A measure under consideration in Brazil would give the rights of fertilized ovum "absolute priority" over women's rights under Brazilian law and would include "child support." Human Rights Watch has called on Brazil's Congress to protect women's dignity and human rights by rejecting the legislation.
Human rights organizations are calling on Brazil’s Congress to reject a bill that, if passed into law, would confer extensive rights to fertilized ova. The measure would give the rights of the fertilized ovum “absolute priority” under Brazilian law. In other words, absolute priority over women lives, health, and rights to be protected as living, breathing human beings.
The proposed bill, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “would require any act or omission that could in any way have a negative impact on a fertilized ovum to be considered illegal.” The bill was voted favorably out of the Family and Social Security Commission of the Brazilian House of Representatives this month.
Over the past year, a number of jurisdictions in Latin America have passed laws to confer some rights on fertilized ova, notes HRW. For example, in Mexico, a number of federal states have recently amended their constitutions to extend the protection of the right to life to “the conceived.” Many of these laws specifically protect earlier legal exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or where the life or health of the pregnant woman is threatened.
Brazil’s bill however goes further. According to HRW, it extends the right to child support to ova that have been fertilized through rape, and seeks to give “absolute priority” to the rights of the fertilized ovum. Child support to fertilized eggs is an interesting idea given it is virtually impossible to confirm fertilization and that a fertilized egg is not the same as a pregnancy. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of State, millions of born, living children in Brazil suffer from poverty, lack adequate nutrition and schooling, and must work to survive. One could be forgiven for presuming that the definition and issue of “child support” is somewhat misplaced.
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Passage of the bill under consideration, according to Human Rights Watch, “could lead to the criminalization of any act or omission thought to affect the fertilized ovum negatively, trumping the rights to life or health of any pregnant woman.”
This is an election year in Brazil, and the increasingly conservative Catholic Church is deeply involved in politics in the country. The disregard of the Church for women’s lives could not have been more apparent than in the case last year of a nine-year-old child who became pregnant with twins due to repeated rape by her stepfather. Brazilian law allows abortion if there is a risk to the life of the mother or in cases of rape. Her doctors said the girl met both those conditions, underscoring her pelvis and body were so small her uterus was not big enough to carry one baby, never mind two.
Still, led by the Church, anti-choice extremists in the country argued that the girl could have safely had a Caesarean section. In the end the girl was provided an abortion by her physicians, and the local archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, declared her mother and her medical team to be excommunicated.
The rapist was not excommunicated.
This new law also comes after a period of review and proposed changes in social and economic policies in Brazil, some with the goal, for example, of improving the health of women and children, improving maternal and child health, and generally expanding the health system. These changes have been supported by human rights, public health and women’s rights organizations.
“To promote healthy pregnancies and births is a laudable goal and, indeed, one of Brazil’s human rights obligations,” said Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “But this bill is likely to cause more harm than good by deterring pregnant women from seeking the care they may need because they are afraid to be turned over to the police.”
While the law proposing to equate fertilized eggs with persons, the social and economic status of women and children in Brazil languishes. A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of State, for example, indicates that gender discrimination, compounded by racial discrimination, keeps millions of women locked in poverty. Women generally still earn 30 percent less than men and in households headed by single woman, the woman worker generally earns less than half the minimum wage. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), white Brazilian women earn on average 40 percent less than white men, and Afro-Brazilian women received 60 percent less earnings than white men.
Rape, including spousal rape, is a crime punishable by eight to 10 years’ imprisonment; however, men who killed, sexually assaulted, or committed other crimes against women were unlikely to be brought to trial. Nationwide annual hotline data included 390 sexual-violence incidents within the total complaints of violence. From January to August, the Sao Paulo State Secretariat for Public Safety registered 1,998 rape cases, compared with 2,562 during the same period in 2008. There was no information available on the numbers of prosecutions or convictions for rape.
According to a nationwide Avon Institute/Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics poll cited by the State Department and conducted in February, 62 percent of women and 48 percent of men knew a woman who suffered from domestic violence. Of those interviewed, 24 percent said that women continue to stay with an abusive partner for economic reasons; 23 percent, for the well-being of children; and 17 percent, because of fear for their lives. Fifty-six percent of those polled lacked confidence that the police or judicial system could protect an abused woman.
Another survey cited by State revealed that 23 percent of women in Brazil were subjected to domestic violence, and that in about 70 percent of the occurrences, the aggressor was the victim’s husband or companion. Forty percent of the cases resulted in serious injuries, but in only 2 percent of the complaints was the aggressor actually punished.
And according to another Human Rights Watch evaluation, discrimination against women starts early in life: Girls often lack basic medical care and have fewer opportunities than boys to receive exercise, recreation, and participate in other activities.
The State Department notes that Brazilian law:
“prohibits subjecting any child or adolescent to any form of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty, or oppression. Yet, allegations of abuse of minors and prosecution of crimes against children were not pursued adequately or aggressively.”
Given these and other disparities, those concerned with the basic human rights–and fundamental humanity–of women suggest Brazilian lawmakers and the Church in Brazil supporting this law might reexamine their own priorities.
“The Brazilian government would do well to focus its attention on providing assistance to rape victims, adolescent mothers, and others who are vulnerable and potentially unable to provide for themselves,” Mollmann said. “This law does the absolute opposite by threatening to subject everything women do or do not do during a pregnancy to criminal investigation.”
Dominick, a disabled transgender man, started making the arrangements for a hysterectomy at age 30. The experience turned out to be a living nightmare—and not just because being disabled had previously presented obstacles to medical care, like being unable to access his gynecologist’s office.
“The doctor,” he says, “sent me home while internally bleeding after the surgery because he needed more beds. He ignored my concerns and dismissed my symptoms as overblown.” He says he almost died when he started hemorrhaging at home.
The horrors of that experience led Dominick to shy away from follow-up care and had profound psychological consequences. “I was afraid to leave my house, for fear I’d start bleeding out. I remember being on a bus to school, completely alone, and having a complete meltdown. I called my girlfriend and was crying and shaking and begging her to come get me.”
While he survived the experience, the trauma lingers to this day—and he’s not alone. For many trans men, dismissive treatment in the gynecologist’s office is part of a larger framework of harmful health-care practices that include verbal and physical abuse and denial of care. Thanks to the finalization of an Affordable Care Act (ACA) rule banning discrimination on the basis of gender, trans patients now stand to access care more easily, but enacting policies against discrimination isn’t quite the same as actually eliminating it. Trans people often face obstacles to care in health-care fields, unless they’re lucky enough to live in a region with a well-organized and structured clinic. Doctors who are ignorant about trans needs, like the imperative of surgical transition for some transgender people, can become dangerous roadblocks. And self-advocacy—including standing up for one’s immediate needs or asking for additional support in cases like Dominick’s—can be exhausting or impossible when continuously faced with such experiences.
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Reproductive health care in particular cuts to the heart of bodily autonomy, something trans people are often already denied in other settings. Yet trans men are frequently left out of the discussion when it comes to accessing services, even as the Women’s Health Network and other organizations, like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), argue that the health needs of people who are assigned female at birth, no matter their gender, are indeed matters for reproductive rights conversations.
When it comes to seeking medical care in general, trans people say they often face ignorance or outright prejudice from medical professionals. A 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 20 percent of survey respondents were denied health care due to their transgender or gender-nonconforming identity—and people of color experienced even more profound disparities. Twenty-eight percent of all respondents said they had been harassed in physicians’ offices, and 2 percent experienced physical violence.
Chillingly, when care providers discovered that their patients were transgender, the incidence of discriminatory attitudes increased. Many didn’t understand the needs of the transgender community, forcing half of the respondents to provide basic education about managing transgender patients. While proactive self-advocacy—being educated about your own health, self-assured at the doctor’s office, and ready to speak up for yourself—can help everyone achieve better health-care outcomes, this goes far beyond advocacy. In a medical culture where people may have difficulty obtaining providers, trans patients can be forced to repeatedly discuss sensitive medical information that can trigger dysphoria and frustration. And gender dysphoria is fatal if untreated: A staggering 41 percent of the trans community has attempted suicide.
While all aspects of medical care are important, reproductive health care sits at the axis of many important oppressions: It determines whether people are able to have families, whether they receive treatment after rape and sexual assault, if potentially serious sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are treated in a timely fashion, or if they can obtain compassionate and appropriate abortion care. And here, too, trans people have reported difficulty when it comes to requesting and receiving breast and cervical cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, fertility care, contraception, abortion and pregnancy care, and other reproductive health needs. When such care is provided, it may come with detrimental comments and practices like misgendering patients or making assumptions about their personal lives.
But whether people are transgender men, along the nonbinary spectrum, agender, or along other axes of gender and experience, if they aren’t cisgender women, they say their reproductive health needs are often dangerously ignored.
“My first gyno, who was an older woman with all kinds of vocalized homophobic, transphobic, racist, and HIV-ignorant ideas,” says K., “left me so uncomfortable I wouldn’t let anyone touch me between my legs with their hands for a good ten years!” K., who is nonbinary, had a traumatic experience when seeking abortion care, and, like Dominick, wasn’t provided with counseling on the subject of egg storage before starting hormone therapy. “I personally never want to be pregnant again,” K. says, but the very option of freezing eggs and using a surrogate in the future was denied.
And this has real consequences: Trauma in reproductive health services, like that Dominick experienced, can drive transgender people into fearing the health-care system as a whole. Between discrimination and the fear that keeps people out of doctors’ offices, trans people are less likely to get preventive care—like HIV counseling and screening—and more likely to develop complications from delayed care. That includes vitally needed reproductive health services.
Discriminatory practices in gynecological care take place within the framework of another problem for trans people: Even with the ACA’s theoretical increased access to health care, substantial barriers to health-care access remain. Transgender people—particularly women and people of color, but also men to a lesser extent—are four times more likely to live in poverty, thus driving a disproportionate use of Medicaid coverage. As Rewire has reported, 16 states explicitly deny transition-related services under Medicaid coverage. Although the ACA explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, with additional protections for gender-nonconforming individuals now that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has finalized its ruling on Section 1557, that doesn’t always work out in practice. Coverage of transition-related treatment, including hormones and surgery, may be denied as “elective” or “aesthetic” under insurance exclusions. For example, a hysterectomy may be deemed “not medically necessary.” Trans people can be instead forced to sue for their care, as in 2014, when Illinois woman Naya Taylor demanded access to hormones. This is especially true in cases where people have successfully changed the gender markers on their identifications, thereby creating a situation where Medicaid may deny coverage for activities like Pap tests for men or prostate cancer screening for women.
“I’ve got many stories about things that have gone wrong in my interactions with medical professionals,” remarks Everett Maroon, a transgender man who lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and family. “I’ve gotten inappropriate medical advice, incorrect therapies, seen medical and cultural incompetence, dealt with shitty care, not been provided options I should have gotten.” His issues are the health-care system’s issues, and they are a subject that should be of critical concern to everyone fighting for reproductive rights.
Fortunately, that’s growing to be the case more and more. As OB-GYN Cheryl Chastine wrote for Rewire last year, “How can providers or activists dare to presume that every patient we can’t ‘read’ as trans is cis?,” she said, adding “When those in the reproductive justice movement prioritize trans inclusivity, more trans individuals feel comfortable publicly identifying as such.”
Her commentary was just one example of the growing chorus of support from the reproductive rights and justice community as people come to understand that reproductive health needs are complex, and some populations have historically been left out of the equation.
Combating that oversight includes taking on challenges like providing competency training to health-care providers in medical school and beyond—including the recommendations ACOG is putting forward. Trans-competent health training should allow clinicians to put their patients at ease. At minimum, it should include discussions about gender identity and presentation, how to handle medical issues that may trigger dysphoria, how hormones might affect other prescriptions and the patient’s general health, and why trans patients may feel distrustful and uncertain around health-care providers.
It also includes passing comprehensive legislation to affirm that transition care and related medical treatments are covered by private insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare. And it includes robust third-party investigation—regulated by the HHS, whose Office of Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing the ACA’s nondiscrimination protections—of grievance complaints filed by trans patients, such as those made directly at clinics and hospitals in addition to those filed with state licensing boards.
It’s time to take trans health care seriously. Doing so will create a world of radical inclusion where people can feel safe seeking health care wherever they go.
To honor migrant mothers in detention this Mother’s Day, the immigrant rights organization CultureStrike has partnered with Presente.org, NWDC Resistance, and Strong Families. Visitors to MamasDay.org can pick out a card and write a message to a detained mother, and members of CultureStrike will deliver printed cards to detention centers nationwide.
A card from a stranger on the internet is a small gesture, but one that could have been meaningful to Monica Morales’ mother when she was detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center late last year. Morales told Rewire her mother, usually a fighter, was depressed and that her morale was at an all-time low. She’d been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border while attempting to escape her abusive ex-husband in Mexico and the gang violence that plagued her neighborhood in Chihuahua. After being deported in 2010, she was trying to reenter the United States and reunite with her family in Amarillo, Texas, but the reunion would never happen.
As an adult, Morales is somewhat able to make sense of what occurred, but she worries about what she will tell her three young children about what has happened to their family. These are hard conversations happening all over the country, as there are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumented—and thousands of these parents are deported each year. And, advocates say, there are few, if any, programs available to help immigrant children cope with their trauma.
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On any given day, there are 34,000 people in immigration detention. Prior to the “border crisis” that brought thousands of Central American women to the United States seeking asylum, the Women’s Refugee Commission reported that 10 percent of those in detention were women. Since 2009, that figure has likely increased, but the exact number is unknown.
Morales’ mother was one of them.
Though they were both located in Texas at the time, Morales said getting her mom’s phone calls from Hutto was heartbreaking and that she couldn’t have felt further away or more helpless. Morales hit her breaking point when one day, her mom called sobbing, saying she and seven other women were forced to spend the day in a room covered in urine, blood, and excrement. It was shortly after that Morales’ mom decided to participate in the hunger strikeRewire reported on earlier this year.
“My mom would always tell me that dogs at the pound are treated better than they are in Hutto and other detention centers,” Morales said. “At least at the pound, they try to help the dogs and they want them to get adopted. At places like Hutto, they don’t care what happens to you, they don’t care if you’ll get killed if you get deported. If someone is sick, they don’t care. If someone is suffering, they don’t care.”
Morales’ mother was not aware of Hutto’s history of abuse cases, but Morales told Rewire that after the hunger strike, her mother and other women who participated believed they were being retaliated against by Hutto officers because they hadbrought more bad publicity to the facility. Morales’ mom was deemed by detention officersa “dangerous detainee” and had to wear a different color uniform to identify her as such, Morales said. She was also placed in solitary confinement for over a month before she was transferred to another detention facility.
Six weeks ago, Morales’ mother was deported back to Chihuahua where she must remain for 20 years, because those who have been deported once before and then attempt to reenter the United States within a period of “inadmissibility” automatically trigger a longer ban.
Advocates have told Rewire that transfers to other facilities and solitary confinement are common tactics used by both detention and ICE officers to retaliate against those who go on strike.
During the time of the hunger strike, ICE denied allegations that it was retaliating against detainees in the form of transfers and solitary confinement. A spokesperson said in a statement to Rewire thatit “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” The spokesperson added that Hutto “does not have solitary confinement areas.”
As Mother’s Day approaches, Morales told Rewire that her headis heavy with thoughts of her mother. The chance they will be able to see each other anytime soon is slim. If her mom attempts to reenter the United States a third time and is caught, she will be permanently barred. Morales is a DACA recipient, which means she qualified for an immigration policy put into place by President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a work permit and exemption from deportation renewable every two years (but for only as long as the DACA program is in place). It also means Morales is unable to travel outside of the United States unless there is an emergency, and for obvious reasons, those are not the conditions under which she wants to see her mother.
“We can’t see my mom for 20 years and there’s literally nothing we can do,” Morales told Rewire. “I can’t go to Mexico. The only way I can go is if something were to happen to my mom, and I pray I don’t have to go in that situation. And honestly, I would worry if the [Border Patrol] would let me return to the U.S. even though I’d have my paperwork in order. I’ve heard that happens. If you’re in my situation, everything is so risky and I can’t take those risks. I have three children. My youngest child has health issues and he needs medication. My second child suffers from tumors and he needs yearly check-ups. I can’t risk my status in the U.S. to go back.”
Like her mother, Morales is a domestic abuse survivor and she is upset by how immigration laws have impacted her family and offer little recourse to women who are attempting to escape violence. If nothing else, she said, this anger has moved her to be more politically active. Not only has she started a campaign to get Hutto shut down, but she is doing interviews and other activities to shine a light on how the U.S. immigration system further traumatizes survivors of domestic violence, the mental health issues that arise when being forced to navigate such a “horrible” system, and the family separation that has become a natural byproduct of it all.
“I don’t think Americans know what this does to our families or our communities,” Morales said. “I wonder a lot that if people knew what happened to our families, if they would even care. Moms [are] in detention for years just for trying to give their kids a better life. Parents [are] being deported and killed and their children have to be raised by other people. Do people even care?”
The Morales Family
Morales and her sister are working together to pay for bi-weekly psychiatrist sessions in Mexico for their mom, who is struggling with being separated from her only support system and who Morales strongly believes was severely traumatized by her experiences at Hutto.
“She can’t work; she can’t reintegrate herself into society. She can’t leave the house by herself; she can’t be in the house by herself. After being detained, my mom was treated so bad that that I think she started to believe she deserved it. My grandma says my mom can’t sleep at night, she paces. My grandpa asks her what’s wrong and she just says she feels like she’s suffocating. She can’t calm down. She has a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. She’s different than she used to be,” Morales said.
The Impact of Immigration Policies on Families
Wendy Cervantes is vice president of immigration and child rights at First Focus, one of the few children’s advocacy organizations in the country to focus on immigrant families. Cervantes told Rewire that if adults, much like Morales’ mom, struggle mightily with family separation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from trauma experienced in their countries of origin and exacerbated by navigating the U.S. immigration system, what must it be like for children?
While it’s certainly true that all immigrant families fear family separation, the challenges faced by mixed-status families like Morales’ are unique. “Mixed status” is in reference to a family comprised of people with different citizenship statuses. A parent, for example, may be undocumented, but their children are American citizens orare “DACA-mented.”
A report from Human Impact Partners, Family Unity, Family Health,found that “nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented.” And when deportations occur on the scale that they have under the Obama administration, not only do they separate families, but they have overwhelming an effect on the health and well-being of children. Besides being more apt to suffer poverty, diminished access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities, children suffer from fear and anxiety about the possible detainment or deportation of their family members. This leads to poor health, behavioral, and educational outcomes, and sometimes results in shorter lifespans, according to Family Unity, Family Health.
In 2012, Colorlinesreported that about 90,000 undocumented parents of American citizen children were deported each year. The number has declined since then. In 2013, government data showed it was 72,410, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only documents the number of parents with children who are citizens, not cases in which parents with undocumented children are deported.
“If a kid has to go back to a violent country they’ve never been with their deported parent or if they have to stay behind without a parent or go into the child welfare system, none of it is ideal,” Cervantes told Rewire. “The constant fear your parent will be detained or deported has very large consequences on children, who are showing signs of PTSD at younger and younger ages. The immigration system can really take a kid’s childhood away from them.”
Who Will Address Their Trauma?
The American citizen or DACA-mented children of undocumented parents suffer from things like anxiety and depression because of fears their parents will be detained or deported, Cervantes told Rewire. Furthermore, there are well over one million undocumented children in the United States and to her knowledge, there are no services provided for these children to cope with their trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association, “research indicates that unaccompanied refugee minors experience greater risk of mental illness than general populations.” Based on work she’s done with unaccompanied minors from Central America, Cervantes said the levels of PTSD in these children is “on another level,” which is part of the reason why she said she’s so appalled by the administration’s aggressive approach to the Central American asylum-seeking population, which she said is greatly lacking in empathy.
“I’ve met unaccompanied kids who have told me horrendous stories. They witness horrible things on their journey here, but they were also escaping horrible things in their country of origin. An 8-year-old witnessing a girl he knew from his neighborhood getting gang-raped as part of a gang initiation and seeing his best friend getting beheaded by a gang on his way to school,” Cervantes told Rewire. “How many years of serious counseling and professional help would it take for an adult to be OK after seeing such violence? Now consider we’re talking about a child. It’s so disturbing, and then these same kids get placed in facilities that are like jails. How are they expected to function?”
While counseling is offered in detention, those services have been highly criticized by pediatricians, therapists, and advocates as inadequate at best, especially considering that the counselors in the facilities often only speak English. It’s also important to note, Cervantes said, that these services are only offered while the child or parent is detained. Once they’re released, there isn’t a clear federal program that offer assistance to directly address their trauma.
Rather than sitting around and hoping a program will eventually be created, advocates are currently working on gathering a team of psychiatrists to visit detention centers and assess the mental health services offered. Next week, First Focus will also be launching a TV and radio campaign about family separation spanning eight states, using donated airtime valued at $1 million.
Over the years as she’s worked in immigration, Cervantes is routinely surprised by how little most Americans seem to know about how the immigration system actually works and the very real ways things like detainment and deportation rip families apart, traumatizing people of all ages. She told Rewire that she hopes the upcoming campaign humanizes the issue and helps people understand that family separation isn’t a rarity and that it happens in every community in every state.
“I’m actually very disturbed by so much of the immigration process, especially how we treat families who are seeking asylum and who have risked their lives. I have to believe that if Americans came to understand this, they’d be disturbed too,” Cervantes said. “I just wish I knew why we can’t be compassionate to people who really need our compassion.”
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include new details about the First Focus program, including that the campaign will span eight states, up from three.