Commentary Abortion

The Pope, Pregnant Children, and Violence Against Girls and Women

Soraya Chemaly

The Pope's rationale is that his "age means he lacks strength to do job." You could use the exact words to describe the nine-year old girl the Pope excommunicated for having a life-saving abortion after being raped and impregnated, with twins.

I find it strange that Pope Benedict XVI chose a week that will culminate in a global strike to protest violence against women to retire. And for health reasons no less. Orange smoke and irony and all that. On Thursday of this week, all over the globe, people will gather and dance for One Billion Rising, a day dedicated to striking against violence against women. As Eve Ensler, the founder of  V-Day which has organized the strike knows better than most, “violence against women is a global, patriarchal epidemic.

Part of that epidemic is compulsory pregnancy. The Pope’s rationale is that his “age means he lacks strength to do job.” You could use the exact words to describe the nine-year old girl  whose family the Pope excommunicated for having a life-saving abortion after being raped and impregnated, with twins. It seems to me that her age meant she lacked strength to do the job, too. Actually, the job would have killed her.  These things happen. She and 16 million other pregnant adolescent girls a year, two million of whom are under age 15, strike me as 16 million good #reasonstorise.

As does this girl: last Thursday a friend posted a story on Facebook, “Dafne, 9-Year-Old Girl, Gives Birth To Baby Girl In Mexico.” Millions read and shared it over the weekend.  The link appeared with this caption: “The girl reportedly delivered a 5.7 pound baby by Caesarian section on January 27. She was 8-years old when she became pregnant.” Picky, picky feminist wordsmithy me thinks the caption should read, “The girl underwent a dangerous Caesarian surgery to delivery a 5.7 pound baby on January 27. She was 8-years old when a 17-year old boy forcibly inseminated her.”  Eight-year olds cannot consent to sex. They also cannot consent to having contraceptives implanted in their arms, but that’s now happened too. Just in case she gets ideas. On the same day, by coincidence, a 12-year old in Argentina gave birth to twins after she “fell pregnant.” Like she tripped by accident. 

While nine is very young, girls this age having babies is not as rare as we’d like to think. The United States has more “teen” births than any industrialized nation, including girls as young as 10,  and our rates have been climbing.  However, 95 percent of teen births take place in poorer countries. According to W.H.O., “Half of all adolescent births occur in just seven countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and the United States.” Many girls die because they do not have control over their bodies and their own reproduction.

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Last year, after a 10-year old in Columbia gave birth, experts blithely explained that “a C-section delivery for such a young mother is not unusual.” Given global trends (researchers, armed with competing theories, have noted that the average age of the onset of menstruation for girls has been steadily declining for decades) we can reasonably expect to see instances involving younger and younger girls. Little girls, and women who find themselves raped and pregnant often “want to die.” It’s only one reason why raped people shouldn’t be forced to carry pregnancies to term. Guess what else, besides the Papacy, of course, is a “job or life with no retirement age?” Whereas the Pope is retiring to “go back to his priesthood,” girls who are raped, pregnant and give birth or die cannot go back to their childhoods.

This was the conclusion reached by a doctor last year in the case a mentally-disabled girl, 10-years old, in Kansas, who had to have an abortion after becoming pregnant as a result of rape.  The Kansas medical review board that revoked the girl’s doctor’s license.

In Mexico, authorities “don’t know if [the girl] is being entirely truthful.” Mainly because of her age, but interesting choice of words. Is she saying she was raped? Or is she saying she wasn’t? The article linked to doesn’t say which. Turns out she’s saying that the boy was her “boyfriend.” As one commenter speculated, the child “may have even had feelings for” her rapist.  Authorities, in a perverse game of “he said/she said,” acknowledge that they are looking for the missing father, a 17-year old boy, “to acquire his own account of what occurred between the two.” In case he reveals that she was wrong in her assessment and wants to make it clear that he raped her?

Besides, it’s probably her parents fault, not his. “The new mother is one of 11 children… and her parents were unable to watch her while they worked.”  It wouldn’t have mattered, as her mother explained that her daughter had sex willingly and she “didn’t report it because she was not aware” it was a crime.

“Who has 11 children, anyway?” many people wondered. This is perhaps the most important question because another way of asking it is, “Who insists on compulsory pregnancy that impoverishes millions?” Globally, historically, that has been been the Catholic Church, which continues to put girls and women at risk worldwide through bullying policies that ensure that they will be poor and unhealthy as the result of unregulated childbearing and rearing.  This is the same Church that excommunicated a mother and doctors for saving a 9-year old victim’s life by when they ended her pregnancy with twins. Guess who the Church didn’t excommunicate? That’s right, her rapist stepfather.

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, the retiring Pope of the Catholic Church, should be tried in the International Criminal Court of law for human rights abuses, not only for being head of an organization that has shielded and enabled child rapists, but for the deadly and systematic global obstruction of girls’ and women’s rights to life and health. 

In the hospital where Dafne gave birth, 25 percent of the births are to teenage girls.  She lived, but pregnancy is THE leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide.  A thoroughly unholy international alliance between American evangelicals and the Vatican has resulted in the death of millions. While President Obama quickly repealed the “global gag rule” put into place by George Bush, which prohibited even the mention of abortion where US funds were being used for women’s health care abroad, the Helms Amendment, which restricts the use of US aid for the purposes of providing abortions, even in conflict zones where rape is endemic, still stands. It is in no small measure the result of this policy and the influence of the Catholic church that 150 million women cannot get the birth control they need or safe abortions that would save their lives.  We know how to stem these deaths— family planning, including both.  

Meanwhile, here in the US, where Catholic Bishops and friends refuse to comply with the law and religiously-inspired Republican legislators spew venomous mythologies about rape, race, poverty, and women, the rate of maternal mortality has DOUBLED in 25 years. We now rank 50th in the world for pregnancy related morbidity.  In New York City, black girls and women, are eight times more likely than white ones to die from pregnancy related causes. The girls and women dying globally often our poorest, darkest, young girls, regardless of what country they live in. 

“Someone’s 10 years old, and they were raped by their uncle and they understand that they’ve got a baby growing in their stomach and they don’t want that,” explains the doctor in the Kansas case, Dr. Ann Neuhaus. Here, we don’t excommunicate people, we harass them and terrorize them, in some cases, we kill them. Have you seen The Assassination of Dr. Tiller?  Abortion clinic violence wrought by anti-abortion groups is constant and debilitating to those who do this work. In what can only be described as an archaic witch hunt, Kansas revoked Neuhaus’ medical license last year.  They had to take a break from praying that the Violence Against Women Act won’t pass to do it.

When these religious beliefs conspire with political ambition, it’s girls and women who pay the highest price.  Consider the eight men who all voted to block passage of the Violence Against Women Act on Monday. Every woman in the Senate with the exception of Sen. Deb Fisher (R-NE) co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which is now being held up by concerns  that largely hinge on the color of the people involved in cases of abuse and the color of the authorities with jurisdiction over them.  Which is interesting, because in the case of the young girl who gave birth last week, many people think it’s a “Mexican” problem. Hmm.

“What kind of person would sleep with an 8-year old?” (No one was sleeping.)  The kind that has created what Mia Fontaine recently called, “America’s Incest Problem.”  Fontaine rightfully and cogently suggests how it is possible that our institutional rape tolerances have their roots in family and household rape tolerances.  No one wants to model our government more on an abusive, father-knows-best, privacy of the family, patriarchal unit than conservative Republicans using proxies like “states rights” and “lying bitches.” It’s not a random coincidence that people who obstruct the reauthorization of VAWA are those who object to family planning and women’s abilities to control their own bodies and fates.

Just a little more than a month after Governor Rick Scott of Florida held a lovely party at the Governor’s Mansion celebrating the passage of four new abortion restriction laws in that state (a state dedicated to faith-based abstinence programs), a 14-year old girl stuffed a towel into her own mouth, gave birth in her bathroom, feared her parent’s reaction, strangled her newborn, hid it in a shoe box, was discovered and charged with murder as an adult. She faces life imprisonment. She apparently didn’t know she was pregnant when she went into labor.  Before you laugh and think that’s impossible, one study found that in one out of every 7,225 pregnancies a woman is in this situation until the moment of birth.  There are many reasons a woman might be in “pregnancy denial.”

As in Mexico, no one knows where the boy or man involved is either. He does not face murder, nor do the parents, teachers, state legislators or others who failed her.  The girl may, like many kids in abstinence-only situations, not even have known how she got pregnant.  Even if she did she may have taken this to heart:  As one abstinence teacher put it in a Texas classroom, “Go ahead and use a condom. You’ll still be known as a slut.”  If her tragic case isn’t a clear enough example of girl hatred, degradation and misogynistic abuse wrought by a system of oppression, I don’t know what is. And she’s white. And in a wealthy country.

For girls and women, the Pope represents an inconvenient morality.

 

 

This post was updated since it’s original publication. 

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.