So far, however, the discussion largely remains dictated by anti-abortion rights concern-trollers and a few bigoted voices claiming to be “pro-choice.” One such figure is Richard Dawkins, who recently tweeted that he believes that a woman who finds she is carrying a fetus with Down syndrome should “[a]bort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.” He doubled down in a blog post that had “apology” in the title but defended his initial words.
Whether the objections come from those in the medical community or self-styled leftists like Dawkins, it’s not ethical to pressure women to abort fetuses that test positive for potential disabilities. In fact, it’s downright horrific to insinuate that someone’s life exists because of someone else’s immoral decision to allow it. This should not, under any conditions, be considered the “pro-choice” response to disability.
But in the absence of engagement on disability rights from actual leaders of the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements, it’s not difficult to see how someone could see these prejudiced views as the sole answer to “advocacy” from the anti-abortion contingent. It is up to all of us to do better—we know the “pro-life” movement doesn’t have it covered, no matter how hard they try to make it seem that way.
It’s been a little over a week since Michael Brown was killed in broad daylight for, basically, jaywalking, in Ferguson, Missouri. Later, police tried to justify his death by changing the subject to shoplifting. It made me think of that campy Jane’s Addiction song, “Been Caught Stealing,” with its even more campy music video about white people shoplifting in grocery stores. It always seemed funny to me before, but this last week it has seemed like a testament to the way white people are rarely seen as a threat in popular culture—a view that’s ridiculous given that white people commit more crimes than anyone else.
When that song came out, I was just a couple years away from working a series of minimum wage jobs in low- to middle-income, mostly white communities. I worked at a music and video store, for instance. Our almost entirely white clientele stole things, yes they did. Nearly every night that I worked the video counter at closing, I’d find half-eaten candy packages in the impulse-buy rack. In the music section, when we did store inventory, we’d find seemingly closed CD packaging with the jewel cases removed. White people would come in to “return” CDs they’d purchased, and act shocked if we opened the cases to find a junk CD instead of the new one that was supposed to be in the package.
I don’t think a single police report was ever filed.
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Later, I worked at a sandwich shop. As I recall, everyone on staff was white. We made minimum wage, or nearly, at part-time jobs with terrible hours. Everyone ate extra food—by which I mean we stole. In our defense, we were hungry. Our salary-to-sandwich ratio worked out to about 20-30 footlong subs a week and they always made you work late, for free, if the whole store wasn’t clean within an hour or so of closing. The managers were feared and hated, and they treated us like scum, but the hostilities never rose to the level of police intervention.
Years later, when the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, one season’s subplot centered around a major character with a shoplifting habit. She stole, per the show, hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from her workplace and the local mall. She was white, too, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem weird that she never faced much in the way of consequences beyond paying restitution to the stores.
I can’t even tell you how many times I or friends of mine have jaywalked. Scofflaws!
I’ve copied personal documents on my employers’ photocopiers before. You? Because that’s theft. Don’t tell me you’ve never taken so much as a paper clip home from the supply cupboard. I’d know you were lying. Don’t tell me it wasn’t wrong because no one cared. Of course no one cared. Exactly.
I, and dozens of white people I’ve known through the years, have smoked marijuana. Add in other illegal drugs, either done in my presence or by direct admission, and we’re probably talking about 150 people directly known to me. Sometimes there were minors present, or partaking. Sometimes state lines were crossed. I was on a college trip once where nearly my entire mostly white class gathered after dark in a state park and passed a joint around. I was at a friend’s house once, with a group of other young white professionals, and another white person from the neighborhood popped in, cooked some party drug on the stove, offered it around, and then left when no one was interested. I lived in a college community for a fancy private and mostly white school where you can just walk down the street and smell weed most evenings. White people do a lot of drugs, like everybody else.
Destruction of property? I heard via my then boyfriend, a few months after the fact, about multiple groups of white teenage boys who drove around our north Los Angeles County community shooting out car windows with pellet guns when I was in high school. They hit cars in front of my house twice as retaliation against my parents for disliking my boyfriend, who was their friend. It’s possible one or two individuals may have been caught over what was apparently tens of thousands of dollars in damage, but I had other things going on in my life and I didn’t give a damn about broken windows.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which one of these petty crimes was responded to by a police killing of an unarmed person. I don’t know anyone who would have felt safe in their community after that. Everyone would have completely lost it, me included.
I’m not naming names, and I think statutes of limitation are long past, but I have witnessed hundreds of individual criminal acts of the type I’ve seen white people in America say are exculpatory of the unjustified killing of a Black person. I personally witnessed hundreds of misdemeanors and felonies, state and federal, committed by white people before I turned 30. I’m no Hunter S. Thompson, either, because while that sounds like a lot of stuff going down, it was mostly from a handful of parties, a smaller handful of friends, and two exes. And I know, like, four people who’ve ever gone to jail for a lick of it. People mostly sympathized with our parents’ efforts to get us back on track so we could grow out of that phase and settle down.
No one ever suggested, or ever would, that any of us deserved to get shot on sight for any of that. Even my neighbor who once told me he’d turned someone in for growing marijuana, in retaliation for loud music, didn’t seem to think anyone deserved to die over it.
But I got called a fascist the other day for saying that I thought Officer Darren Wilson should turn himself over to the criminal justice system after shooting an unarmed teenager. Because apparently it’s fascist to want accountability when the police shoot unarmed civilians of oppressed minority groups while they’re trying to surrender. Fascism doesn’t mean what it used to, I guess.
Numerous people discussing #Ferguson on Twitter have pointed out that white Bundy Ranch protesters pointed sniper rifles at federal agents and didn’t even get arrested. The white Penn State students who rioted after Joe Paterno’s firing were treated like unruly pranksters in spite of causing significant property destruction. None of them got indiscriminately tear gassed. No one rolled out LRAD sound cannons. Pretty much everyone involved was going to just walk away, because it was clearly the goal of law enforcement that the situations not seriously escalate into physical violence: Get your anger out and then everybody go back to your regular lives. It almost even worked.
In the financial crisis of 2008, large financial institutions were revealed to be thieves. Mortgage lenders stole entire houses. Stole. Houses. None of them got treated like Michael Brown. None of them got treated like the millions of stop-and-frisk targets in New York City alone. When Occupy Wall Street protesters assembled in opposition to their thefts, police protected the thieves and roughed up the protesters. White people were surprised to see the police act like that, while Black people had been expecting it all along because that’s their normal.
Way back when, white people stole the whole damn continent. White people once stole the entire value of the life’s work of millions of enslaved Africans, and the descendants of those white people sometimes call the descendants of those formerly enslaved persons lazy. It boggles the mind.
In white communities, Child Protective Services usually only steps in during obvious tragedy. Like the police, white people see CPS rarely and usually in a capacity of protecting and serving. In Native communities and other communities of color where the state definition of “neglect” can be as simple as poverty, CPS’s behavior is more like mass child theft, which is a recognized form of genocide. Researchers have found Black children being taken from their families at twice the rate of white children.
Meanwhile, I think my white predecessors have been beating their kids since they got off the boats from Europe, and they were quite poor at times. No one in those past generations of my family ever had their children taken away by the state. I was whipped with belts and wooden spoons as a child, and no social worker ever came to our house. White people in conservative Christian churches still today share child abuse tips and actively seek out advice on how to get away with beating children in the name of Biblical discipline, and yet there is no stolen generation of white Christian children in America.
Would it be better if more people got harassed, arrested, jailed, shot dead in the street, had their families broken up, or lost family members in response to a constant parade of flawed humanity not living up to our legal ideals? No. I don’t think more brutality will ever convince people that brutality is wrong. White people need to be renouncing violence, not expanding it.
There does need to be a civilian peacekeeping force in our communities. There needs to be some kind of accountability that keeps our transgressions against each other from getting out of hand, without clamping down so tightly that the police will show up for spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. But what we need is not a new kind of war on crime run by police officers who consider excessive force an inalienable prerogative of their jobs. Stop with the wars, already.
The United States instead needs to make peace with Black people, as well as other people of color, and people living in poverty.
Because it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the so-called war on drugs has mostly been a war on Black people, with plenty of other people of color and white people too poor to spring for a good attorney thrown in for good measure. But mostly, a war on Black people.
What needs to happen now is that we must stop measuring our commitment to public safety by racking up arrests, prosecutions, probations, and incarcerations, because there aren’t enough armored cars in the world to make that work. Real public safety comes from friendship, trust, and people looking out for each other’s well being; but you can forget about any of that when someone gets arrested, beaten, and then charged with a crime for allegedly bleeding on people.
But if white people want to put racial discrimination in the past like we keep claiming, that discrimination must first come to an end. We need to declare peace in America and then put in the work to make it happen.
The widely reported police declaration that Ferguson was a “war zone” in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing was telling. The police don’t have the power to declare war. And they didn’t. The war that raged, and continues to rage, in Ferguson was there before those police were born, before there was press around to cover it—it’s a war local police forces have been waging against Black people for as long as there have been police in the United States. Where else besides a war do you see a dead body in the street and instead of treating it like a crime scene, the authorities point to the killer’s commendable service record, armor up, and come back itching for a bigger fight?
When someone shoots a white person, even if any given suspect is innocent until proven guilty, the killing itself is considered a crime until proven otherwise because the dead person is presumed innocent of having deserved such a fate. Dead Black person? Well, people were scared, they might have been on drugs, I think I saw a gang sign, check out those clothes…
Stop with the excuses.
White people, there’s already been a race war in the United States. White people won. You can walk outside anywhere in this country or turn on any media outlet and find evidence that this is true. Enough. It’s time for peace, and here’s one way we can start:
It must be considered a crime until proven otherwise to kill a Black person in America.
A serious crime. Not like smoking a joint in the woods, shoplifting small consumer goods, or any of a hundred other stupid things white people do with the reasonable expectation that there will usually be no consequences even though there’s a statute against it somewhere. Because only when it is considered, in practice, a crime to kill a Black person will it be possible to have peace in the United States.