The Debut of RealityCast with Amanda Marcotte

In this debut edition of our weekly podcast host Amanda Marcotte pokes at Catholic Insight's article calling Harry Potter the "archetype of the abortion survivor," interviews Martha Kempner of SIECUS and answers an important mailbag question you won't want to miss.

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Links in this episode of RealityCast:

Catholic Insight – Harry Potter: The archetype of an abortion survivor
CNN – God's Warriors
Pandagon – History of EC Debate
Rewire – Plan B's Triumph and Challenges


Welcome to Rewire's RealityCast, where we inject some facts into the sex and reproductive health debate. I'm your host, Amanda Marcotte, and this week's edition is the debut episode of RealityCast. Every week I'll be bringing you news, opinion, and advice on sexual health issues, as well as interviews with some of the prominent names in sexual health advocacy.

The final installment of the Harry Potter series was released last month, and now that the big reveals are over, it's time to start analyzing the novels to death. The great thing about novels of any quality, of course, is that you can read your own meanings into them. I know I did when I was reading the section of the book where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were wandering out in the woods alone for months, bored out of their minds. I kept wondering how they could be in that situation for so long without a single pregnancy scare or STD transmission. It occurred to me that Hogwarts is a good school and probably had comprehensive sex education. Hermione could probably conjure up a fine barrier charm. "Wrapis latexus!"

Unfortunately, the socially conservative magazine Catholic Insight managed to suck all the fun out of over-analyzing fantasy fiction with their recent article titled "Harry Potter: The archetype of an abortion survivor" by Marie Peeters-Ney and Philip G. Ney. The thesis of this article? That the popularity of the Harry Potter books is due to the subconscious relief an entire generation feels about "surviving" abortion. A choice quote:

Much has been written about the Potter series and considerable controversy has arisen about it. However, there has not, to our knowledge, been anything written which analyzes some of the deeper reasons for the success of the Potter series.

Which I personally consider a huge shame, because it seems to me that these stories of lone heroes born in obscurity and rising to power to defeat great evils keep cropping up and no one notices. Maybe PBS could do a special or something, bring back Bill Moyers to interview someone like Joseph Campbell, maybe. I bet they'd come up with some interesting ideas. But since abortion probably wouldn't come up even once, I doubt the Catholic Insight writers would be too interested in a special like that.

Peeters-Ney and Ney have a theory that an entire generation has grown up upset that they ran a risk of never having been born because of abortion, which explains why children are drawn to the Harry Potter series. Since they seem to think that "abortion survivor syndrome" is a new thing, a result of Roe v. Wade, it makes me wonder why people liked stories of heroes surviving a series of traumas going all the way back to ancient mythology. Perhaps people in the past were suffering from the dread fear that their parents might have chosen to sleep instead of have sex the night they were conceived. Or maybe people suffered from the fear that some other sperm might have made it to the egg first.

The list of symptoms of abortion survivors suspiciously reads like a list of symptoms of being a human being, including the fear of death, the desire for power, good looks, and money, the wish to be wanted by people instead of merely tolerated, and preferring to hang out with your peers instead of your parents. It bears mentioning that throughout the series, Harry shows a strong desire to be near his parents that he's never known, but the authors leave that inconvenient fact out of their analysis of the parent-rejecting post-Roe baby. Because in the eyes of anti-choice fanatics, everything is about abortion.

Speaking of, I hope that everyone had a chance to check out Christine Amanpour's series "God's Warriors" on CNN. There were three episodes following Jewish, Muslim, and Christian fundamentalists, the last being the group that has the most direct effect on our laws and rights here in the United States. What was really interesting was Amanpour got the last interview with Jerry Falwell before he passed away, and he retracted his former apology for blaming the events of September 11th on various right wing boogeymen. He blamed American citizens for the attack yet again, singling out abortion, of course, as the primary and possibly only source of all ills in the world.

>> Falwell audio clip <<

It would be nice to write off folks like the authors at Catholic Insight or Jerry Falwell as marginal characters, but unfortunately people suffering under these delusions have a great deal of power and influence.

>> Amanda interviews Martha Kempner of SIECUS. Sorry no transcript of the interview available. <<

The past couple of weeks have been something of a celebration of the one year anniversary of a victory that reproductive health advocates never thought we'd win—the FDA approval of over the counter sales of emergency contraception, usually sold under the brand name Plan B. I really hope someone writes a book someday detailing out the battle to sell Plan B legally over the counter. It's really the perfect subject for a full length book. Not only was the battle over a number of years, but it ended up being a defining moment in a lot of lives.

Nation magazine dug around for information on Bush appointee Dr. David Hagar, who was one of the members of the FDA who kept claiming that he didn't think Plan B was safe, and the Nation found and reported that Dr. Hagar's ex-wife had divorced him in no small part because he was all too willing to give her drugs so she'd have trouble fending him off when he wanted to have anal sex with her in her sleep. Dr. Hagar refused comment on the allegations.

The irony in all this is while Dr. Hagar's ex-wife accuses him of giving her drugs to make her more compliant to the sex he wanted whether she liked it or not, he has a long history of opposing women's right to use medical intervention so they can have the sex they want, even if no one is hurt by it. His cited safety concerns around Plan B fell way out of the usual standards of proof for FDA approvals, so there's no reason to believe that he made himself an obstacle for any other reason than his religious and political opposition to a woman's choice. We are talking about a man who used to prescribe the power of prayer to female patients suffering from PMS, which makes me wonder if prayer wouldn't work a bit better with an assist from a bottle of Midol.

Dr. Hagar was supposed to just be an advisor on a larger panel at the FDA, and the bulk of the panel advised that emergency contraception be sold over the counter in 2003. In a highly irregular move, though, the FDA went against the majority of the panel's wishes, which Ayelish McGarvey at the Nation claimed was due in large part to Dr. Hagar's interference. His influence on the decision was completely out of line with the standards and practices at the FDA, and he resigned in 2005 under a firestorm of complaints.

The politicization of the emergency contraception debate got so out of hand that Dr. Susan Wood, assistant commissioner of women's health at the FDA, resigned in protest in 2005 as well. She's since been touring the country, trying to raise awareness of the threats to women's rights under the conservative anti-feminist backlash that has gained so much momentum in the past few years.

But the real reason, in my mind, that someone needs to write a book about this is the phrase "sex-based cults". During the many, many flare-ups of craziness that attended the drawn-out approval process at the FDA, the most comical had to be the leaking of a memo by agency medical officer Dr. Curtis Rosebraugh, where he accused deputy operations commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock of having what you might call misplaced concerns about emergency contraception. From his memo:

"As an example, she [Woodcock] stated that we could not anticipate, or prevent extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B."

I want to make a joke about that, but really, the joke tells itself. All I'm saying is that if I were a publishing company, I'd want "teenage sex cults" somewhere in the title of the book about the long road to legalizing emergency contraception for over the counter sales.

The whole battle over passing emergency contraception has one good side to it, besides the fact that the side of the angels finally won. It gave the pro-choice side an opportunity to expose the fact that the anti-choice movement in America is not just against abortion rights but against contraception use as well. As Cristina Page wrote in her article here at Rewire, the anti-choicers weren't able to hide that their real issue with Plan B was that women would use it to prevent pregnancies and "escape" the consequences of having sex. The so-called pro-life movement has taken some pains to hide their opposition to contraception, because they realize that "saving babies" will always be a more popular stance than "hating on sex", even if the latter is a better description of their real stance. But the fight over emergency contraception made it a lot harder for pro-lifers to hide their agenda. Out of the quotes that Page gathered, I think this one from Human Events might be my favorite:

What's to prevent the pill from getting into the hands of the woman's impressionable 13-year-old daughter, who sees the pill as a good excuse to ‘hook up' with a boy she barely knows? Will ACOG pay for the girl's counseling when she discovers that the boy who took away her virginity is a stalker or 40 years old?

The levels of irrationality here are stunning. First of all there's the assumption that women are so stupid that only the threat of pregnancy can get through our thick skulls and affect our decision-making skills. Then there's the assumption that pregnancy is best understood as punishment for sluttiness. Call me sentimental, but I prefer pregnancy to be a joyful occasion for women, not a jail sentence for having sex. But then again, I'm a dirty hippie who doesn't think sex should be a crime, even when women have it. But what I find stupidest about this quote is that it only makes sense if you assume there's no such thing as condoms—after all, if a $30 set of pills with 75% effectiveness will cause this 13 year old sex catastrophe, surely the widespread availability of $10 packages of condoms with upwards of 90% effectiveness would have caused it a long time ago.

The giant downside of the fight is that anti-choicers were able to use the controversy to spread some pretty nasty misinformation, namely that Plan B is an "abortion" pill. I'm not going to outright accuse them of lying—

Okay, I am. I won't lie about that. At this point, it's widely believed that emergency contraception works by sloughing off fertilized eggs, and it simply doesn't. It works by preventing ovulation. Anti-choicers who've spread the lie about how emergency contraception try to let themselves off the hook for lying by pointing out that scientists won't say for sure that fertilized eggs never slough off after taking Plan B, but so what? Scientists won't commit to anything 100% as part of their professional ethics and standards. Using the anti-choice logic, I could run around saying that scientists are saying that an asteroid is blowing up the Earth in the next year, knowing full well that the possibility can't be ruled out completely.

Unfortunately, the idea that Plan B is some kind of abortion has taken hold, and even a lot of pro-choicers I know erroneously think that Plan B works by killing a fertilized egg. To some of us, that's an irrelevant distinction morally speaking, but I'd hate to see women who have personal convictions against abortion deny themselves this drug if they need it because they have wrong information.

Now for a letter from this week's email bag, from Confused College Girl.

The other night I was with a guy with whom I am in the very early stages of a relationship. We hadn't had sex yet, but things were going in that direction. He knew that I was not on any kind of hormonal birth control, and we had explicitly agreed to use condoms. So it was to my shock and dismay that, in the course of foreplay, he began to penetrate me without a condom. I asked what he thought he was doing; he stated the obvious, and I told him to stop immediately. He did. I asked him if he knew that what he'd done was risky. He said that he did know, but that he "wasn't thinking," and that was "instinctive". I told him that I was going home, and I got up, got dressed and left.

The next day I had to go to three different pharmacies to get Plan B. I talked with him again. He said he was sorry, and he gave me the $50 for the emergency contraception. He continued to say that he just hadn't been thinking, and that he thought the risk of pregnancy was "trivial" (implying that the Plan B was perhaps unnecessary). I told him that I really, really don't want to be pregnant, full stop. Plus, he'd put both of us at risk for STDs. He says he's been tested, but I haven't seen his results, and will probably get tested anyway. And I told him that, regardless of whether his intent was malicious (I don't think it was), the fact remained that his thoughtlessness had put me at risk for something very serious that would ultimately be my problem, not his. And I told him I didn't think I wanted to have sex with him again. He said he was upset, but that he understood.

Am I taking this too seriously? My friends say that it's fairly common for guys to do this, and that a lot of women would probably tell them to stop and get a condom and then continue. What I find so upsetting is that this guy is smart. He knows how to use condoms correctly, he knows I'm a feminist for whom safe, responsible sex is not negotiable. And we had talked about it all beforehand. He hadn't been drinking. And it was the first time we would have had sex, so his arguments about "instinct" and "force of habit" seem strange to me. Does it make sense that he was just being thoughtless? Am I overreacting to consider this a dealbreaker?

I wouldn't say you're taking this too seriously. Nor do I think that you should feel bad that you consider this a deal-breaker. First of all, you have a right to make anything a deal-breaker if you want, even if you suddenly just don't like the look of him, you're not obligated to continue a sexual relationship with anyone. But that goes double in this case. At bare minimum, he rudely refused to respect your boundaries and your health, and not only do I think you have a right to dump him, it's a good idea. For you, and maybe he'll learn that there's consequences for not respecting boundaries.

I get the sense from you that you're as worried about the idea that this is expected and common behavior from men, and if you're going to date men that you'll just have to put up with it. The young man's defenses about "instinct" tell me that he was hoping that he could hide behind the "all men do it" cover story. Let me assure you that it isn't the case that all men do it or that you have to put up with this sort of mistreatment if you want to date men. Plenty of men respect boundaries and understand the importance of safe sex, and even more would behave responsibly if people quit coddling those who don't. It's not only rude to start sticking your penis where it's not welcome without a condom, it's abusive and it's also just plain stupid. While women do have the worst of it if there's an accidental pregnancy, it's not like men can't be affected. And as you noted, sticking it in just a little and seeing if you can get away with it also runs the high risk of STD transmission.

And now for some really good news, cribbed off Marc at Punkassblog. Health Day News reports the results from the first comprehensive study done on the sex lives of Americans over 57 and found that senior citizens are getting busy more than many of us would dared hope. Well, I hope to be the talk of my retirement community, anyway, but I can't speak for everyone.

From the article:

And more than half of those in the oldest age group — 75 to 85 — who were sexually active reported having sex at least two to three times per month, and 23 percent reported having sex at least once a week.

The researchers hoped that the new numbers would help open up a dialogue on geriatric sex concerns, since the biggest hump in getting people to discuss this issue is getting people to even realize that it is an issue.

It seems obvious to me that it's a great thing if older people are having sex and maybe if it becomes more well-known that this does happen, more people will realize they don't have to give up sex just because they're getting up in years. Which will in turn probably boost the percentages even more. Maybe we can't achieve world peace, but perhaps my generation could set records in keeping busy into our twilight years.

There is one downside that I can think of, and after a quick Google search I found the story that popped into my mind, from an Orlando news station called Local 6, dated May 27th, 2006. A popular retirement community in the area became a point of concern for local gynecologist Dr. Colleen McQuade, who reported seeing an uptick in the number of elderly patients she was seeing who had sexually transmitted diseases like herpes.

It makes perfect sense, if you think about it. A lot of elderly people may be widowed or newly divorced and living in this retirement community and dating for the first time in god only knows how long. But one thing is certain—they did not benefit from the safe sex education that the younger generations got in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Dr. McQuade agrees, stating that she thinks Viagra and a lack of education were the twin causes of this surge in disease transmissions.

I can only imagine how hard it is to put together a safe sex education program for elderly people without coming off as arrogant young things trying to teach our elders a thing or two about sex, as if they don't already know it. But the growing popularity of Viagra might mean that aiming more sex education towards older populations might be a good idea.

That's it for this week's edition of Reality Cast! Please tune in next week for another dose of reality in the sexual health debates. For more information and links to the stories discussed in this week's episode, please visit Thanks for listening!