Roe v. Wade is Not One Size Fits All: More Reflections on Burton v. Florida

Courtroom Mama

The opinion in Burton v. Florida, in which an appeals court reversed an order forcing a pregnant woman to go on bed rest and undergo cesarean surgery, raises a question about our courts: what is it about pregnancy that they just don't understand?

Yesterday, I wrote a post on my own blog examining the decision handed down in the Samantha Burton case (PDF), and discussing why a win for Ms. Burton might not necessarily be a win for the rest of us, particularly birthing women.

The case was heavy on my mind when I went to bed, and—it may be admitting too much to say this—but I dreamed about the law and court decisions. Is there a Courtwatchers Anonymous? A support group for nerds?

My mind puzzled over what the heck is wrong with the courts that they can’t seem to understand birthing women. Then, it came to me all rays of light and Mormon Tabernacle Choir: the problem is the articulation of the state interest. 

From the “little guy” side, when you’re saying that your fundamental rights have been violated, the articulation of the right you’re asserting is a real doozy. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to properly frame the right, the court will bungle it up. So we hold our breath when we get to “the issue presented is…” For example, admittedly without having read the briefs, I doubt that the respondents in Bowers v. Hardwick asserted in so many words a “fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy.” (You can almost hear Justice White sneering as he writes it.) But there seems to be no similar exhortation that similar care be taken in the assertion of a state interest. Broad strokes here: public safety, national security, protection of potential life…

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So here is Ms. Burton, in danger of possible miscarriage, doctors insisting that the baby will die if she doesn’t comply with their orders. Setting aside the lower court’s foul ball of using the “best interest of the child” standard (ouch!), is it any surprise that the appellate court, its eyes occluded and stinging from nearly 40 years of swimming in abortion politics, grabs for a standard and pulls up Roe v. Wade ?

The court in Burton sets up the following analysis:

  1. A person has a right to refuse medical treatment unless there is a compelling state interest that outweighs that right.
  2. Is the fetus viable?
  3. If so, the state interest in protecting potential life is compelling. [This part comes from Roe]
  4. Let the weighing commence!
  5. (The intrusion has to be “narrowly tailored in the least intrusive manner possible to safeguard the rights of the individual.”)

But is the issue really the protection of potential life? I think that’s an appropriate articulation as applied to Roe and it’s progeny, where the case involves the unquestionable, 100% certain, termination of potential human life. But is that really what is at stake with Ms. Burton’s bedrest or any forced medical testing/treatment on pregnant women? Is the only lens through which pregnant women can be examined that of not wanting to be pregnant and trying to “kill their babies”? When the idea that women’s health is code for abortion runs deep, I guess you get to “air quote” women’s health and picture pregnant women as caricatures either engrossed in a “get-me-some-pickles, I-hate-you-you-did-this-to-me” sitcom buffoonery or “bad women” who—maybe even just deep in their black hearts—don’t want to be pregnant and don’t care what happens to their baby.

Indeed, once you break out of the abortion blinders, what you have is the state’s interest in reducing perceived risk to a fetus by some ultimately unknowable increment. No matter how adamant doctors may be, medicine is imprecise: sometimes that baby thought to be in “grave danger of death” comes out just fine, sometimes a placenta completely covering the cervical opening miraculously shifts. Sometimes, unfortunately, the baby dies even when you lock its mother up and cut her open.

As those of us who have been pregnant or loved a pregnant woman know, even in the best case, pregnancy is a roll of the dice. I am sure that most women would give nearly anything to be able to weight the dice; for the state to presume that it, and not the woman carrying the baby, is the one protecting potential life is an insult.

Ultimately, the issue presented is (gasp): How much liberty and bodily integrity should the state be able to require a pregnant woman to surrender to guarantee a perfect birth, something she couldn’t guarantee even if she desperately desired it.

My answer: None. 

Culture & Conversation Law and Policy

The Modern Struggle Over Anti-Trans Bathroom Laws Has Its Roots in Decades of Title VII Fights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.

In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’s manufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.

That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.

So opens Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Workwritten by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. Despite its full title, though, Because of Sex goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies, focusing on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.

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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Zubik v. Burwell.

“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.

Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.

In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.

The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.

But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”

This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workers vJohnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”

The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.

Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.

The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.

As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”

But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.

In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.

Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.

In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.

Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t?

The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”

Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.

By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.

The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.

If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.

1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”

“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.

That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball State made it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.

Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.

But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.

“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”

This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.

Commentary Media

David Daleiden Is Not an Investigative Reporter, Says New Legal Filing Confirming What We Knew Already

Sharona Coutts

An amicus brief filed in a federal court case provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden's claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

Last week, 18 of the nation’s preeminent journalists and journalism scholars put their names to a filing in a federal court case between the National Abortion Federation and the Center for Medical Progress, the sham nonprofit set up by anti-choice activist David Daleiden.

From the minute he released his deceptively edited videos, Daleiden has styled himself as a “citizen” or “investigative journalist.” Indeed, upon releasing the footage, Daleiden changed the stated purpose on the website of the Center for Medical Progress to be about investigative reporting instead of tissue brokering, as he had earlier claimed.

The amicus brief provided an opportunity for journalists to state in clear terms why David Daleiden’s claims to be an investigative reporter endanger the profession and its goal: to safeguard democracy by holding the powerful to account and keeping the public informed.

“By calling himself an ‘investigative journalist,’ Appellant David Daleiden does not make it so,” the journalists and academics wrote. “We believe that accepting Mr. Daleiden’s claim that he merely engaged in ‘standard undercover journalism techniques’ would be both wrong and damaging to the vital role that journalism serves in our society.”

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The signatories included former and current professors and deans from the nation’s top journalism schools, who have collectively trained hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters. They included women and men with storied careers in investigative journalism, whose credentials to speak with authority about what journalism is and how we do it cannot be doubted.

Their message is clear: David Daleiden is not an investigative journalist, and what he did is, in fact, at odds with the fundamentals of our craft.

Daleiden’s motivation for claiming the status of an investigative reporter is clear. In order to avoid financial ruin and potential jail time, he seeks to cloak himself in the protection of the First Amendment, arguing that everything he did was in his capacity as a reporter, and that the Constitution protects him as a member of the free press.

In so doing, Daleiden threatens to inflict yet more damage than his campaigns have already done, this time to the field of journalism. For if the court were to accept Daleiden’s claims, it would be endorsing his message to the public—that journalists routinely lie, break the law, get people drunk in order to elicit information, and distort quotes and video footage so dramatically that people appear to be saying the exact opposite to what they said. What hope would reporters then have of preserving the already tenuous trust that the public places in our word and our work?

This is not the first time some of the nation’s most decorated reporters have carefully reviewed Daleiden’s claims and the techniques he used to gather the footage for his videos, and concluded that he is not a reporter.

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled “Why the undercover Planned Parenthood videos aren’t journalism,” which was based on the results of a collaboration between the Los Angeles Times and the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate program in journalism.

That study was led by Lowell Bergman, a legendary investigative reporter whose career over the past few decades has been symbiotic with the evolution of the field. Bergman’s team and the LA Times concluded that:

Daleiden, head of the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, and his associates contend that they were acting as investigative journalists, seeking to expose illegal conduct. That is one of their defenses in lawsuits brought by Planned Parenthood and other groups, accusing them of fraud and invasion of privacy.

But unpublicized footage and court records show that the activists’ methods were geared more toward political provocation than journalism.

The team found what we already knew: Daleiden and his co-conspirators attempted to plant phrases in their targets’ mouths in the hopes of making them sound bad, hoping to drum up “political pressure,” according to a memo obtained by Bergman’s group that Daleiden wrote to his supporters. The activists’ use of fraud was so extensive and enthusiastic, and their deliberate splicing of videos so manipulative and dishonest, that they in no way reflected the methods or goals of real reporters.

The brief submitted in the NAF lawsuit last week echoes these findings and resoundingly makes the same point: Daleiden is not an investigative reporter. The main arguments in the brief boil down to the following, which can be understood as the pillars of investigative journalism:

  • Reporters do not falsify or distort evidence. Daleiden spliced and manipulated his videos and transcripts to give the false impression that they captured illegal conduct. A reporter’s job is to uncover and convey the truth, not to concoct false claims and peddle them as facts.
  • Reporters must use deception as a last resort, not a first resort, if they use it at all. Any use of deception—even in the service of obtaining the truth—tends to undermine the public’s trust in any of the reporter’s work. For this reason, even investigations that have uncovered serious abuses of power are often criticized, if not condemned, by the profession if they have obtained their information through deceptive means. As the brief noted, in 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times was barred as a finalist from the Pulitzer Prize because the truth it exposed was obtained through elaborate deception—Sun-Times reporters opened a bar called The Mirage for the purposes of documenting very real public graft. No one doubted that the evidence they found was both true and of great public importance. But, led by Ben Bradlee, the journalism establishment rejected the Sun-Times’ use of deception because of the long-term damage it would cause to the profession.
  • Reporters follow the law. Daleiden and his co-conspirators created fake government identification which they used to gain access into private events. No legitimate news organization would permit their reporters to take such steps.
  • Reporters do not deceive subjects into making statements to support a “predetermined theory.” Daleiden used alcohol to try to manipulate subjects into using words and phrases that he believed would sound bad on tape. Real journalists try to report against their own biases, instead of manufacturing evidence to prove their own theories.
  • Reporters seek to highlight or prevent a harm to the public. Daleiden caused great harm but exposed none.

A point that wasn’t mentioned in the legal filings is that Daleiden failed to follow a rule that student journalists learn in their first weeks of school: You must afford the subject of your reporting a full opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them. Daleiden’s videos came as a surprise attack against Planned Parenthood and NAF (but not, apparently, to certain Republican members of Congress). No reputable reporter would conduct herself in such a fashion. That is an ambush, not an article.

To many readers, these arguments may seem academic. But the reality is that real reporters take their obligations more seriously than the public might realize, to the point of risking—and sometimes losing—their lives in the service of this job, which many consider to be a calling.

One of the best investigative reporters of my generation, A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, recently reported on a group of assassins that operated on U.S. soil in the 1980s, who murdered Vietnamese-American journalists for political reasons.

To report that story, Thompson attended events held by members of the groups he believed to be linked to—or were actual parts of—these networks of killers. He did phone interviews with them. He met with them in person. And he did all of that on camera, using his real name.

Make no mistake: Thompson potentially put his life at risk to do this work, but he did it because he believed that these men had been able to murder his fellow reporters with impunity, and with possible—if tacit—support from the U.S. government.

Contrast that to Daleiden’s conduct. As noted in the legal brief:

Daleiden may think Planned Parenthood kills babies, but there was no risk whatsoever that its managers would have killed him, or even slapped him, if he approached them openly.

Daleiden’s arguments are, in some ways, the natural extension to the existential crisis that gripped journalism more than a decade ago, with the rise of blogging. What followed was a years-long debate over who could be labeled a “journalist.” The dawn of smartphones contributed to the confusion, as nearly anyone could snap a photo and publish it via Twitter.

It is therefore a tonic to read these clear defenses of the “what” and “why” of investigative journalism, and to see luminaries of the field explaining that journalism is a discipline with norms and rules. When these norms are articulated clearly, it is easy to show that Daleiden’s work does not fall within journalism’s bounds.

At times like this, the absence of David Carr’s raspy voice makes itself painfully felt. One can only imagine the field day he would have with Daleiden’s pretensions to be committing acts of journalism. Judging by this legendary exchange between Carr and Shane Smith, one of the founders of VICE news, from Page One, the 2011 documentary about the New York Times, Carr would not have minced words.

The exchange came after Smith’s self-aggrandizing assessment of his team’s work covering Liberia—where they uncovered cannibalism and a beach that locals were using as a latrine—and then mocked the New York Times’ coverage of the country.

Here’s Carr:

Just a sec, time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and went and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.

To paraphrase: Just because Daleiden got some hidden cameras and editing software, and called himself a reporter, doesn’t mean he was doing journalism.

It’s important that both the public and the courts recognize that reality.

Disclosures: A.C. Thompson is a former colleague of the author. The author also appeared, extremely briefly, in the Page One documentary. 

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