Commentary Abortion

Right-Wingers Again Try to Scuttle UN Convention on Rights of Disabled

Adele M. Stan

Last year, Republican senators, led by far-right ideologues Michael Farris and Rick Santorum, defeated ratification of a UN treaty based on the Americans With Disabilities Act. Will they succeed again this year?

If a note of exasperation sounded in the voice of Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, perhaps it’s because he had seen this movie only a year before, but from a different vantage point.

In November 2012, Kerry presided over the Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate, failing to muster the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty, kept the United States from joining the United Nations Convention on Persons With Disabilities, to which 138 nations have signed.

The convention is supported by a range of veterans’ groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, disability-rights groups large and small, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In his new role as secretary of state, Kerry said, “I am seeing, first hand, the need for this treaty in ways I never have before. It is not an abstract concept. This is not just a nice thing to do. It really raises the standards for many, and in countries where children with disabilities are warehoused from birth, denied even a birth certificate; they’re not even a person.”

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It’s comforting to dismiss the paranoid strain in right-wing ideology as the work of an inconsequential fringe, but one need only take stock of the questions asked of Kerry by committee members to see how deeply such outer-orbit groups as the John Birch Society and the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation have come to influence U.S. politics.

Last year, ratification of the convention was scuttled by false assertions by such far-right figures as Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Both have deemed the treaty to be a threat to the parents of home-schooled children, and a danger to the very sovereignty of the United States.

American children who wore glasses, Farris said, could, under the convention, be snatched from their homes by the United Nations. (Farris was a bit less hyperbolic in his appearance before the committee earlier this month.) Santorum then claimed that the treaty could prevent him from home-schooling his disabled daughter, Bella, who has a chromosomal disorder.

Anti-choice groups, meanwhile, have seized upon a section of the convention that guarantees equal treatment among disabled people and those who are not disabled on matters pertaining to reproductive health. Article 25 of the convention reads that states that are party to the convention must:

[p]rovide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes …

In other words, whatever kind of reproductive health benefits and access a nation grants to people who are not disabled, it must also grant to disabled people. That means that in a nation in which a state-sponsored reproductive health program includes abortion or birth control, access to that program must include disabled people. To obscure the fact that groups such as Personhood USA, Concerned Women for America, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) apparently wish to deprive disabled people of the same benefits as the non-disabled, they wrongly claim that section guarantees a right to abortion. Alas, it does not.

What the convention does, ultimately, is assert the kinds of provisions guaranteed under the Americans With Disabilities Act as fundamental human rights. It has no provisions for enforcement, only a commission that can make suggestions to party nations.

Still, that did not stop Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who voted against the convention when it came up for ratification last year, from asking Kerry to refute right-wing claims. The right’s love affair with Rubio ended abruptly when the son of Cuban immigrants embraced a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Then, in July, news broke that, in order to make up for his immigration faux pas, he would be the lead sponsor on the 20-week abortion ban recently introduced in the Senate. But, for some reason, he declined that role, leaving it to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who will likely face at least one Tea Party-allied primary challenger in 2014. (Rubio has signed on to Graham’s 20-week ban bill as a co-sponsor.)

At Thursday’s hearing, Rubio made a point of noting all the email he has received from constituents regarding that pesky section of the UN convention referring to reproductive health, and expressed a desire that an “understanding”—a “RUD” in treaty-speak, for “reservations, understandings or declarations”—be attached to the convention to make clear the U.S. position on Article 25.

Kerry replied that he thought the committee had done a pretty good job crafting an RUD on that issue in 2012 (when Kerry chaired the committee), “by making sure that it didn’t include any language regarding any medical procedure. I think we used the words, ‘medical procedure. … I thought we had threaded that needle very effectively.”

He continued, “But I do want to make it absolutely clear: Nothing in Article 25, or anywhere else in this treaty, creates a right to abortion. That is a domestic legal issue, and nothing in this treaty changes that.”

Rubio, clearly intent on articulating the far right’s greatest hits against the treaty, next moved on to the issue of home-schooling, a false flag hung on a provision in Article 7 of the convention, which states, “In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

In right-wing circles, focus is trained on the phrase “the best interests of the child,” which is misrepresented to the suspicious base as a determination to be made about individual children by the United Nations, which the leery authoritarians assume seeks to indoctrinate children in global-government-run schools.

“U.S. ratification of this treaty will have no impact on parental rights, home-schooling, or any other aspect of U.S. law,” Kerry replied to Rubio. “Now, we added, during the mark-up last year, RUDs—including an understanding proposed by [then] Sen. [Jim] DeMint (R-SC)—to allay the concerns of home-schoolers. I continue to support such an understanding if that will help address their concerns.”

(DeMint resigned from the Senate last year in order to take the helm at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.)

The overarching problem for the right, though, is that matter of national sovereignty—the thing the John Birch Society claims the UN was formed to destroy.

Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered Kerry, in the chairman’s opening round of questions, an opportunity to refute that notion.

“There is no impact on the sovereignty of the United States,” Kerry said. “In fact, we are exercising our sovereignty right now by doing what the Framers of the Constitution envisioned, which is ratifying a treaty. And the treaty doesn’t have any negative consequences on the United States … joining this treaty doesn’t require a change in U.S. law.”

After the hearing, I spoke briefly with Marca Bristo, president of the United States International Council on Disabilities, an umbrella organization for a number of mainstream groups representing disabled constituencies, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Easter Seals, Inc.

Bristo expressed frustration that the false narrative about abortion continued to present an obstacle to getting the convention ratified. “As a feminist, it’s been so hard to watch something that we’ve worked so hard on … find itself in the middle of this very contentious issue,” Bristo said, “and we’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to get past that.”

The Article 25 language on reproductive and sexual health, Bristo said, is “a non-discrimination provision put in place because people with disabilities, all over the world, are denied the same access to health services of their non-disabled counterparts. That includes women with disabilities, so the only thing that that provision says is: If you offer women mammograms, then you have to let women with disabilities have them.” Or gynecological exams, or birth control—or access to abortion, if the nation that has signed on to the treaty offers abortion to women who are not disabled.

But, Bristo notes, another part of the treaty also aims to protect women from being forced to have abortions they do not want, and to ensure that disabled babies will be permitted to live.

“[A]nother part of the treaty … talks about the right to life,” Bristo explained. “The reason that that language was important, not only to the Vatican and to others who were on the ‘right to life’ side of things, but also to those of us in the disability community, is because in many places around the world women with disabilities are not allowed to give birth.” Some are sterilized, or in some countries women who are found to be carrying a fetus with anomalies are forced to have abortions. In some nations, babies born with disabilities are deprived of food and water until they die, Bristo said. And the treaty forbids all of those things.

“So this is a life-affirming, family-supporting treaty,” said Bristo, who uses a wheelchair. “And all we women with disabilities want is the same treatment as women around the world who aren’t people with disabilities.”

Commentary Abortion

A Fact-Based Guide to Resisting Anti-Choice Propaganda in the Wake of the Attack on Planned Parenthood

Andrea Grimes

The phrases being thrown around by conservative legislators and organizations aren't medical terms. They're intentionally deceptive bits of propaganda, and they create an anti-choice political frame for conversations about abortion care that are not rooted in sound science and medicine.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress video here.

After the release of a deliberately misleading cut of a video targeting Planned Parenthood for its policies regarding fetal tissue donation, the Texas Attorney General said his office is investigating Planned Parenthood for the “sale of baby body parts.” A number of other states, as well as federal lawmakers, have pledged to do the same thing for these “babies.” The Pro-Life Students Association told its members that Planned Parenthood was selling “the body parts of aborted babies.” A Personhood USA email talked about “preborn human beings.”

These aren’t medical terms. They’re intentionally deceptive bits of propaganda, and they create an anti-choice political frame for conversations about abortion care that are not rooted in sound science and medicine.

But oftentimes, even people who care deeply about reproductive rights aren’t sure how to talk about abortion in the most accurate way. Rewire talked to OB-GYNs and abortion providers—you know, actual doctors!—to compile a list of phrases and terms you’ll often hear during conversations about abortion care, their definitions, and their scientifically correct usage…if, in fact, there is a scientifically correct usage.

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Last menstrual period, LMP: For accuracy’s sake, doctors generally measure pregnancies in weeks, rather than months, and LMP is the measure by which the vast majority of medical professionals calculate the weekly development of an embryo or fetus. It is calculated from the first day of the pregnant person’s last menstrual period. In the first trimester, many doctors use both LMP and an ultrasound to date a pregnancy. However, ultrasounds become less reliable for dating purposes as a pregnancy develops, said one doctor, “because of variations in fetal growth rates as well as margin of error of the technology.” So LMP gives doctors a good overall idea of the length of the pregnancy, and ultrasounds help them monitor fetal development.

Fertilization: The process during which an egg cell (“oocyte,” the thing that ovaries produce) unites with sperm (the thing that testicles produce), to create a zygote, the earliest stage of reproductive development.

Conception: A “metaphysical” term rather than a medical term, which “centers the zygote as a being,” according to an abortion provider who talked to Rewire.

Beginning of Pregnancy: When a fertilized egg successfully implants in the uterine wall. (Or, in cases of ectopic pregnancies, which are unsustainable and life-threatening to the pregnant person, when the fertilized egg implants elsewhere.)

Gestational age: This is a deliberately misleading term (sometimes called “post-fertilization age) that is not widely accepted in scientific use and misapplies the concept of “age” to an embryo or fetus in order to imbue it with the kind of “age” we might think of a child, teenager, or grown adult having. Doctors and other medical professionals, when discussing pregnancy, are not concerned with “age” but with the duration of a pregnancy (in weeks) and the development of that pregnancy. It is generally not possible to reliably pin down the moment of fertilization, so doctors don’t try—they stick with LMP and ultrasounds.

Embryo: The stage of development, in humans, up to nine weeks’ LMP.

Fetus: The stage of development from 10 weeks after LMP until birth.

Products of conception: A medical term to describe the embryonic or fetal contents of a uterus and attendant tissues. “Products of conception isn’t a euphemism,” one abortion provider told Rewire. “It’s an actual proper term [which] encompasses fetus, umbilical cord, membranes, placenta, etc.” If products of conception are present in a uterus, it signals that a pregnancy is not ectopic, wherein a fertilized egg implants somewhere other than a uterus.

Medical, or medication, abortion: An abortion using pharmaceuticals. Most medical abortions are prescribed using a combination of mifepristone (also called Mifeprex or RU-486), which blocks the hormone progesterone (which a body needs in order to continue a pregnancy) and misoprostol (also called Cytotec), which induces contractions.

Emergency contraception: Also known as the “morning-after pill,” it is not the same thing, repeat, NOT the same thing, as a medical abortion. This medication, which can be taken up to a few days after unprotected sex—with certain limitations depending on pharmaceutical content and patient characteristics—prevents, delays, or blocks ovulation, preventing fertilization (without which there can be no fertilized egg and no pregnancy).

Dilation and curettage (D and C): Falls under the category of “surgical abortion,” is also known as an “aspiration” abortion, and is done up to about 13 weeks’ LMP. It’s a medical procedure which requires less dilation than a D and E—”It’s always safer not to enter the uterus with forceps if you don’t need to,” said one provider we spoke to—and uses a suction method to remove products of conception. Why curettage, then? Because older providers were trained to do a sharp curettage, or scraping, after suction, but abortion providers who have been trained more recently tend not to do so. The “c” part of “D and C” stays in because  the suction cannula is sometimes called a “suction curette.”

Dilation and evacuation (D and E): Falls under the category of “surgical abortion.” It’s a medical procedure which involves dilating the cervix (think 1.5 to 2.5 centimeters, as opposed to the 10 centimeters required for a full-term delivery) and a doctor entering the uterus with forceps, usually after about 14 weeks’ LMP depending on fetal development. Forceps are needed to grasp and remove the products of conception. Before the D and E procedure was developed, pregnant people would’ve had to have labor inductions in a hospital setting to facilitate the removal of fetal tissue. D and E procedures, widely misunderstood by anti-choice lawmakers, are recent targets for unnecessarily intrusive legislation that puts pregnant people at risk and prevents doctors from performing the safest possible procedures.

Partial-birth abortion: Not a thing. Well, it’s a string of words put together to make a phrase, so it’s a thing in the sense that a phrase is a noun, but medically, it has no meaning whatsoever. According to one abortion provider, it’s “not a distinction we make.” Instead, abortion providers are concerned with removing the products of conception safely. “A more intact removal, if you have adequate dilation, is safer for the patient,” said the provider, because the doctor makes fewer passes into the uterus. But it’s not something doctors can or do plan for: “You don’t deliberately set out to do an intact extraction, and sometimes you do one by accident.”

Induced abortion: When a pregnancy is ended using medication or surgical abortion care.

Self-induced abortion: When a pregnant person ends their pregnancy outside of a clinical setting.

Spontaneous abortion: A miscarriage.

Stillbirth: The spontaneous loss of a pregnancy (a miscarriage) that has developed past 20 weeks.

Viability: Many laypeople imagine the point of “viability” to mean the threshold at which a fetus is capable of surviving outside the uterus, but that threshold is different for every pregnancy, and greatly dependent on available medical care and existing technology. Generally speaking, medical professionals believe viability begins around 24 weeks’ LMP, and they take into account the likelihood not only of survival, but of disability and quality of life, when weighing potential fetal viability.

Neonate: An infant younger than four weeks old.

Baby: Not a medical term, but nevertheless a word that obstetricians and gynecologists do sometimes use when talking with patients, depending on their patient’s condition, situation, and personal preferences—not as an across-the-board replacement for “zygote,” “embryo,” or “fetus” in order to manipulate their patients’ emotions. Dr. Leah N. Torres, a Utah-based OB-GYN with a focus and training in family planning and reproductive health, told Rewire, “I change my language depending on the patient I’m caring for and their individual situation.” For people who might be losing desired pregnancies, said Torres, “that fetus has a high school diploma and is getting married once the urine test is positive”—in other words, that’s what some patients have imagined for the future—so she’s comfortable using “baby.” For someone having an abortion, Torres said she might be more likely to use “pregnancy” or “fetus.” But overall, she said, she prefers “to use the catch-all term ‘pregnancy’ which is medical and neutral and applies to all stages of the pregnancy.”

Person: A born human being who is not currently the occupant of a uterus and not therefore dependent on a human uterus for their continued development. I’ll let Torres take the rest of this one: “A person is a social or philosophical construct that, if applied to fetuses, will necessarily revoke the personhood of the pregnant person due to the ‘power’ imbalance and physical dependence of one upon the other. Miscarriage as involuntary manslaughter, if you will.”

News Human Rights

Ted Cruz, Mike Lee Introduce Bill to Stem Benefits to Same-Sex Spouses

Adele M. Stan

With virtually no chance of passage in the current Congress, the Cruz-Lee bill appears to be motivated by politics.

As the winter snows put a freeze on congressional action, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) took advantage of the lull on Thursday to introduce S. 2024, a bill that would empower the states to decide whether to extend the rights accorded to married couples in the federal justice system to legally married same-sex spouses.

In a statement announcing their so-called State Marriage Defense Act, the Tea Party-allied senators called the Supreme Court’s historic decision in United States v. Windsor, which effectively overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), “improperly” decided and an infringement of the sovereignty of the states under the Tenth Amendment.

The move by Cruz and Lee appears to have been prompted by the February 8 announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would afford same-sex spouses the same rights and privileges that opposite-sex married couples enjoy when dealing with the federal justice system, regardless of whether the state in which the DOJ claims jurisdiction on a particular matter recognizes marriages between members of the same sex. These include a prohibition on requiring spouses to testify against one another, as well as spousal privileges between inmates in federal prisons.

“The Obama Administration should not be trying to force gay marriage on all 50 states,” Cruz said in a written statement. “We should respect the states, and the definition of marriage should be left to democratically elected legislatures, not dictated from Washington. This bill will safeguard the ability of states to preserve traditional marriage for its residents.”

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With virtually no chance of passage in the current Congress, the Cruz-Lee bill appears to be motivated by politics. Cruz is often cited as a potential candidate for the 2016 presidential race, and has a knack for drawing attention to himself, as he did when he convinced Tea Party-allied members of the House of Representatives to shut down down the federal government in October—a move that played badly with the general public, but won approval from the right-wing base that turns out in Republican presidential primaries.

Lee, on the other hand, suffered a drop in popularity since the government shutdown, after he joined Cruz’s filibuster-like marathon speech arguing for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in exchange for the passage of the continuing resolution that was needed to keep the government open. But in Utah, where politics are dominated by the anti-LGBT Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith home of Mormons, Lee is likely eager to change the subject back to a topic that enjoys more popular support in his home state. A recent ruling by a federal judge that overturned Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage created an uproar when it was issued in December. It has since been stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both Lee and Cruz are inflexibly anti-choice. At the 2013 Values Voter Summit convened by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, Cruz falsely claimed that, under Obamacare, Christian businesses would be faced to offer “abortifacients” to their employees.

In 2012, Lee led the charge against ratification of the United Nations Convention on Persons With Disabilities, in part because of a false claim that a section of the treaty that guaranteed equal access to reproductive health services by disabled people granted a universal right to abortion.