I Know This Much Is True: Abortion Is A Medical Intervention to Which Women Need Access
The Irish government has yet to regulate access to life-saving abortions in Ireland, despite the fact that such medical interventions have been legal in that country for two decades. The situation has created fear in both women and the medical profession alike.
No one knows for sure yet what happened to Savita Halappanavar. We know that she wanted to be pregnant, that she miscarried, and that the care she received did not save her life. It is important to push for medical accountability in such cases, and to demand a full investigation into whether protocols existed and were followed, and if the patient was subject to discriminatory harassment and remarks, as has been alleged. It is positive that an expert has been appointed to carry out such an investigation.
But we do not have to wait for the investigation to highlight what we already know about abortion in Ireland. For me, this knowledge is weighty and painful.
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In 2009, I went to Ireland with a colleague to talk with women, medical providers, and government officials about the impact of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws on women’s health and lives. No government official agreed to receive us despite multiple requests for meetings. This refusal was the backdrop of the desperation and sadness that was palpable in the voices and testimonies of all the women, doctors, social workers, and community educators we spoke to.
And here is what I learned.
I learned that the Irish government has yet to regulate access to life-saving abortions in Ireland, despite the fact that such medical interventions have been legal in that country for two decades. I learned that the legality of abortion where the pregnant women’s life is in danger was upheld by the Irish Supreme Court in 1992 and supported by a referendum that same year. So while abortion, generally, is criminalized in Ireland, women whose lives are threatened by their pregnancy are constitutionally entitled to have an abortion in Ireland.
And in 2010, I saw that the European Court on Human Rights berated the Irish government for not regulating access to life-saving abortion clearly, creating insecurity for medical providers and patients alike. In 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council issued various recommendations to the same effect.
My research taught me that many medical providers in Ireland want clarity on when they can intervene and when they cannot. Some asked me how the government proposes they treat a woman who may or may not die as a result of her pregnancy. Should they tell her to come back when she was sure she was going to die? How would she know? And what if it was too late? Who would be responsible for such preventable deaths? In fact, during our research in 2009, and despite the fact that abortion in life-threatening cases had been legal for almost two decades, we were not able to find one single medical provider who had ever heard of a life-saving abortion taking place in Ireland.
But more than anything, I learned about the pain and fear pregnant women face when something is clearly wrong with their pregnancy and they know they can’t get care near home. I know this because they told me. Some told me with their heads bowed, others sitting straight up. Some told me calmly, others cried. They all spoke with quiet, sad voices about a society that does not see their suffering and a government that does not seem to care.
Savita Halappanavar’s death, however it happened and whomever (if anyone) is responsible for delivering substandard care, should serve as an opportunity for a deeper and more respectful conversation on this topic in Ireland.
Abortion is a medical intervention to which women need access, some to save their lives. This is not an opinion; it is a fact, evidenced by the thousands of women who travel from Ireland to the United Kingdom or mainland Europe to terminate pregnancies every year.
When I was 11 years old, a much older man followed me as I walked home from school. He made comments about my body in suggestive ways that made it very clear he wanted to do more than simply say, “Hello.”
It was the first time I recall feeling like a sexual object, though I did not quite understand what it meant at such a tender age. I did know that the way that man spoke to me was wrong, very wrong. I knew that I felt dirty, ashamed, and uncomfortable, so much so that I wanted to cover myself up before ever going back outside again.
Nearly every day since then, I have been acutely aware of at least one man on the street or in other spaces who has felt bold enough to engage me as his possession, if only for a few seconds. Never quite a human being, never quite an emotional being whose day can be ruined by licentious whispers or random grabs, I was simply an object, likely one of many those men would pass by throughout the day.
My reading of Jessica Valenti’s newest book, Sex Object, took me back to so many of these encounters, some more painfully vulgar than others.
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Valenti—co-founder of the popular blog Feministing and author of several feminist tomes confronting rape culture and championing sex-positivity—offers a series of anecdotes in Sex Object on the life experiences that have made her acutely aware of her status as a sexually objectified being.
I immediately connected with her narrative as though I had dictated my life story to her. Not only do she and I—two highly visible, outspoken feminist women assumed by some to exist at theoretical odds—have so much in common in this regard, but these stories echo the realities of many other women who feel silenced by fear and shame.
Through my work as an advocate for victims of street harassment, I’ve witnessed other women speak out and share their stories of being made to feel like sex objects. Like me, they can certainly connect to the feeling of being repeatedly objectified just by virtue of being women (or girls in many instances). That there are so many of us who can relate to the pain, the anxiety, or even the occasional numbness, is how I am reminded of the importance of the work that I and others do as feminists to make the world safer for women, particularly the work of rejecting the notion that we should feel shame or fear for we are all connected by the universality of the experience.
The feminist movement, particularly in America, has ebbed and flowed in its waves over the last century. With each new wave comes a set of key issues those of us who openly identify as feminists focus more of our energy on. Whether we feel compelled to challenge a new outlandishly oppressive legislation proposed to further limit women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized groups; we rally to protest and demand justice in a series of heinous acts of violence against women, trans women of color in particular; or perhaps we are motivated by reports from leading advocacy groups that suggest women’s equal access to resources, legal protections, and bodily autonomy remains tenuous at best—each generation of feminists rises to the challenge of continuing the fights of those before us.
I appreciated Valenti’s discussion of victimology and how it has factored into some of the splits within the feminist movement. There are those feminists who reject the victim label according to the long-standing practice of denying victimhood based simply on womanhood. There are also those who, like Valenti, understand that “despite the well-worn myth that feminists are obsessed with victimhood, feminism today feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence.”
No stranger to criticism from within factions of the feminist movement, Valenti also touches briefly on the challenges of a decentralized movement while acknowledging the value in approaching these issues with an intersectional lens. In the book, she readily acknowledges her privileges as a white feminist woman and notes the efforts of those living at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality to push the movement forward. At times, she seems to be writing on eggshells, and I gather it might be due to the backlash she has received over some controversial statements or pushback via her Twitter feed. Sex Object is personal, yes, but Valenti’s choice to note the nuances of modern feminism (given her own contributions as a respected thought leader) is admirable.
One could argue that the exposure of conflicts, particularly via social media like Twitter or Facebook, weaken the movement and its broader intentions. But I offer that healthy disagreement has strengthened us all—veteran feminists and newcomers alike—as we have been given opportunities to engage each other in ways that our foremothers were unable to.
Followers and subscribers are learning as we share our experiences, as Valenti has done here, and the critical need to respect these unique lived experiences cannot be understated. While some have all but completely bowed out from engaging in what can be an unnecessarily vicious behaviors associated with “call-out culture,” other feminists like me, who are regarded as representatives of particular factions, remain willing to listen, share, learn, and unlearn. And what we who willingly engage in such public discourse have discovered in the middle of all of this is that we do share these common experiences with being objectified as women, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, orientation, or gender identity and presentation, and not always on the street. Many of us encounter this type of harassment in other areas of our life as well, such as at the office or even in our own homes. “The individual experiences are easy enough to name, but their cumulative impact feels slippery,” Valenti notes in her introduction.
One of the most important takeaways from the book is that there is no such thing as a perfect or ideal feminist: We are each humanly flawed and have a lot of learning and unlearning to do. “It’s okay if we don’t want to be inspirational,” she writes. If I had a church fan at that moment, I would have waved it in strong agreement.
The current wave of feminism inspires us to openly acknowledge that our experiences as sex objects have had lingering effects on our mental health, such as disrupting our ability to form healthy intimate partnerships. I appreciated how Valenti opened up about her own process of navigating various intimate encounters and partnerships through this lens. For example, she writes about her own anxiety and how her post-traumatic stress disorder affected her relationship with her husband. Though Valenti and I come from vastly different backgrounds, we connect here—my relationships have been largely negatively affected by the sexual traumas I’ve endured in my own life.
Like Valenti, I sought therapy to deal with my experiences. I’m a social worker by profession and recognized that I needed to engage someone with professional skills to help me address the lingering trauma. Valenti opens up about the therapy sessions she’s had, both alone and with her husband, and how they helped her better understand her responses to certain triggers. It is important, for those who are able to do so, to seek support and not live with fear or shame associated with the negative mental health side effects resulting from sex harassment.
To be a woman in this world is to be aware that, in at least some way, your body is supposed to exist for the consumption and control of men. “It’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad,” she writes.
But Sex Object reminds us that we can be vocal about generational sexual trauma and abuse of girls and women because these experiences are common—too common, really. And however feminism manifests in our lives, whether we identify as sex-positive feminists, Black feminists, or womanists, embracing this liberation movement aids us in doing the incredibly difficult work of rejecting the burden of shame.
We can speak more freely about our abortions, as Valenti did in what becomes her signature frank, straight-no-chaser narrative style. Her straightforward, often explicit descriptions of her experiences leave the reader with an understanding that abortion is matter-of-fact and should not be as taboo an issue as it continues to be.
If one takes anything away from Sex Object, it should be the empowering liberation that comes when speaking the truth about one’s experiences as a woman, good and bad, amazing and horrifying, even if only to oneself.
Read this book not as a sex-positive feminist manifesto, but as a personal, therapeutic memoir. I get the sense that writing this book was way more important to Valenti’s own personal growth as a woman, mother, partner, and feminist than it was serving as a feminist guidebook for navigating female sexual objectification. Sex Object is raw; it is relatable and blatant in its (occasionally triggering) honesty. It is a book that many women will read and think, at least 20 different times, “I could have written this myself.”
On Wednesday, Colorado District Court Judge Gilbert Martinez ruled that Robert Lewis Dear Jr., the admitted Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, will not immediately stand trial for the November 27, 2015 siege that killed three people. Dear faces 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, from the attack.
Martinez’s ruling, which came after two competency exams and hours of contested courtroom testimony, was that Dear was not legally competent to stand trial. Dear spoke out during the court proceedings against him again and again, despite court warning. Dear also has some fringe political beliefs that could fairly be described as delusional—he believes the FBI has been tracking him, that President Obama is the Antichrist, and that the federal government has been systematically targeting Christians since the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
Based on the evidence disclosed so far, however, it is hard not to second-guess Martinez’s ruling here. Being behaviorally unpredictable or existing on the political fringe is not the same thing as being legally incompetent to stand trial. It’s dangerous for the court to decide otherwise.
Under Colorado law, a defendant is considered “incompetent to proceed” if, as the result of a mental or developmental disability, they do not have the sufficient present ability to consult with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist in the defense, or if they do not have a “rational and factual understanding of the criminal proceedings.”
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I’ve put the emphasis on a couple of key points, because they are important for understanding the difference between whatever psychiatric diagnosis Dear got and the legal standard for whether or not he is competent to stand trial.
First: Sufficient present ability. That means does Dear, at this moment in time, have the ability to talk to his lawyer? Not “does he want to,” but “can he?”
Second: With a reasonable degree of rational understanding. Now there’s some legalese for you. But broadly speaking, it means: Can Dear reasonably and rationally understand the proceedings against him? For example, does he understand his charges? Can he participate in the court hearings as his case proceeds? Again, not “does he want to,” but “can he?”
And here’s what we know so far from court testimony and the few documents Martinez has allowed to be unsealed: Dear crafted a homemade bulletproof vest prior to November 27, which he said he wore on him when he took siege at the clinic. We also know through court testimony and documents that prior to the siege, Dear collected propane tanks and ammunition, which he brought and set up around the clinic first. He said he shot at those tanks. He missed. But he told investigators his goal was to create as much carnage as possible.
We even know that Dear stopped at a crisis pregnancy center about a mile down the road to confirm whether or not it was the Planned Parenthood clinic in question.
We know a lot more about what happened once Dear surrendered to law enforcement, how he cooperated with investigators up until his defense team was appointed, who then suggested an insanity defense. We know Dear didn’t want to plead insanity and instead wants to argue the siege was justified—that, as with Paul Hill, Michael Bray, and Scott Roeder, violence is necessary in the name of preventing what he sees as the “greater evil” of legal abortion.
Dear himself has stated both to the media and the court that he knew exactly what he was doing on November 27 before he was arrested in that Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. He surrendered. He wants a trial.
He may never get one, though. All the evidence of Dear’s planning, of his specific targeting of Planned Parenthood, of Dear’s insistence he have a platform in the form of a criminal trial—by ruling Dear incompetent to stand trial because of his “political delusions,” Judge Martinez overlooks Dear’s very real but sincerely held religious belief that abortion is a moral wrong that has no legal justification.
The good news is that Wednesday’s decision is temporary. Competency, as the law defines it, is a fluid state. Which means a defendant like Dear can come in and out of legal competency, even if he’s never fully “cured” of the diagnosis that got him declared incompetent in the first place.
The immediate effect of Martinez’s ruling is to send Dear to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. That’s where Dear will be treated for what forensic psychologists diagnosed as his delusional disorder. Under Colorado law, “mental disability,” like that delusional disorder, means a “substantial disorder of thought, mood, perception, or cognitive ability that results in marked functional disability,” which would significantly interfere with Dear’s ability to adapt to society.
In other words, the question is whether a defendant like Dear can keep himself integrated to a reasonable degree in society. The law states that Dear can be held no longer than his possible sentence—in his case, life in prison or possibly the death penalty—in efforts to rehabilitate him to legal competency. If the state psychologists and the court decide Dear will never become legally competent, they could begin the process of civilly committing Dear to a mental health facility for the rest of his life. They could also release him on bond with conditions that he must meet in order to remain out of state custody, such as remaining on medications or regularly meeting with psychiatrists.
Dear’s diagnosis centers on what the psychologists describe as Dear’s conspiratorial beliefs the federal government is targeting Christians and that the FBI has been watching him for decades. I’m curious as to how those beliefs are going to be “rehabilitated,” given that right-wing politicians and personalities use rhetoric similar, if not identical, to Dear’s. Even one of the psychologists herself admitted this fact during court testimony.
Really troubling, though, was the conclusion that Dear’s beliefs on abortion, the target of whatever fringe political beliefs he may espouse, do not fall into that delusional diagnosis. Those, psychologists testified during the first day of Dear’s competency hearing, are simply Dear’s deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs as to the moral wrong of abortion.
Let me be clear. I am very uncomfortable with the government making conclusions as to which political beliefs are delusional and which are not. But I ameven more uncomfortable with this idea that obstruction against reproductive health care can be explained away, and thus legally insulated, by religious beliefs. Political fringe beliefs, apparently, are enough to warrant a diagnosis of a disorder; anti-choice rhetoric, according to these courts, is a religious belief irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Should Dear ever be found legally competent, that would effectively continue the criminal case against him, months, maybe years later. The soonest prosecutors can request Dear be reevaluated to be declared competent to stand trial is three months from Wednesday’s ruling. But I’m guessing it’s going to take more time than those three months. Call it a hunch.
In the meantime, it’s good to remember that as we saw with Angel Dillard’s case last week in Wichita, Kansas, a trial is no guarantee of any justice or vindication of abortion rights. And like Wichita, Colorado Springs has a deeply ingrained anti-choice movement. Who’s to say a jury wouldn’t excuse Dear’s actions based on those religious beliefs, in much the same way one did in Dillard’s case?
Dear’s case raises troubling questions, then, for reproductive rights advocates: Do we really want him to stand trial? What about the risk of a jury embracing the idea that targeted violence against abortion providers and their patients just comes with the territory for someone who believes in delivering full-spectrum health care, including reproductive services?
What about the fact that anti-choice violence is so normalized in our culture that the courts, in two different cases in as many weeks, will go out of their way to excuse it? Given the increasingly violent anti-choice rhetoric and political climate, do we really have any choice but to fight back in every venue we can, including the courts?
I don’t have a good answer to any of those questions.
I know that these cases, when read together, potentially send some terrifying cues to the radical anti-abortion movement. Dear is now another “lone wolf” delusional person who was arrested for just happening to act out his violent delusions at a Planned Parenthood. Kind of like that young man in Wichita who walked into an abortion clinic to apply for a job. With a homemade bomb in his backpack. Dillard is just another fire-and-brimstone prison minister acting on her sincere religious beliefs that God called her to write a letter to Dr. Mila Means warning her about future car bombs. Not to incite any violence towards Means. Just to save her.
I had a law professor try to explain to me once that the law is often slow to catch up with popular opinion. Just look, for example, at marriage equality: Large swathes of the country had already accepted that discriminating against same-sex couples is wrong before the Supreme Court got around to agreeing with them.
So, then, what does that say right now about anti-abortion violence, if the courts in these cases too are slow to catch up with popular opinion? I think it means that we’ve got a long ways to go before abortion providers and patients can feel like their interests are being heard by the justice system. At all.