Lest We Forget About the 33 Million…

Pamela Barnes

Recent advances in HIV prevention promise to catalyze the global effort to reverse the spread of HIV. But we also must ensure that the estimated 33 million already living with the virus have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

This post is published as part of our series in recognition of International Human Rights Day 2010 on Friday, December 10th.  Read more International Human Rights Day 2010 posts here.

The year 2010 has seen its fair share of breakthroughs in HIV prevention. A stunning new study released in late November revealed that a single daily dosage of antiretroviral pills can help protect healthy gay men from contracting HIV. Months prior, a separate study demonstrated how a simple microbicidal gel can significantly reduce a woman’s chances of infection during sex.

Tremendous developments like these promise to catalyze the global effort to reverse the spread of HIV. But preventing new infections is just one dimension of the HIV challenge we face today. The other involves ensuring that the estimated 33 million men, women, and children already living with the virus have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

In fact, the number of women living with HIV today continues to climb—but not just because of new infections, which according to the newest data are declining. Rather, through enormous investments in care and treatment programs, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, women are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives, with a virus that is no longer de facto tantamount to a death sentence. Many HIV-positive couples are able to consider their long-term futures, including becoming parents to healthy, HIV-free infants.

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In the United States today, mothers carrying the virus can receive HIV treatment, prenatal care, and postpartum support for themselves and their newborn children, along with counseling to plan a family—all in one place. In poor communities around the world, however, a pregnant woman visiting an HIV clinic may miss out on the broader set of maternal, sexual, and reproductive health care services she needs to stay healthy, avoid transmitting HIV to her child, and reduce the chances of unintended pregnancy in the future.

The good news is that we have solutions that come organically from the communities where we work. EngenderHealth has helped make comprehensive, integrated reproductive health care a reality for HIV-positive women in places like Tanzania and Kenya. Today, Tanzanian women who come in for prenatal care are getting screened for HIV. Those who test positive receive the medication and care they need to deliver HIV-free infants. They also receive advice on how to avoid unintended pregnancy and decrease the future chances of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

In the Nyanza Region of Kenya, EngenderHealth partnered with the Ministry of Health to pilot an innovative family care-centered approach offering a range of services that any family member may need—mother, father, or child—all under one roof. These services include HIV prevention, care, and treatment; family planning; malaria and tuberculosis treatment; child visits; and sexual and reproductive health care. Prior to the APHIA-II Nyanza project, these services were offered at separate sites. To date, about 40,000 mothers have benefited from these integrated health services, enabling them to protect their children and the future of their families.

This is a picture of holistic health care and a vision for the future. To build on similar progress in countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda, greater investments are needed to ensure quality reproductive health care and to improve the lives of millions of women and families around the world.

Commentary Race

We Trust Black Women to Stand Up, Speak Out, and Lead

Monica Simpson

SisterSong and our partners and allies are committed to trusting Black women, telling the truth about our lives, and demanding that decision makers either stand with us or get out of the way.

Black women have led our communities in the fight for health and dignity throughout the course of history. We have worked to build strong families in the face of ignorance, hate, and structural oppression.

Sadly, many of our elected officials either stand in the way or fail to help. They claim that Black women can’t be trusted. But it’s not us that can’t be trusted, it is lawmakers who fail to address the very real problems facing our community who should not be trusted. And as we look ahead to the 2016 election, and beyond, we at SisterSong, and our committed colleagues in the field, agree that the time has come for these politicians to stand with us or move out of our way.

That is why now more than ever Black women need to come together to speak out against attacks on our autonomy. We cannot allow another lawmaker to spout off about who we are or another community leader to talk about our families. We are here. We are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children. We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.

While legislators pass discriminatory limits on programs that support families and even try to control the reproduction of low-income women and women of color by limiting the number of children we can have, they also put up barriers to affordable health services.

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Black women are less likely to have access to reproductive health care, including effective methods of contraceptionabortion, or annual gynecological exams and other health screenings. We are also at an increased risk of death or severe complication during pregnancy and childbirth. We face poor health outcomes for breast, cervical cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. A significant majority of women diagnosed with HIV are also women of color and the cost of treatment often pushes effective options out of reach.

There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.

More than a decade ago, community organizer and SisterSong supporter Cazembe Jackson endured a traumatic experience that has only made his support for Black women as leaders today even stronger. As Jackson, who now identifies as a Black trans man, explained to me via email, “In April 2001, when I was 20 years old, I was gang-raped by four men in Huntsville, Texas. At the time I was a college student attending a local predominately white university and living my life as Black queer stud. They said it was a ‘corrective rape’ because throughout the time I was getting raped I was told this act of violence would help me dress and act like a ‘real’ woman.”

“It was a really hard time,” said Jackson, “in addition to having survived, to know I was also targeted because of how I expressed my gender identity and going through the experience of being re-criminalized by the local police department for what happened to me.”

Jackson went on to explain how when he returned home for break from college, he learned the rape had resulted in pregnancy. “I went to my local Planned Parenthood, which handled my [abortion] procedure. This and I also got referred to a local rape crisis center that probably saved my life. No one [at Planned Parenthood] tried to make me feel bad about my decision or like I wasn’t smart enough to make the decision,” he added.

“Living now as a Black trans man I have seen how access to health care is still for many in this country a luxury putting Black families and our futures in jeopardy. The same way that discriminatory legislation and the history of the ownership of Black bodies in this country undermines the leadership and history of Black women and Black communities who have been building culturally competent services for our families,” said Jackson.

“As a Black trans man it’s important to support Black women as leaders in both our traditional and informal family structures.”

Black lives and health and dignity matter. For the work and organizing to also matter to our families and our community, we must ensure that Black women and Black transgender people are included. Black men must sometimes stand next to us and at times step aside so that other members of our community can step up and step out to push for the change that we all desperately need and that we deserve.

Black women fight for ourselves and we fight to uplift our people. We will not stand by while decision makers pass law after law that is designed to control our decisions or that are based on racist stereotypes of Black women and our families. We will speak out when groups try to divide us—like SisterReach did when they responded to billboards pushing racist propaganda in Tennessee.

More than five years ago, SisterSong launched Trust Black Women, a partnership to create a strong, coordinated movement led by Black women that would not ask for trust and autonomy, but demand that we each be able to make important moral decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities. It is clear that need has not gone away, and let’s be clear, we are not going away either.

As we reflect on the past work of the Trust Black Women initiative we are also looking at how future efforts can grow and expand to make sure that the voices of our transgender family and friends are not left behind.

We trust Black women to know what is best for our lives, our families, and our future. We trust Black women to be leaders in the efforts to recognize and dismantle the systems that work to keep us down. SisterSong and our partners and allies are committed to trusting Black women, telling the truth about our lives, and demanding that decision makers either stand with us or get out of the way.

Commentary Family

Getting Republicans on Record About How Fetal Tissue Research Has Helped Them

Carole Joffe

Imagine if the next debate among the Republican presidential candidates started with the moderator asking all the participants who are parents to raise their hands if their children received the polio vaccine as infants.

See more of our coverage on the effects of the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Imagine if the next debate among the Republican presidential candidates started with the moderator asking all the participants who are parents to raise their hands if their children received the polio vaccine as infants. Then the candidates should be instructed to lower their hands if they would have refused this vaccination if they knew that it was developed from research using fetal tissue. Assuming the candidates responded honestly, I speculate that none would report a willingness to have forgone protecting their children against polio.

If the debate were to start this way—and sadly it probably won’t—it would expose the candidates’ hypocrisy on fetal tissue research (as well as how tortuous the larger issue of vaccines is for Republicans, leading to mixed statements on the part of many of the contenders). Americans as a whole believe in vaccines, though a vocal minority, most of which is associated with the Republican base, do not; similarly, Planned Parenthood, which has been relentlessly demonized because of the false charges of “selling” fetal tissue to researchers, is far more admired by the public than any of the Republican candidates. Yet to satisfy its base—who are the most likely to vote in primaries—the Republican candidates have been compelled to outdo each other in bashing Planned Parenthood, and by extension, fetal tissue research.

The fact that the candidate Dr. Ben Carson, currently running second in the polls behind Donald Trump, was discovered to have himself conducted such research, did not seem to matter; reminiscent of anti-abortion women who show up in a clinic for an abortion and claim that their abortions are morally justified, but that everyone else in the waiting room is a slut, Carson confusingly and erroneously tried to claim that his research using fetal tissue was legitimate, while other research of this type was obtained from abortions done specifically to obtain such tissue.

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As this sorry spectacle of manufactured hysteria about Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research plays out, it occurs to me that many Americans now alive simply do not remember the absolute terror of contracting polio that was rampant before the vaccine became widely available in the mid-1950s. As a very young child in that era, I have memories of horror stories of children and adults in “iron lungs” ( a large respirator which allowed polio patients, whose lung muscles had been paralyzed by the polio virus, to breathe), of people’s fears of going to swimming pools and other public places because of the chance of contagion, and hearing the unspeakably sad news of deaths from this scourge. As an adult, I have seen the considerable difficulties of post-polio syndrome, progressive muscle weakness, atrophy, and fatigue, which can strike those who were fortunate enough to survive the disease—sometimes 40 years after contracting the disease itself.

In short, the development of the polio vaccine (which won a Nobel Prize for its discoverers) was one of the greatest public health triumphs of history. By 1979, the disease was eradicated in the United States. Progress in the rest of the world has been slower, but very encouraging. Africa, for example, recently marked a polio-free year, and public health experts are hopeful about a complete global eradication by the year 2018. As these experts point out, if this campaign is successful, it would only be the second time in history that a disease affecting humans has been eradicated (the other being smallpox).

And the polio vaccine was not the only one to come from fetal tissue research. Other vaccines, including those for hepatitis A, chickenpox, rubella, and rabies, have resulted from studies based on donated fetal tissue. Furthermore, fetal tissue research may also bring promising future developments, such as in the study or treatment of juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, and breast cancer.

Dismayingly, those who should be leading the defense of fetal tissue research—the scientists in the more than 50 institutions where this research takes place—have, with a few exceptions, been intimidated into silence because of fears of anti-abortion harassment and violence. A science editor for BuzzFeed recently wrote about contacting 70 researchers in this field and not finding one who would speak with her for attribution.

One scholar who has not been afraid to speak up is R. Alta Charo, a noted bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. In a stirring defense of fetal tissue research in the New England Journal of Medicine, Charo denounced the politically motivated attacks on this research as “a betrayal of the people whose lives could be saved by the research and a violation of that most fundamental duty of medicine and health policy, the duty of care.”  

As Charo’s words suggest, the current battle over fetal tissue research is but the latest example of a longstanding feature of American politics: the war on science by the right. This includes the denial of climate change, the skepticism about evolution, the insistence that birth control pills cause abortions—the list goes drearily on. And, of course, the eagerness of the candidates to bash Planned Parenthood is an equally fundamental tenet of right-wing politics—an opposition to this organization not only because of its abortion services, but also because of its support for non-procreative sexuality that occurs outside of heterosexual marriage.  

It is an open question, however, as to how these harsh attacks on both fetal research and Planned Parenthood will fare once Republican candidates must appeal to those beyond their most fervid primary voters. One might be cautiously optimistic that even in a degraded political environment such as ours, most voters will think that getting rid of diseases is a good thing.