Commentary Politics

Todd Akin’s Brain: It’s Not Just a War on Women. It’s a War on Critical Thinking and Democracy.

Soraya Chemaly

Akin's statement and the GOP's anti-choice positions aren't just an election year "war on women" narrative. They are part of a reactionary, fundamentalist backlash to modernity. It's a war on science. It's a war on facts. It's a war on critical thinking. But, really, consider it a war on democracy.

In case you’ve been deep-sea diving in the Marianas Trench, yet another Republican Congressman unwittingly revealed his party’s contempt for and distrust of women. And he did it by once again illustrating how the “war on women” is really part of a larger issue. What Todd Akin said and believes doesn’t just play into a media-catchy, election year “war on women” narrative. It’s part of a reactionary, fundamentalist backlash to modernity. It’s a war on science. It’s a war on facts. It’s a war on critical thinking. But, really, consider it a war on democracy. Statements like Akin’s reflect the degree to which some men, steeped in all sorts of dangerous denialism, will go to protect their power and how they undermine equality and democracy to do it. Mitt Romney’s smart, he gets how Akin made this obvious, which is why he’s distancing himself so fast and furiously from this incident. But, Romney deep down inside agrees with the ideas that reside under the surface of such an obvious mistake. That’s why he will not renounce his rights-stripping-for-women-personhood-for-fetuses happy running mate Paul Ryan, who shares the ideas expressed by Akin, even if he expresses himself less offensively.

When asked about exceptions for abortions of pregnancies resulting from rape, Missouri Representative Todd Akin of the Primacy of the Father Cult (formerly known as the GOP) had this to say:

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

The amount that this man doesn’t understand is staggering. He shouldn’t even try putting the words “doctors” and “understand” in the same sentence. It just confuses him. But, the problem is, he’s not an exception.

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Although the six term Congressman, who is running against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in the November 6 election, won’t apologize, he has graciously come forward to join a long line of rape apologists who “misspoke.” He did not “misspeak.” Misspeaking is defined as “Express oneself imperfectly or inaccurately.” He was very clear: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

He wittingly regurgitated common misogynistic lies about women, their bodies, rape, pregnancy, and abortion. Like Chloe Angel, at Feministing who wrote a thank you note to Akin, I am loathe to engage in uncivil discourse. I, too, believe that people who disagree should be able to do so with respect and without resorting to personal assault. However, these lies are so blatant and result in so much harm that they have to be named for what they are and challenged loudly and repeatedly and persistently.

His statements reveal several ideas about women, who bear the immediate and obvious brunt of this type of assault on reason:

  • That even if women do get raped do their bodies somehow “take care of it.” Akin’s comments reveal the shocking level of scientific illiteracy and denialism embraced by Republican legislators when they deal with “women’s issues.” Even if some benighted predatory rapist repeated “I have legitimately raped you” three times while waving their weaponized dicks in the air, women do not emit some mystical, magical hormone “to shut that whole thing down.” Is it too much to ask that people suggesting, making and enforcing our laws know how to spell “biology”?
  • That women who are raped don’t get pregnant much so we shouldn’t worry our pretty heads about maybe getting pregnant and needing an abortion. It turns out that some women’s bodies don’t take care of it. The Washington Post cited a study that revealed that at least 5 percent of rape victims end up pregnant. Mr. Akin, who has explained that he is empathetic to their plights, might want to personally explain to one of the 32,000 women forced to be pregnant against their will that it is “rare.”

Akin’s “gaff” is not harmless. It is not just “out of touch.” It’s DANGEROUS AND CAUSES PAIN and OPPRESSION. And, it’s not a “November” issue. It’s a “just world” issue. It’s a “think for yourself” issue. These people aren’t pro-life. They’re pro-pain. Pain central to redemption.

Which is why this is also a prime example of how religious privileging in education and public discourse overtakes reason and results in debilitating ignorance and real and tangible harm for children and women. And men. Ideas like Akin are why rape tragedies like what happened at Penn State and the ongoing Catholic abuse nightmare happen. Ideas like Akin’s and friends’, grounded in misconceived ideas about sexuality and women’s inherent sinfulness, their shame, their laboring for their wrongs, their sacrifice, their punishment, deny the reality of male victims of rape. These religiously-vectored ideas are central to their political and legislative agendas as evidenced by these abortion and rape statements.

Akin’s statement and philosophy are consistent with conservative’s deep mistrust of women and reflect the perverse contempt with which they simultaneously glorify sacrificial motherhood as the pinnacle of a woman’s existence – a long standing theme in Christian culture, while denigrating actual women though lies like these. Women, long portrayed as sub-human by culture, do not have to earn their abortions (or the contraception for that matter) through pain – illness, incest, rape.

Women, in theory and according to international consensus, have the right to bodily autonomy, privacy and equal protection under the law. It is really interesting to consider his language: he refers to “the rapist” and “the child” but never to “the girl” or “the woman. ” Instead, the girl or woman – the actual person who is raped and seeking to end her unwilling, non-consensual, insemination – is “the female body” – like some kind of machine or useful tool. And, I know, it’s not just men. But, the women who support these arguments will die knowing that they contributed to the infinite harm done to children and other women by their support of these policies.

Say what you will about men like Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum – both good examples of how red hat-envy can bend bright men’s minds towards incoherence and inhumanity – at least they have the courage to take their convictions to their logical conclusions – even if they result in sentences like “Rape is a gift from God” and in the consignment of nine-year old girls to eternal hell while their rapists get to pass through the pearly gates. But, many people like Akin, rather than deal with the illogic of exceptions, find ways to downplay the instance, validity, painful reality, post-traumatic effects and pregnancy that result from rape.

As Garance Franke-Ruta pointed out in The Atlantic, these conservative rape memes have a long life. Take this doozy which she cites from 1995 when 71-year-old North Carolina state Rep. Henry Aldridge:

“”The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever.””

I highly recommend passing her piece along to anyone who doubts the long-standing (at least in 20th century American political, versus loooonng standing classical Greek and Christian thought terms) use of these confused and ignorant statements by people responsible for distributing rights and justice in the country.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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