Commentary Human Rights

Rio+20: Holy See and G77 Fight to Erase Women From Sustainable Development Agenda

Zonibel Woods

In 1992, women’s human rights advocates played a critical role in shaping Agenda 21, ensuring that “three pillars” of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic) remained central to the sustainable development agenda, and that women remained central to all three pillars. Today, conservative forces are fighting to return to the past.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the “Earth Summit,” was the first of a series of United Nations global conferences that sought progress on sustainable development, including human rights, population change, social development, women’s human rights and gender equality. The ambitious plans of action resulting from the Rio, Vienna, Cairo, and Beijing Conferences have set the blueprint for the development agenda over the last two decades. In addition to Agenda 21, the Earth Summit also resulted in three ground-breaking international treaties or conventions – the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Rio set the tone for what was a global effort in envisioning what “could be possible” to improve the lives of people and the planet.

This week, 55,000 people are expected to attend Rio +20, including at least 115 world leaders who will participate in the high-level segment from June 20th to 22nd. At 80 pages, the expected outcome document, titled “The Future We Want,” still remains largely under negotiation. Governments began negotiating Wednesday with only 30 percent of the text already set, and with only three scheduled days of negotiations left. It remains to be seen whether we will agree on “The Future We Want,” or if the Brazilian government, in a last ditch attempt, will pull out a short political declaration to be signed by heads of state and thus “save face” with minimal commitments, including any commitment to achieving gender equality.

In 1992, women’s human rights advocates played a critical role in shaping Agenda 21 and ensured that “three pillars” of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic) remained central to the sustainable development agenda. However, negotiations for Rio+20 have been fraught with attempts to take “people” and social development out of the equation and lay the solutions at the altar of market driven forces through the “green economy.” For women and young people, this means that fundamental issues affecting them, such as their right to health and education, are in danger of being sidelined. Human rights have also generally been forgotten. While the European Union, the United States, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland, Liechenstein, and Iceland have attempted to incorporate goals for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women as critical elements of sustainable development in the outcome document, there has been a shameful display by the G77 and China to try to roll back internationally-agreed language on women’s human rights.

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Agenda 21 acknowledges that environmental policy must take into account protecting the rights of women; that strategies for poverty eradication must include empowering women’s groups; and that women should have full, access to land, resources, and ownership; It also includes full recognition of women’s rights in health including reproductive health. Now, however, during negotiations, a few countries within the G77, mainly led by Egypt, are attempting to block references to women’s human rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to women’s right to inherit land and other productive resources. The Holy See, a non-member-state permanent member of the United Nations — without legitimacy to speak on behalf of a citizenry of its own — is seeking to impose their values on Catholics and non-Catholics alike by watering down references to gender equality, women’s human rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Luckily, women’s human rights advocates are in Rio. We are working hard to ensure that the gains of the past 20 years are upheld. We will make the point, again and again, and as long as it takes, that the human rights and health of half the world’s population are not only vital to achieving sustainable development, but that there is no other way to realize that goal.

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’ onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’ onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

On ‘Single Ladies’ Making History: A Q&A With Rebecca Traister

Katie Klabusich

In All the Single Ladies, Traister outlines the struggle and the strength of womanhood while demolishing myths, as well as flat-out lies, about the role and prevalence of single women through history.

The premise that unmarried women have driven social and political change in this country since before its founding is enjoying mass circulation thanks to author Rebecca Traister’s latest book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

As a perpetually single woman rapidly approaching 40, I was on the edge of my seat for its March 1 release. It was exhilarating to discover that women who remained unmarried by choice or chance, married late, or had non-traditional marriages (for the time or even today’s standards) have always done movement work out of necessity and passion.

Traister opens her book with an exchange from 1896. In an interview with suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Nellie Bly asks, “What do you think the new woman will be?” Anthony responds, “She’ll be free.”

Perhaps our society is entering that era of the new woman: Traister’s book became a New York Times’ Best Seller almost immediately after it hit bookstore shelves, just in time for the conclusion of a presidential primary that might end with a female nominee at the top of a major party ticket.

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It does feel as if we are still defining and creating this “new woman” though—just look at the misogyny around this election, ongoing resistance to the Equal Rights Amendment, and rampant attacks on reproductive health. One has to wonder: When do we finally prove Susan B. Anthony right?

In All the Single Ladies, Traister outlines the struggle and strength of womanhood while demolishing myths, as well as flat-out lies, about the role and prevalence of single women throughout history. She was kind enough, via email while traveling to promote the book, to extrapolate on female friendship, the power of unmarried women in shaping electoral politics, and how far we have yet to go before common life choices like staying single cease to be considered “alternative.” Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Rewire: Marriage as the “least bad” option is a recurring theme throughout the book. Some are choosing it because of social assumptions and the need to belong, others for economic reasons. Could we be reaching a tipping point for validating the choice not to be part of a conventional two-person union in law and tax code?

Rebecca Traister: I think we’re still quite a distance from a massive tipping point when it comes to altering policies, though certainly we’re at a tipping point when it comes to the way in which Americans live their lives and map out their adulthoods. Obviously, part of the problem is government dysfunction and part of it is the lingering, deeply entrenched attitudes that continue to privilege marriage and afford benefits to those (especially men) who marry.

I do believe that the new organization of the citizenry, the development of a massive (and potentially powerful) new population—of women living independently of this institution on which they have historically been dependent and which has in many ways confined them, especially in its older forms—will have some kind of political impact over the next few decades. (Gulp … century?) But, I imagine that the progress will be slow. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe it will be swifter than I can imagine.

Right now I’m just hoping for paid parental leave, which makes so much sense yet it has been bizarrely impossible to move toward until very recently. And a higher minimum wage, which is also so crucial, but which has been considered a radical ask. And paid sick days! Which is also one of the most obviously humane ideas we could come up with, yet is still not federally mandated.

I’m hoping for a lot, in other words. I always hope for a lot.

Rewire: What makes single women so different electorally?

RT:  Well, there isn’t self-conscious politicization. But there are a bunch of factors. In terms of the rates they vote, single women move around more—to cities and around the country and out of the country—which makes it harder for them to vote. They are susceptible to voting restrictions, since so many single women are ironically so desperately in need of policies that would enable them to take the time it now often requires to cast a vote; and politicians have cut them out rhetorically for so long—speaking only of American families, pretty obviously in reference to traditional, hetero-nuclear family structures, and not other kinds of family formations.

Also, in terms of what they need in the world: they require support for their own independence (as male independence has been supported for centuries through enfranchisement, government-backed business and housing loans, infrastructure investment, tax breaks, etc.) in the form of higher wages, pay equality protection, mandated paid sick days and parental leave, lower college costs, subsidized high-quality child care, and unfettered access to safe and legal abortion, and also to contraception.

When we were organized in hetero, legally bound units in which one kind of American did the professional work (and accrued the economic benefits and enjoyed some of the government-subsidized benefits as well) and another kind of American did the domestic labor (enjoying no economic benefit, save being dependent on her husband), the need for these policies that might better support economic independence of all kinds of Americans didn’t seem so starkly necessary. Now it is. But of course, the conditions that make it necessary—the possibility of women having more liberated sex lives, higher-earning work lives, having kids outside of marriage—were won in self-consciously political battles, through civil rights and feminist movements. Those victories created conditions that now permit this more mass behavioral shift.

Rewire: You link the “new reality” of women logistically being able to live independently, and therefore choosing to do so, with the patriarchy’s panic about decreasing stigma around premarital sex. Could this anxiety over erosion of privilege and power be what’s driving the attacks on reproductive health two decades later?

RT: Well, it’s certainly part of it. Attacks on reproductive health and moves to regulate women’s ability to control their reproduction have always been linked to fears about women’s insurrection and eventual independence from male-dominated power structures. And it makes sense. Women’s bodies are the ones in which reproduction happens; men’s ability to exert influence—or ownership—over their offspring and to pass along their privilege to a next generation is all foregrounded in some sort of social and economic control over women and their bodies.

Abortion restrictions are one way to do that; making birth control inaccessible is another way to do that. Previously, it was keeping women from voting and out of workplaces. Basically, anything that saps women’s ability to live independently and forces them to rely on men for economic, social, and/or sexual possibility leads men to maintain their power. And, of course, that’s where marriage came in; it was for a long time the institution that organized and enforced men’s power over women. But as more people live outside of it, it’s changing, which is good news. It’s becoming more flexible, more egalitarian, more a thing that women and men are likely to enter into at varied ages—and only when it is going to enhance their lives, not simply because they have no other choice.

RewireIn the chapter “Single Women Have Often Made History,” you write:

The consumerist cycle both depended on and strengthened capitalism, and thus worked to allay other postwar anxieties about nuclear attack and Communism, both of which had become linked to fears about the power of women’s sexuality run amok. Historian Elaine Tyler May reports that “non-marital sexual behavior in all its forms became a national obsession after the war,” and marriage, in tandem with the repudiation of women’s recent advances, was the cure.

Is there anything—any “ill”—over the past several centuries that hasn’t been linked to female sexuality or insufficient submission?

RT: Environmental collapse? The recession and mortgage industry disaster? Probably those things are also linked in some quarters to women’s insufficient submission; there’s always someone out there willing to blame a hurricane, or an economic collapse precipitated largely by wealthy white men, on women’s promiscuity or whatever.

But yeah, more seriously, most everything that afflicts us can get blamed on women and their propensity for moving toward equality and away from dependency on men.

Rewire: You write about female friendships—a topic close to my heart—throughout the book. When you introduce your friend Sara you describe how deeply entrenched in your life she was for many years. My “Sara” and I have found that people often squint and “huh?” when we talk about each other in a way that indicates we might be each other’s “person.” Even though, as you write, tight female friendships have been common historically, our generation was taught to view each other as rivals, not to be trusted. Do/did people get your relationship with Sara? What are people missing when we talk about our platonic “person” and possibly missing in their own lives?

RT:  Well, the fact that not everyone “got” that relationship (or other close friendships that were so central to my adulthood) was part of what prompted me to first write about Sara, in a piece called “Girlfriends are the New Husbands,” back in 2004, then again in 2005, then again in 2012. The centrality of friendship to women’s adulthood is really a topic that has obsessed me for a while! Both because I’ve lived it and because almost every one of my peers has also lived it.

And no, as I write in the book, there’s no greeting card aisle, no specially trained therapists, to help us navigate the very serious emotional terrain of friendship, as there is for marriage and divorce or for parental or sibling relationships, though really friends do become our familial and most intimate partners for years at a time, often for our whole lifetimes. I think that as more of us stay single for longer, alongside each other, and experience friendship as a bedrock of our adulthoods, the better we’ll get at acknowledging and supporting friendship as a primary relationship.

In earlier eras, when marriage was much less likely to offer emotional sustenance or companionate pleasures, female friendships were recognized to some better degree. But our recent history (from mid-20th century) really encouraged marriage as the institution in which we put all our emotional stores, and encouraged those marriages to begin at the start of our adulthoods. So we have some work to do in moving away from that model and remembering that there are other patterns of commitment, and commingling of lives and responsibilities, and that they are just as valid—and often better for us!

Rewire: Most of the women I know have an impossible time doing nice things for ourselves. We judge ourselves the way you describe raising an eyebrow at Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection, but not Carol Brady’s hypothetical need for drapes. You write: “Any time women do anything with their lives that is not in service to others, they are readily perceived as acting perversely.”

I think all of us have internalized this. What can we do to unlearn this unhealthy drive to give of ourselves until we’re depleted and encourage ourselves and each other to pursue things that we like/want simply because they bring us joy? And can a shift in this thinking lead us to demanding more/better in all categories of our lives, including relationships and work?

RT:  Well, this calls on me to be a bit of an advice columnist, which I’m very bad at. (Though I should add that I think I’m very good at giving individual advice! Just not to masses of people).

My (slightly lame) answer to this is that the first step is one many women are already taking: simply putting themselves first—whether that means pursuing their own ambitions, crafting their own individual commitments and not adhering to old models that don’t fit them. As more women live in a greater variety of ways, the more they help all of our eyes to the fact that women have selves, and that those selves count for something—count for a lot.

This very basic first step has been a long time coming.

Rewire: At the end of your introduction you say, “Here we are,” meaning Susan B. Anthony’s “epoch of single women.” If we’ve arrived there, what comes next?

RT:  I have no idea! That’s what’s so exciting.


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