Commentary Abortion

Mexico’s Abortion Wars, American-Style

Kathryn Joyce

After Mexico City liberalized its abortion law, a fierce backlash followed. Is its striking resemblance to the U.S. “pro-life” movement a coincidence?

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and originally published in the September 16 issue of The Nation.

On May 1, a familiar anti-abortion story line played out on Azteca 13, a popular television channel in Mexico. In the opening scenes of an episode of Lo Que Callamos Las Mujeres (What We Women Keep Silent), a Lifetime-like telenovela series about “real-life” stories, a pretty brunette with a heart-shaped face, Alondra, discovers she is pregnant when overtaken by a sudden bout of morning sickness. Her sister Sofía is concerned, but later that night, when Alondra’s boorish boyfriend comes home and she breaks the news, he asks if it’s his, then tells her to abort.

Alondra complies and, in a series of hazy scenes, visits a clandestine abortion provider. But she’s haunted by what she has done, and is awoken at night by phantom baby cries that send her searching throughout her apartment until she collapses on the living room floor, her white pajama bottoms soaked through with blood. Her illegal abortion was botched, it turns out, and by terminating her pregnancy, a doctor tells her sister, she has forfeited her fertility as well. Some weeks later, Alondra’s boyfriend is accosted on the street by another woman, also pregnant by him, who begs him to acknowledge his future child. Sheepishly, he does, shrugging as he tells Alondra, “I’m going to be a papa,” before walking out the door to be with the other woman—the one who didn’t abort.

The message seems clear enough, but the story doesn’t end there. Two years later, when Alondra meets a good man who wants a family, she pushes the memory of the abortion out of her mind. In a state of manic delusion, she experiences a hysterical pregnancy, her belly swelling with her hopes, until Sofía forces her to see a doctor and Alondra breaks down, confronted with her unresolved grief. As Alondra again lies in a hospital bed, two years wiser and infinitely sadder, the doctor hands her a pamphlet. On its back cover, facing the camera, is the logo of the Instituto para la Rehabilitación de la Mujer y la Familia, or IRMA, a Mexican Catholic ministry that offers counseling for women suffering “post-abortion syndrome”—the medically unrecognized claim that terminating a pregnancy leads to serious psychological trauma.

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The May episode of Lo Que Callamos was one of several instances in which IRMA was invited to suggest a “true-life” story line for the show, broadcasting to millions of viewers its message that abortion causes devastating harm to women and their families. One episode alone had generated some 200 calls and 400 emails to IRMA in a single day, said María del Carmen Alva López, IRMA’s president and founder, when I met her last October.

“They take a real story from us, a real history, and then at the end the lady goes to IRMA and receives help,” explained Alva, a cheerful 42-year-old with beauty-pageant poise. In a lush Mexico City suburb full of gated houses, Alva sat me down on a pleather loveseat in IRMA’s small, stucco-walled counseling room. The bookshelves outside were lined with copies of Alva’s book, Y después del aborto, ¿que? (And After the Abortion, What?), and in her hands she held a thick binder containing the results of a survey of 135 clients. Of these 135 “post-abortive” women, said Alva, her smile dimming and her eyes heavy with sympathy, IRMA estimates that 70 percent have clinical depression and 10 percent have attempted suicide. Results like these, she says, prove that post-abortion syndrome is real.

That these numbers are gathered from a self-selecting group of women who have sought out IRMA’s services doesn’t dampen Alva’s conviction that all Mexican women need to hear how abortion can hurt them. They especially need to hear it now, Alva believes. It’s been six years since first-trimester abortions were decriminalized in Mexico’s Distrito Federal, home to Mexico City, and more and more Mexican women are gradually learning about their limited right to choose—although abortion rights advocates fear this message hasn’t yet made its way to provincial, working-class women.

In this atmosphere, the claims about post-abortion syndrome and other supposed risks advanced by groups like IRMA are having real effects. According to Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, director of the Mexican chapter of the international abortion rights group Ipas and a former OB-GYN who served in Mexico’s Ministry of Health, a 2012 study suggests that Mexican women decide whether or not to have an abortion based not on their religion, politics, or socioeconomic status, but rather on their fears that an abortion will hurt or kill them. The main difference for women, said Schiavon, is whether or not they’ve received information that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, depression, or suicide—exactly the information IRMA is helping to spread around the nation.

“They’ve gotten out the message that abortion is unsafe and dangerous,” Schiavon said. Ironically, she added, “That is the case when it’s illegal.”

When Mexico City’s law changed in 2007, allowing elective abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it was a substantial victory for reproductive rights advocates in a country, and a region, where the Catholic Church dominates daily life. Across Latin America, access to legal abortion is a rarity, and in 2007, all eyes turned to Mexico City to see how the experiment would play out—and whether it could be replicated. To date, only Uruguay has followed Mexico City in liberalizing its abortion law, and this June, the world watched as El Salvador denied a lifesaving abortion to a woman known as Beatriz for five months before finally allowing a c-section delivery for the nonviable fetus.

After decriminalization, however, a fierce backlash unfurled across Mexico. In the first three years, half of the country’s 31 provinces passed new constitutional amendments enshrining abortion bans—two of which were just upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court this May. As a result of the amendments passed after 2007 in 18 Mexican states, women in the provinces are increasingly being prosecuted for “attempted abortion,” often reported by hospital staff when they seek help after self-abortions, unsupervised use of the medical abortion drug misoprostol, or unsafe back-alley terminations.

Regina Tames, a lawyer and executive director of the reproductive rights advocacy group GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), worked with several of the dozens of women being prosecuted for attempted abortion in 2012. If convicted, some of these women could face up to six years in jail, while others would be sentenced to fines or community service. Many were already condemned in their communities after newspapers printed their pictures and identified them as criminals and baby killers.

In Mexico’s so-called Rosary Belt, a band of ultraconservative states like Jalisco and Guanajuato in the center of the nation, anti-abortion advocates and other traditionalists are embracing U.S.-style culture war tactics and rhetoric. Conservative Mexican Catholics have mobilized across the provinces to Catholicize public school education, block public health announcements for condoms, and even destroy public school books that contain comprehensive sex ed. Some anti-abortion activists have marched under a powerful old symbol: the flag of the 1920s Cristero War, which pitted devout Catholics against a secularizing government that persecuted religious expression. The bloody conflict resulted in atrocities on both sides, including priests being executed among their flocks—some since canonized as martyrs of the faith—and a 2012 film about the war has resonated with conservatives in both Mexico and the United States. (U.S. Catholic commentator George Weigel recently went so far as to compare the contraception mandate in Obamacare to the legacy of the persecuted Cristeros.) Waving the flag now helps cast the terms of Mexico’s current abortion debate as a new clash in an ongoing war over religious freedom. Some abortion rights advocates say there’s a sense that today’s Mexican right “has the Cristero spirit again.”

Next to the harsh penalties of criminalization and the simmering threat of culture war, groups like IRMA and its peers seem to offer a softer, gentler approach to the anti-abortion cause. When I spoke with María del Carmen Alva López, she was preparing to meet with the ministry’s partners at Vifac, a nearby maternity home that houses women who have been convinced not to abort. Both IRMA and Vifac count themselves as part of a network of anti-abortion groups in Mexico, along with a proliferating number of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that are adopting the same ostensibly women-centered focus that has marked the modern U.S. anti-abortion movement.

On a sunny day in October, a 29-year-old Mexican-American woman named Katia walked into a CPC in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Anzures, explaining that she thought she might be pregnant. After Katia entered and gave her name, she was taken to a back room by a Catholic volunteer, who asked her why she didn’t want her baby. If she was pregnant, the volunteer suggested, she should marry her boyfriend or, barring that, accept the center’s offer of a place to stay where her parents wouldn’t have to know. The CPC staffers told Katia that they would perform an ultrasound to show her the fetus, but first she was legally obligated to watch a video: a four-part movie starting with the miracle of life and proceeding to a graphic abortion, interspersed with testimony from women who had variously given birth to their babies and were happy, or who had chosen abortion and were devastated. When a CPC staffer who claimed to be a nurse finally performed the ultrasound, she puzzled at length over the image on the screen before suggesting that Katia was probably seven-and-a-half weeks pregnant. When she left, they handed her a lollipop.

Katia’s experience would be nothing out of the ordinary in heartland America, where CPCs have been a fixture since the 1960s. What’s new is that this model has been exported to Mexico, where anti-abortion groups have established more than 40 CPCs in recent years.

Frequently posing as medical facilities, and often located right next door to actual abortion clinics, CPCs function by attracting women with free pregnancy tests and implied offers of abortion services, only to ambush them with graphic videos, intensive anti-abortion coercion, and strategic misinformation. (Some in the United States have even been sanctioned for fraud.) Now, thanks to the expanding reach of American evangelical and Catholic anti-abortion activists, CPCs are becoming important players in the abortion debates overseas, in countries as varied as Ethiopia, Israel, Serbia, and South Africa. Mexico is just one of the 47 nations where Heartbeat International, an anti-abortion network based in Ohio, now has partner centers. Heartbeat International, which represents more than 1,000 similar centers in the United States and 1,800 groups worldwide, has partnered with a Spanish-language website to track and promote Mexican CPCs as well. In fact, it was Heartbeat International’s website that had listed the Mexico City CPC that Katia—who was actually my translator—visited.

In Mexico, the history of CPCs (in Spanish, centros de ayuda para mujeres, or CAMs) begins with Jorge Serrano Limón, founder of the early Mexican anti-abortion group National Pro-Life Committee, or ProVida. In 1989, Serrano Limón traveled to New Orleans for a conference put on by Human Life International (HLI), an American group whose ultraconservative Catholic founder, the late Father Paul Marx, charged that Jews control the abortion “industry.” In Louisiana, Serrano Limón (who has his own unsavory connections with a Nazi-sympathizing Mexican historian) met HLI staff and CPC founders who inspired him to set up his own center in Mexico, fighting abortion before it was even legal.

Serrano Limón fell into disgrace in the mid-2000s, as ProVida became the focus of an embarrassing embezzlement scandal known as “Tanga-Gate” (Thong-Gate)—in which government funds meant to buy ultrasound equipment were instead spent on unauthorized purchases, including women’s clothing and thong underwear. Pro-choice activists gleefully took the opportunity to protest Serrano Limón’s appearances by waving cheap thongs at him in public. But HLI continued to sponsor Mexican and Latin American CAMs.

Greg Berger, a U.S.-born documentary filmmaker living in Mexico, made a film about Mexico’s CAMs in 2008, El Derecho de Decidir en Paz (The Right to Choose in Peace). Implicit in the centers’ rise was a tactical shift: from Mexico’s version of noisy clinic protests—amplified sessions of praying the rosary directed at entering patients—to appearing instead to offer women help in making an informed choice. “I think they found that it was much better to pretend that they were providing information about abortions,” Berger says, “a much better technique than the fetus-in-a-jar model.”

After Tanga-Gate, ProVida seemed to take another lesson from the United States, where women have risen to leadership positions in the anti-abortion movement, when it named a female president, Rocío Gálvez, whose promotion was announced while she was pregnant. “She was [presented as] a pregnant woman who was proud to bring life,” recalled Eugenia López Uribe, a radical young activist who is executive coordinator of the sexual rights group Balance, which works on both reproductive and LGBT rights.

This shift not only mirrored the U.S. anti-abortion movement’s trajectory but also marked a moment when U.S. partners began exerting more influence. At Gálvez’s inauguration celebration in an expensive Mexico City hotel, recalls López Uribe, the featured speakers were all from the United States, and the organizers even screened an anti-abortion video clearly made in the States and featuring an African-American baby.

Since Serrano Limón’s first CPC, Mexican CAMs have grown to several dozen and today claim to have served some 60,000 women and prevented 51,000 abortions. Mostly, the CAMs approach women as they’re heading into clinics or hospitals. Ever since Mexico City’s decriminalization in 2007, CAMs have been setting up small booths on the walkways into clinics, amid stands vending candy and food for hospital visitors. With a banner overhead offering information about abortion, the stands intentionally appear as an official part of the hospital’s intake procedure. If women stop, CAM staffers try to transport them to their remote centers, luring them to a van with the promise of a safer, cleaner, and faster abortion clinic nearby.

For women in a city where abortion is newly legal—an island of access in a country devoid of it—the CAMs’ message is disorienting. The advertisements for these “crisis centers,” including posters along Mexico City streets, make the same ambiguous offer that can be seen in New York City subway cars: “If you’re pregnant, we can help.”

“The message [of decriminalization] has not arrived to the most vulnerable, poorest, least-educated women,” says Ipas’s Raffaela Schiavon, who suspects that most working-class migrant women, often serving as domestics for Mexico City’s elite, aren’t aware of their rights and are therefore the most likely to be taken in.

Women who go with the CAM volunteers are likely to experience the same protocol that has been extensively documented in the United States. They are shown graphic videos about how aborted fetuses cry for their mothers. They are given a letter to read “from a fetus,” forgiving its mother for aborting. They are invited to stay with the CAM’s partner maternity home.

“They have all these choices,” says López Uribe: “‘What are you scared of? That your family will find out? Perfect—we’ll send a letter that you were accepted to a school, and we will take you to the [maternity] house and nobody will ever know.’” In her OB-GYN practice, Schiavon says she sometimes encountered new mothers who came to the hospital from provincial maternity homes, where they’d been cloistered away from family and friends and hadn’t felt free to leave.

But even for women who know to avoid the CAM booths, their very presence undermines the culture of safe access that advocates are trying to foster in Mexico City. “We’re trying to build an environment of rights—that we have this law and that you can exercise your rights,” López Uribe says. “When you have to tell [patients], ‘If you see this stand, don’t go to it, go straight; don’t pay attention to the people praying,’ it makes them feel like they’re doing something wrong.”

It’s no coincidence that the Spanish-language pamphlets that the CAMs hand out bear the exact same pictures of mangled fetuses as the anti-abortion protest signs on the Washington Mall. On the back of one gory leaflet collected by López Uribe’s group Balance, a black-and-white tract with images of dismembered second-trimester fetuses under the caption “human trash,” there is listed, in small type, the name and address of its publisher—in Cincinnati, Ohio. And when Mexican women show up at a CAM, it’s often an American movie they see: a subtitled version of the gruesome anti-abortion classic The Silent Scream.

To Mexico’s pro-choice community, the ties between the Mexican and U.S. anti-abortion movements are so blatant as to be self-evident. There is funding flowing from North to South, but probably more important is the wholesale migration of the U.S. anti-abortion model. “Serrano Limón went and took courses in the United States, networked, and got ready,” explained Sofía Román Montes, coordinator at the pro-choice group Equidad de Género. “He used tactics from the U.S.: The Silent Scream, the screaming at women, the vans with ultrasounds. That was all from the United States. Nothing is made here.”

Well, there might be one part of the Mexican CAMs that is indigenous, a sort of local twist. Though my translator Katia emerged from her visit to the CAM with the suggestion that she was nearly two months pregnant, the ultrasound reading was false: Katia was not pregnant. According to Mexican reproductive rights groups, such false diagnoses by CAMs are routine, with widespread reports of women being shown ultrasound images of fetuses far more advanced than they could possibly be carrying—for example, a woman early in her first trimester being shown images from a late-second-term pregnancy—as well as numerous instances of women who were not pregnant being shown an ultrasound of their “baby.”

Abortion rights advocates believe that the CAMs are showing prerecorded videos instead of actual ultrasounds. When a non-pregnant student working with Balance went to a clinic, she was shown an ultrasound image of a 13-week-old fetus. And Equidad de Género’s Román Montes seconded the experience: every time she’s sent employees into CAMs undercover, she says, “all of our workers come out pregnant, too.”

* * *

Like the CAMs, María Del Carmen Alva López’s group IRMA was similarly inspired by the U.S. anti-abortion movement. Twenty-five years ago, Alva conducted her college thesis work on U.S. anti-abortion movement leaders, interviewing many at Project Rachel, the Catholic Church’s official post-abortion ministry, which has chapters in more than 110 U.S. dioceses. Alva dreamed of setting up her own group in Mexico. After a colleague in Monterrey offered to translate Project Rachel’s materials for her, she started her own organization and assembled a team of counselors.

Today, IRMA offers individual counseling and special Bible-study weekend retreats for women who have had abortions, modeling their therapy on a support group manual written and sold by Rachel’s Vineyard—another U.S. organization that takes its name from the biblical Rachel, who mourns her dead children, this one founded by the New York-based anti-abortion group Priests for Life. On Rachel’s Vineyard’s website, IRMA is listed as the group’s Mexican partner.

Last year, an official of Human Life International spoke of visiting “as many key players as possible” to help coordinate the fight against Mexico’s “culture of death.” HLI also sponsored the creation of a large-scale, online anti-abortion resource site in Latin America. The Knights of Columbus send money. And on it goes.

Reproductive rights advocates say that with this support, the anti-abortion movement in Mexico has built a strong advocacy network to rival that of feminist NGOs, growing beyond the initial activism of the Catholic Church and ProVida to a coalition of hundreds, with new groups sprouting up “like mushrooms.” One “pro-family” leader in Mexico, Red Familia, aligns hundreds of partner organizations on a shared traditionalist platform. Red Familia is itself part of a larger network, the American-based global conservative coalition called the World Congress of Families. The WCF is an interfaith right-wing group that condemns the international expansion of abortion and LGBT rights as a form of U.S. cultural imperialism, forcing decadent liberal social mores on allegedly orthodox, traditional nations.

It seems like a laughable accusation, given conservatives’ own abundant overseas networking, but it’s a familiar argument to filmmaker Berger, who was inspired to make his 2008 film on CAMs by the frustrating popularity of the charge that abortion rights are a form of “Yankee imperialism” aimed at limiting Latino birth rates. There’s a reason why the story has appeal: The shameful history of abusive population control measures enacted on the developing world, often by U.S. groups or with U.S. money, give potency to the claim that abortion rights are a form of contemporary eugenics being forced by Americans onto a life-loving Catholic people. But what Berger found instead was that the reverse was true. While Mexico’s Catholicism may be indisputable, the recipe for its “pro-vida” movement was the true U.S. export: its leaders trained and supported in the United States, its activism model a mirror image of the U.S. one.

Mexican women, on the other hand, have needed and obtained abortions since long before colonialism. “The desire for a woman to end her pregnancy when she doesn’t want to carry to term isn’t an import from the U.S.,” said Berger. “That’s something that women go through every day and is a personal experience—not somehow imported from abroad.”

Nor is Mexico’s Catholic heritage everything that the “pro-vida” activists claim. In an attempt to counter IRMA’s widely broadcast message, the pro-choice group Catholics for Choice-Mexico has begun airing a short, regular animation series, Catolicadas, on a TV news program, advancing the idea that being a good Catholic can include supporting reproductive rights.

For some Mexican pro-choice advocates, that heritage—and the different tradition of Catholicism they practice—is already the backbone of their activism. A woman I’ll call Ramona, an abortion provider working illegally in the state of Morelos, says it was precisely growing up Catholic in Morelos—a cradle of Mexico’s liberation theology movement in the 1970s and ’80s—that made her pro-choice. She can recall the moment when a Catholic teacher in her radical church asked the class whether they thought it was acceptable for a woman to have an abortion. The students were told to answer by moving to one side of the room or the other, and Ramona found herself alone on her side.

Though abortion rights were anathema to Catholic doctrine, Ramona said, everything else the church had taught her about the fight for justice convinced her that it was right for a woman to be able to choose, and that other Catholics might come to see that. “Jesus, for me, was another person fighting for justice. It’s why it’s easy for me to be where I am. It was a chance to say the struggle is here in the world, not in heaven.”

For more from this issue of The Nation, click here.

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.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.