Weekly Pulse: Sharron Angle Mocks Insurance for Autism; The Fight to Save Food Stamps

Lindsay Beyerstein

The woman gunning for Sen. Harry Reid's (D-NV) job doesn’t believe that autism existsand the Senate is poised to slash the extra food stamp benefits in the stimulus before they expire.

The woman gunning for Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) job doesn’t believe that autism exists.

Yes, you heard right. Sharron Angle believes that the neurodevelopmental disorder know to medical science as “autism” is actually a government-backed hoax to redistribute wealth from hardworking health insurers to pesky kids and their greedy parents.


Angle trashed the notion that insurance companies should have to cover “Autism” (air quotes are hers).

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Angle was caught on tape promising to abolish mandatory insurance coverage for autism. “Everything that they want to throw at us is covered under ‘autism’,” Angle told the American Association of Underwriters this summer, tracing scare quotes with her fingers as she said “autism.”

Care2’s Kristina Chew, the mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism, responds to Angle’s airy dismissal:

…By saying that you don’t think there should be health care for autism, I take it that you don’t think that children, and individuals, with disabilities are in need of such things—living with their families and in their communities, healthy and safe, being loved and cared for? Being treated as we would all like to be?

The fact that Angle opposes mandated coverage for private insurers should concern voters, especially since she wants to privatize all government health care programs. In other words, Angle wants to turn health care over to the private sector and stamp out public competition. And yet, Angle’s campaign admits that the candidate and her husband receive both government health care and a Civil Service pension, according to Eric Kleefeld of TPM. If Angle is so morally opposed to government health care, she should set an example by declining the coverage.

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has more on Angle’s record: She once told impregnated rape victims to buck up and make “lemons out of lemonade” by bearing their attacker’s child. Angle also denounced people on unemployment insurance as “spoiled.”

Food vs. health care

It may soon get even harder for poor families to make ends meet. The Senate is poised to slash the extra food stamp benefits in the stimulus before they expire. The Senate already raided $6.7 billion from the the so-called “food stamp cookie jar” to bail out Medicaid and save teachers’ jobs at the state level. Now they want to take even more money to fund the child nutrition bill.

The cuts would fund a marginal improvement in school lunches, notes Monica Potts of TAPPED. That’s all well and good, but why provide slightly better weekday lunches if the poorest children get less at every other meal?

Annie Lowery of the Washington Independent interviews anti-hunger activist Joel Berg about the cuts. Berg says that if the cuts go through, families will have to make do with considerably less than the current $4.50 per person per day. He notes that Congress wants to cut food stamp benefits in the face of rising food prices.

When families make do with less, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables will be the first casualty. Berg argues that it is economically short-sighted to prematurely terminate one of the most efficient economic stimuli in the entire stimulus package:

And we know that we aren’t only feeding people. We come at this from a moral position, a nutritional position, and an economic recovery position. This cut is so insane from an economic position as well — we know food stamps are the most effect form of stimulus. The jury is still out on parts of the stimulus — but the jury isn’t out on food stamps. It was a 1,000 percent, beyond home run grand slam success, if you’ll excuse me mixing metaphors. The money went to people who needed it, rapidly, and without a lot of bureaucracy.

In the Progressive, Ruth Conniff has a personal take on the politics of improving school lunches. Her kids’ school got a USDA Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant to introduce more local produce into school meals.

“Bridalplasty”

The laws of Reality TV: 1) The most important thing in life is to be very beautiful so that a man will want to marry you; 2) You have until your wedding day to make yourself look like someone else.

The E! network is launching a new reality show in which brides-to-be receive free cosmetic surgery to make them look acceptable for their Special Day, as Stephanie Hallett reports at Ms. blog. Hallett notes that armchair psychiatrists are already diagnosing the contestants with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition that causes sufferers to become obsessed with imagined physical imperfections.

Hallett also argues that competitive plastic surgery shows like Bridalplasty and The Swan are dramatic exaggerations. Labeling the contestants as “sick” or “crazy” implies that they are limited-edition freaks, not individuals on the extreme end of a continuum of self-loathing that affects most women.

Ectopic pregnancy

Anti-choicers have already attacked hormonal birth control as crypto-abortion. Their next target may be lifesaving surgery for a deadly complication of pregnancy. At Rewire, Lon Newman writes about a young woman that survived a life threatening ectopic pregnancy.

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg takes root outside the uterus, nearly always in a fallopian tube. Tubal pregnancies are among the deadliest gynecological emergencies because the woman can rapidly bleed to death if the tube ruptures. Obviously, once a fertilized egg takes root outside the uterus, there is no chance that it will survive. However, some anti-choice extremists still maintain that treating ectopic pregnancies is a kind of abortion.

One of the ectopic pregnancy survivor’s friends actually told her that she should have respected “God’s will” and refused lifesaving surgery. “I have had friends who said that I should have ‘gone with God’s will,’ imposing their beliefs on my will to live,” the woman said.

Some friend.

News Law and Policy

Colorado Pro-Choice Advocates: Giving Legal Rights to Fetuses Doesn’t Protect Pregnant Woman

Jason Salzman

Colorado pro-choice activists on Wednesday decried a bill introduced by state Republicans in response to a grotesque crime against a pregnant woman that would give "personhood" rights to fetuses.

Colorado pro-choice activists on Wednesday decried a bill introduced by state Republicans in response to a grotesque crime against a pregnant woman that would give “personhood” rights to fetuses.

During a Wednesday news conference prior to a legislative hearing on the anti-choice bill, which defines fetuses as potential victims of crime, including murder, pro-choice advocates urged lawmakers to focus on measures to protect women from violence instead of giving fetuses legal rights that could be used to arrest pregnant women.

“Why are we having a conversation about how many years is long enough [to incarcerate someone for destroying a fetus], rather than asking whether these laws do anything to deter violence against pregnant women, to protect pregnancies, embryos, and fetuses,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Paltrow said there’s no evidence that so-called feticide laws deter crimes against pregnant women.

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Paltrow said that “prosecutors are very good at finding ways around statutory language” and have a history of using feticide laws to prosecute pregnant women for crimes such as child abuse and even murder.

The “personhood” legislation emerged in the wake of an attack on Michelle Wilkins, whose womb was cut open and her 34-week-old fetus destroyed during on March 18.

Colorado’s proposed law, which excludes from prosecution actions taken by the pregnant woman herself, could “be applied not to protect pregnant women but to restrict their rights as well as the rights of physicians,” said Rebecca Cohen, a Denver OB-GYN.

“A woman who has suffered a miscarriage, or still birth, or a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, could be prosecuted, if someone suggests that she did not take enough action to protect her health,” said Cohen, referring to how the bill could affect her work. “And I, as someone caring for her, could also be charged, for instance, if I thought there was something that could have been done differently. This affects my relationship with my patients.”

State Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) said Colorado’s 2013 “Unlawful Termination of Pregnancy Act” already provides severe penalties, including a 32-year Class 3 felony charge, for a crime against a pregnant woman.

This charge was added to others, leaving the alleged attacker in last month’s Colorado attack facing a prison term of more than 100 years. This type of sentence would almost certainly be faced by perpetrators of all severe crimes against pregnant women in the state, Foote said.

“We made sure to put exclusions in the 2013 law that made it crystal clear, beyond any doubt, that a doctor or any medical professional could not be prosecuted under this law and also that a woman could not be prosecuted for failing to act with regard to her own pregnancy,” he said. “And we put in the law that nothing in it could lead to ‘personhood’ being written into Colorado state law.”

Colorado’s existing law does not give legal rights to fetuses.

State senate president Bill Cadman, a Republican who introduced this year’s bill, has said in numerous interviews that his bill is about justice for the pregnant woman and the fetus. As he told the Denver Post’s John Frank last week, he wants “to guarantee that a woman who wants to have a baby is protected.”

Meanwhile, backers of Colorado’s “personhood” amendments, which have been rejected by voters three times, are opposing Cadman’s bill.

“This is not a personhood bill because it does not afford the child in the womb the equal protection of the law with regard to his or her right to life,” Gualberto Garcia Jones, the author of Colorado’s failed 2014 “personhood” amendment, told Rewire via email. “Those who wish to allow abortion to continue to be available but who would like to see homicide charges for people like Dynel Lane should be happy with this bill, but for me personally, I see no difference for a child who is killed by Dynel Lane in Longmont and by [abortion provider] Warren Hern 15 minutes away in Boulder; to truly afford equal protection, the law should treat them both as what they are, homicides.”

Asked if the bill’s text excluding “medical procedures” from prosecution was sufficiently vague to allow for a potential crackdown on abortion rights, Personhood USA spokesperson Jennifer Mason wrote via email, “Regardless of how I interpret ‘medical procedure,’ I know Planned Parenthood interprets it to include abortion and will use this language to legitimize their business of killing unborn children. That is a serious concern with this bill.”

A state senate committee was expected to pass Cadman’s bill Tuesday in a party-line vote and, later, the entire senate will likely pass it, according to state observers.

But they say the prospects of the bill passing the state house, controlled by Democrats, are much lower. Democratic Gov. John Hicknlooper has signaled an openness to the legislation.

Commentary Sexuality

The Middle Ground in the Fight Over ‘Viagra for Women’

Martha Kempner

Some advocates are calling the Food and Drug Administration's historical hesitation to approve a drug that would treat low sex drive in women sexist; others are saying the development of the medication itself is sexist. Who's in the right?

Last week, Sprout Pharmaceutical resubmitted its New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the approval of flibanserin, a medication designed to increase sex drive in women suffering from what has been called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). The FDA has rejected the drug twice before, asking for more research on its safety. This has prompted some people—many of whom identify as feminists—to call the agency sexist and to argue that if the medication were for men, it would have been on pharmacy shelves already. Other advocates, however, think drugs like flibanserin should never make it to market at all, because they believe that HSDD was made up by companies trying to profit off of women’s sexual insecurities. So, what is this pill, why are so many people fighting about it, and is there a happy medium here?

Flibanserin, which will likely have a sexier name if or when it is available for sale, was originally developed as an anti-depressant. As such, it works on neurotransmitters in the brain—increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and decreasing levels of serotonin. In trials, this rebalancing of brain chemistry seems to also increase women’s desire for sex. “Cara,” a woman who has become a bit of a spokesperson (albeit one going by a pseudonym) on behalf of the company’s efforts with the FDA, explained to Marie Claire that she and her husband had wonderful sexual chemistry before kids, but that all but disappeared once she became a mother: “That broke [my husband’s] heart. He’d be lying next to me and I could just feel his anger and sadness in the air.” After she joined the drug trial, she says, her libido returned. As she noted, “Flibanserin helped me remember that person I used to be.”

But, like other antidepressants, flibanserin has side effects—most notably nausea and sleepiness—which were reported by 10 percent of the women, some of whom said their drowsiness was intense enough to interfere with their ability to drive. The FDA cited side effects like these as the main reason for rejecting the drug the first time it was up for review in 2010. At the time, a panel of experts unanimously voted against it because they believed the benefits did not outweigh the risks. The drug’s initial developer, Boehringer Ingelheim, then sold the drug to Sprout, which conducted additional efficacy and safety studies before resubmitting an application for approval. This second application was rejected in 2013; after a formal dispute of the decision, the FDA asked the company to provide more data on flibanserin’s interactions with other medications.

One particular concern is how the drug will combine with a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications increase serotonin in the brain, which is the opposite of what flibanserin does. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, doctors consider SSRI use to be linked to many women’s low sex drives. The application Sprout filed last week included more information on drug interactions like these.

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Ahead of the filing, Sprout and supporters have been lobbying hard for the drug’s approval and gone so far as to call the FDA’s rejection of the earlier applications sexist. Several prominent women’s rights groups, as well as some lawmakers, have joined with a group of drug companies all working on this issue to create the Even the Score campaign. Those behind the campaign argue that men have 26 drugs to address sexual dysfunction, while women have none; they say, “Treatments for women’s sexual dysfunction seem to be held to a different standard for approval at the FDA, and women suffer the consequences due to lack of access to safe and effective treatments.”

As Coco Jervis of the Women’s Health Network explains in a recent piece for Rewire, however, these arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny very well. First, she points out that men only have 26 drugs if you count every duplicate drug (a brand name and all of its copies)—in reality, men have about six solutions for sexual dysfunction. And while this is six solutions more than women have, this doesn’t mean sexism is at play.

On a biological level, men and women function very differently when it comes to sexual arousal and performance. Viagra—and medication like it—is all about the plumbing. Men who get aroused but fail to get erections take the pill when they want to have sex, and it increases blood flow to the penis. That is far simpler and more direct than a treatment like flibanserin, which is trying to change how women’s brains are wired and must be taken every day. In a statement made last year, the FDA said, “We do not believe there has been any gender bias with regard to our review of this drug.”

Jervis brings up another important point about the “score” that the campaign is trying to even. She notes that it is unfair to directly compare women’s sexual dysfunction—which is a wide-ranging and not well-defined concept—with men’s impotence. She writes:

The word “dysfunction”—medical jargon for anything that doesn’t work the way it should—suggests that there is an acknowledged norm for female sexual function. That norm has never been established. Although male sexuality is more complex than sheer physical arousal, erections are quantifiable events that scientists can measure in objective terms. By contrast, cis women’s sexual response is, by and large, qualitative, and difficult to subject to clinical trials. Furthermore, as we all already know, sexual desire differs over time and between people for a range of reasons largely related to relationships, life situations, past experiences, and individual and social expectations—and “normality” can vary widely from person to person.

In fact, there is not widespread agreement about whether HSDD, the disorder filbaserin is designed to treat, even exists. In an op-ed for the New York Times, sex educator and author Emily Nagoski points out that HSDD was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 and replaced with female sexual interest/arousal disorder (FSIAD). The reason, she explains, is that women often follow a different pattern of sexual desire than expected. Rather than experiencing sexual desire as a spontaneous, frequent occurrence, Nagoski says, many women need to be aroused first. Then, she says, desire will follow. Sexual desire, in this case, is reactive. FSIAD is intended to describe women who have neither spontaneous or reactive desire, many of whom, according to Nagoski, can be helped with non-pharmaceutical treatments like therapy.

Which brings us to those sexual health experts who believe the drug would do a disservice to women. Leonore Tiefer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, has been an outspoken critic of efforts to create drugs to treat women’s sexual health. She told NPR, “The misrepresentation that everybody should be having it—needs to have it, wants to have it, has a problem if they don’t have it—is to change, really, what sexuality is into more of a medical thing.” And, as she added in Marie Claire“The pharmaceutical industry wants people to think that sexual problems are simple medical matters, and it offers drugs as expensive magic fixes.”

Those who take this view would often prefer to see a concentration on the emotional and relationship components of sexuality, which may very well be at the core of women’s lack of sexual desire. They also point out, again, that all women are different and there is no “right” amount of sexual desire to be “fixed” with medication. Adriane Fugh-Berman, who studies drug companies at Georgetown University, told NPR, “There’s really been a move toward medicalizing normal human experience. And while there are certainly some women who have very troublesome symptoms of low libido, it’s not at all clear that medication is a good answer for them.”

Drug companies indeed stand to profit off women—that is an unmistakable consequence of the availability of a “Viagra for women” on the market. But caught in the fight between them and the scholars who think this medicalization of sexuality is the wrong direction for society are the women themselves. And many of them, like Cara, just want to see their sex drive—which is often buried under kids, laundry, and a full-time job—return to what it used to be.

To me, there seems to be a pretty clear middle ground here (though I realize those on each side of the issue will likely disagree). If a drug can help a woman want and enjoy sex again, that is not in of itself a bad thing. It seems almost cruel to deny her pharmaceutical relief on the grounds that she’s a victim of society’s unrealistic expectations about female sexual desire. It’s dismissive to suggest that her feelings on the issue are not at all her own. And it is demeaning to suggest that a woman didn’t notice her lack of sexual desire until drug companies came along with a solution.

Of course, at the same time, the FDA needs to be extremely cautious (as it has been) before approving any drug that is working on something as important and complicated as brain chemistry. And, if it takes a lot longer to get it right and effective than it did for drugs that make men hard, that’s not sexism—that’s just reality. If it does hit the market, health-care providers should help women carefully decide if this is the right choice.

Women deserve sexual desire and pleasure. For some, it will come easily. For others it may take therapy, relationship counseling, or finding a better partner. And, someday, for others it may come in an easy-to-swallow pill. It’s time to stop bickering and slinging accusations and instead let women find their sexual satisfaction through whatever means works best for them.