Commentary Abortion

The “Protect Life Act:” Will There Be a Price to Be Paid?

Carole Joffe

To me, the most interesting question posed by the brazen contempt for women contained in H.R.358, is whether the antiabortion movement has finally gone too far.

Here is a story from 2002, as reported by the BBC:

Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers. In a rare criticism of the kingdom’s powerful “mutaween” police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire….

And here is a story from 2011, as reported in Talking Points Memo, about the “Protect Life Act,” H.R.358, which would amend the 2010 health reform law:

… new language inserted into the bill just this week would…(allow) hospitals that receive federal funds but are opposed to abortions to turn away women in need of emergency pregnancy termination to save their lives.

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As the juxtaposition of these two incidents show, fundamentalism, one of whose defining features is the devaluing of women’s lives, clearly knows no geographical borders. Despite H.R. 358’s Orwellian name, this bill quite obviously is not intended to protect the lives of pregnant women.

As of February 4, one hundred members of Congress, including some women, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. It is of course wishful thinking to believe that the these elected officials could be pressured to sign a statement certifying that they would have no objection if their wives, daughters, or in the cases of the congresswomen still in their reproductive years, were themselves  sent in an emergency situation to a hospital that refused to perform a life-saving abortion.  (We have already seen that only a handful of Republicans who voted against health care reform have refused Congress’ generous plan for themselves and virtually all of them, according to Think Progress, have accepted it for their staffs).

It is possible that public outcry will, in the next week or so, cause a retreat from this astonishing provision, just as antiabortionists in Congress had to back down from their attempt to replace “rape” with “forcible rape” as one of the limited situations in which Medicaid funding can be used to pay for abortions. (To be sure, the retreat on rape is largely a symbolic one. As a recent study from the research organization Ibis Reproductive Health has shown, there is already a shocking lack of compliance with existing law on the funding of abortions through Medicaid in cases of rape).

But even if antiabortionists do back off from this craziness, what will such a “victory” for prochoice forces actually mean? The brilliance of the most recent history of anti-abortion activity in Congress– which started the day Barack Obama became president and has culminated, with the “Protect Life Act,” in the frank admission that it really is not a problem if some women die– is that if forced to drop its most extreme measures, the rest of the anti-abortion agenda looks, by comparison, more palatable.  So even if pressured to drop this provision about life-saving abortions in hospitals, the Protect Life Act very likely will achieve its goal of making it increasingly likely that insurance companies will ultimately drop any insurance coverage of abortions, and of course, to continue the longstanding campaign of the antiabortion movement to make abortion care as marginalized as possible from the rest of health care.

To me, the most interesting question posed by the brazen contempt for women contained in H.R.358, is whether the antiabortion movement has finally gone too far.  Will this bizarre and shocking episode resonate with the American people?  Or will it be seen as just another noisy skirmish in the endless abortion war, a war most Americans are tired of. Even if this provision is dropped due to public outcry (and one hopes that the heroic Jon Stewart is preparing to skewer this, just as he did with the “forcible rape” proposal), it won’t necessarily change anything.  The game changing moment will only happen if the constituents of the bill’s sponsors are willing to ask these officials why they are willing to let women die.  And if the answer is not satisfactory—and how could it possibly be?—the voters have to make clear they won’t vote for someone willing to let them, or someone they love, needlessly die.

Commentary Violence

The Justice Black Women Seek Will Not Be Found in the Courtroom

Monica Simpson

It is with a heavy heart that I celebrate the Holtzclaw verdict—not just because I struggle with the relentless focus on carceral solutions, but also because the effects of the trial are far from over.

Like many people, I waited with bated breath to hear the verdict in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw is a former Oklahoma City police officer who was convicted of assaulting women in his community while on patrol. Twelve of those women and one teenager bravely stood up in court and testified against him. Holtzclaw targeted them on suspicion of drug possession, they said, and then forced them into sexual acts.

I wanted to believe that he would have his day of reckoning.

I hoped these courageous women would feel that people believed them and took their pain seriously, that it was worth all they went through in order to see him pay for his crimes. I saw them as amazing women, as sisters, mothers, and grandmothers.

But I also know they are Black women and the system has not always been a place where we have seen justice. So I waited.

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One victim said, “I did not think anyone would believe a Black woman.” I can see why she would feel that way. There is so much rhetoric that says Black women can’t be trusted. Laws are created that tell Black women when we can and cannot become mothers; policies are pushed based on stereotypes and insults about Black women as parents and as people. And when we are abused or assaulted, we are often ignored, devalued, or delegitimized by health, legal, and political systems.

Black women know what is best for our lives, and yet there are countless barriers put up to deny us the ability to make our own decisions or to seek help and support when we need it.

For every Black woman who reports a rape, there are at least 15 who do not. We are portrayed as promiscuous. Our lives are treated as less than—like we don’t deserve respect or that our voices do not need to be heard. We are both preyed upon and made more vulnerable because we exist at the intersection of racism and sexism.

There is so much violence against us in our communities: A small study found 60 percent of the Black women surveyed had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. And advocates consider intimate partner homicide one of the leading causes of death for Black women between the ages of 15 and 35. In spite of the rampant cruelty and violation of Black women, these issues have not been at the forefront of the conversations about the lives of Black people. While we may not be killed by police at the same rate as our men and boys who are dying in the streets, ignoring or making invisible the violence aimed at Black women erases our pain and silences us in our own community.

There are likely other women out there who were hurt by Daniel Holtzclaw who did not come forward. They were too afraidthat they would not be believed and could not hope for any justice. When a young woman who was assaulted by Holtzclaw at 17 was asked why she did not report the rape, she answered, “What kind of police do you call on the police?”

The issue of police brutality is finally getting more attention due to protests and organizing by Black men and women throughout the country, and yet the very real issue of sexual violence by law enforcement is often left out of the conversation.

The unfortunate truth is that civil rights movements and protests responding to violence in the Black community have often prioritized the stories and the pain of men and ignored the suffering of Black women. This is in spite of the fact that the second most reported misconduct against police after excessive use of force is sexual misconduct, according to a 2010 report from the Cato Institute. About 9 percent of the total reports made regarding the inappropriate actions of police that year—the most recent year for which data is available—involved some kind of sexual misconduct. More than 350 officers were implicated in complaints that involved forcible non-consensual sexual activity such as sexual assault or sexual battery, many of them repeat offenders like Daniel Holtzclaw.

The majority of survivors who report rape and sexual abuse by police are women of color. This is a part of police brutality that this case brought to light and that Black men and women have to ensure does not get pushed aside in the media and in the movement for Black lives and racial justice. As we work to ensure that we #SayHerName and talk about women who have been killed, we also must talk about the sexual violence Black women experience. This violence comes at the hands of law enforcement when they are pulled over, detained, or in holding, as well as when they are in prison, where there is an epidemic of sexual misconduct.

Sadly, this violence extends to the juvenile justice system. Young girls of color are disproportionately incarcerated in juvenile facilities. A significant number of the young people in foster care and youth detention facilities experience sexual abuse and violence prior to entering the system, and then they are re-victimized.

Holtzclaw went after especially vulnerable women of color who are too often looked down and demeaned by our society and our systems, and who he knew feared what could happen if they were charged. This made his threats, his manipulation, and his violence that much more effective and horrific. Multiple women testified that he said he would let a charge drop or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t comply. This also speaks to our broken criminal justice system. When a woman who is struggling with addiction and using drugs can be assaulted because she is afraid of being caught up in the system, it becomes even clearer that the war on drugs is a war on women of color.

It is with a heavy heart that I celebrate this verdictnot just because I struggle with the relentless focus on carceral solutions, but also because the effects of this case are far from over. It is not over for the women that Holtzclaw was accused of hurting. They likely will still be grieving and healing for many years. And it is not over because Black women must continue to work not only to reform a system where justice too often eludes us, but also work to put an end to rape culture and the myths that dehumanize Black women. This is the justice that we seek and it will not be found in a courtroom. It will be found in the conversations and protests and the organizing and advocacy that we do to create social, cultural, and policy change.

Reproductive justice advocates need to continue the work to take down the billboards that disparage Black women and our families and make sure the media does not ignore violence against Black women and girls.

We must trust Black women and believe the experiences they share are valid.

I am grateful to the multiple women who bravely spoke out and pushed for the justice that has eluded too many of us. But they should not have to feel or be alone in calling out the violence that Black women face. Black women and Black men need to stand up and speak out and shut it down to ensure that the lives and the well-being of Black women and girls are not ignored in the efforts to ensure the rights, safety, and dignity of the Black community.

Commentary Abortion

Losing My Lege: Texas Legislator Thinks Pregnant People Should be Forced to Carry Dead Fetuses to “Do Penance”

Andrea Grimes

Here's a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners.

Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas legislature.

Last week, a grown man stood on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives and argued that the state must force pregnant Texans to try to carry dying, deceased, or non-viable fetuses as long as they can. Anything less, said state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), wouldn’t be “pro-life.”

These fetuses “are going to suffer, they’re going to feel pain,” just as adults with terminal illnesses do, said Schaefer, a freshman Tea Party politician from East Texas. “That’s part of the human condition, when sin entered the world, and it grieves us all.”

Y’all, I just need us to sit with that statement for a little while. Here’s a man who is saying that people who are carrying wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies must be compelled by the state to carry their fetuses to term because they, and we, are sinners. And because Matt Schaefer is a sinner. In other words, those families are doing penance on everyone else’s behalf.

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This is, of course, a burden predicated on Schaefer’s personal and particular interpretation of the Christian faith. It also conveniently serves to bolster his image with right-wing voters without ever requiring he lift a compassionless finger.

Because no matter how hard, or how much, or how long any of us sin, I suspect Matt Schaefer will never be forced to carry a dying fetus to term against the advice of his doctors or his own wishes.

I guess pregnant Texans who are grieving the loss of unsustainable pregnancies will just have to do Schaefer’s penance for him. Maybe that’s part of God’s mission for people who aren’t Matt Schaefer, according to the gospel of Matt Schaefer.

And Schaefer is using his faith to justify inflicting state-mandated pain on people who are already experiencing terrible loss. Schaefer’s proposal, which was ultimately pulled down as part of a procedural quibble after it had initially passed, would have banned abortion after 20 weeks if a fetus has a “severe and irreversible abnormality.” That goes so far beyond cruel as to be almost unimaginable.

But of course, this isn’t unimaginable. Because we know Texans have already been forced to give birth to dying or dead fetuses. Even under current law, doctors who are afraid of running afoul of existing anti-abortion statutes often believe they can’t provide their patients with the care their patients want, or the care that doctors themselves recommend, when fetuses cannot live outside the womb. As a result, families have been forced to carry unsustainable pregnancies to term. And they have told us their stories.

We know, beyond doubt, that when lawmakers insert themselves into the private decisions of families who are forced to end wanted, but unsustainable, pregnancies, they cause nothing but more heartbreak. Because laws—and these lawmakers—are not built for nuance. They are built for cruel and cold rhetoric, only meant to appease Texas’ far, farther, farthest right-wing voters.

Schaefer’s proposal, which was tacked on as an amendment to a bill about the bureaucratic operations of the state health department, as if it were some kind of especially abhorrent afterthought, affects just one group of people. It targets Texans who don’t want their dying fetuses—or, perhaps, their babies, if that’s the language they choose to use, and on which subject I defer entirely to families going through this difficult process—to be born, only to suffer for minutes, hours, or days.

Those Texans, under Schaefer’s proposed rule, have no choice but to suffer. Because Matt Schaefer’s God says that they, uniquely, must.

Texans who want to go through the birth process with an unsustainable pregnancy are already legally allowed to do so—and that’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. Texans should be not only allowed, but empowered, to make these decisions without the heavy-handed input of state lawmakers.

I would rebuke any law that forced pregnant Texans to terminate a pregnancy against their wishes. By the same token, I abhor a law that forces a grieving Texan to labor, and labor, and labor—when they knew they could have assuaged that suffering according to their own conscience or their own faith, had fate been more geographically amenable, or had they the means to travel out of state.

We could get into the physical consequences of state-compelled gestation: the fact that a dying or dead fetus could put the life of a pregnant Texan who becomes septic in danger, or that it could affect their future fertility. Those are real risks. They shouldn’t be ignored.

But the next (il)logical step, for Matt Schaefer and lawmakers who think as he does, would be to say that the death of a pregnant person from sepsis is simply the penance for sin. That infertility is a punishment from Godpunishment for the actions of all humans, since time immemorial. I will not walk down that gruesome road.

Because I don’t need a pregnant Texan to be on the verge of death—the remaining exception for allowable post-20 week abortion care under Schafer’s proposed law—to trust their ability to make their own decisions about when, or whether, to end an unsustainable pregnancy. I don’t need that Texan to be threatened with infertility to know that men like Matt Schaefer have no right to play politics with their lives.

Just four Republicans voted against Schaefer’s amendment, including two physicians: John Zerwas (R-Richmond) and J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville). Sheffield, in particular, implored his fellow GOP members to vote against it, saying that GOP lawmakers “have not been the ones taking care of the babies with the feeding tubes,” or who are sustained on machines or with artificial nutrition.

“I’m not saying those babies are less of a life for our God to treasure or less of a life for us to love,” implored Sheffield. “That is not the argument.”

He continued, asking, “Why should the heavy, blunt hand of government come into that most heart-rending decision?”

Why? I’m sorry to say that I believe I know.

It is because GOP lawmakers think they need to win primaries at all costs, and they feel that they need to pander to the state’s most conservative voters—voters who are already allowed to carry pregnancies with life-incompatible fetal anomalies to term, if that is their choice—in order to do so.

I know this because while Texas house leaders considered the procedural point of order that eventually resulted in the entire bill, including Schaefer’s amendment, being blessedly pulled down, the house’s Tea Party contingent gathered for a very public prayer on the house floor. They made sure everyone got a good look, preening and pandering to the smartphones and news photographers in the room. We’ll almost certainly see photos of that prayer huddle again come election season, as Tea Partiers glom on to Schaefer’s ghoulish version of Christianity.

Maybe the Tea Party bible doesn’t read the same as mine. When I look up Matthew 6:5, it reads: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

The reward, I suppose, would be another successful primary win. The penance? Well, that’s to be paid by someone else.