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Archive for May, 2009

A few weeks back, I mentioned that a former student of mine had been hurt by an abusive boyfriend. The campus judicial hearing was last week. In it, the accuser had to face trial herself.

Here’s the problem: Underage drinking laws and the equivalent campus rules deter victims of violent crime from reporting. As I learned at the eleventh hour, after I’d already written my character reference and shown up for the hearing, my student also faced multiple charges against her! One of them was underage drinking. After the original incident, she’d been frank with the investigators and told them she’d had two beers much earlier in the day. This was used against her, with no corroborating evidence.

Her alcohol charge stuck; apparently the panel felt it had to interpret university rules very narrowly. However, her punishment was extremely mild compared to the norm. She still doesn’t know for certain that he was found guilty, but the panel wouldn’t have been merciful if they hadn’t believed her version of events. (We also don’t yet know what will happen in the regular courts; that process seems to be stalled.)

My student’s problem is typical, I’m afraid. When dating violence and sexual assault occur on campus, alcohol is often part of the picture. Lots of assaults – sexual and otherwise – go unreported because the victims are afraid they’ll be punished for underage drinking. While this is a particularly pervasive problem on campus, it also potentially affects all women and girls who are underage.

May student is not a major-league partier, but she’s also not a teetotaler, and so these countercharges were used to intimidate her. (Her ex has done other things to intimidate her as well, but listing them might divulge identifying details, which I don’t want to do.) If she’d initially known that she faced possible suspension, she might have chosen not to press the case. She couldn’t have known in advance that the panel would impose the mildest penalty possible.

Why can’t we just have a blanket amnesty in the alcohol laws that would allow underage victims of violent crimes – male and female alike – to report those crimes without fear of repercussions? The university could easily enough change its policy. It has a great opportunity to do this, since it’s currently revising the sexual assault provisions of the student code of conduct (but any such change should apply to all violent crimes). It’d be harder to change state laws. But allowing people to report violence without fear of reprisals for drinking would obviously serve the cause of justice. It should help prevent violence, too, since potential perps would be aware that their targets would face one less deterrent against reporting.

One more thing: I spent my whole day at Judiciaries waiting around, and about five to ten minutes saying my piece. I could only take that much time because I didn’t have any teaching commitments that day. I don’t know how much it helped, if at all, to have a faculty member stand up for my student. Her family thought it was useful, and surely they felt better, knowing someone cared. But if the judicial process is going to be so time-consuming, faculty and staff will typically be boxed out of it, even if they might be able to add a valuable perspective. This, too, harms innocent students disproportionately.

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Kittywampus doesn’t usually aim to provide breaking news (there are thousands of sites that do it better), but I’m so disturbed by this that I have to say something.

Dr. George Tiller, one of a handful of doctors who performed late-term abortions in this country, has been murdered in cold blood. Cara at Feministe reports that he was shot dead as he was entering his church this morning in Wichita:

Dr. Tiller was one of the few late-term abortion providers in the country.  He had previously been shot, his clinic burnt down, harassed by ideological anti-abortion attorney generals, and threatened with death countless times.  We’ve written about his many trials and tribulations here numerous times. Still, Dr. Tiller continued to provide abortions to women who desperately needed them, to save their own lives or health, or due to tragic fetal deformities.  He put the health of women above his own life.

And now he is dead.

(More from Cara here.)

That little detail of him being on his way to church? It says so much about the ruthlessness of the hardline anti-abortion movement, their adamant refusal to recognize that those who condone abortion are ethical, moral, and often religious people.

I’d thought – hoped – that the wave of anti-abortion violence had ebbed. As Cara notes, it had been over a decade since the last anti-abortion murder. I figured that the less-crazy wing of their movement had prevailed, recognizing that murder is not politically persuasive to the people in the mushy middle. Guess I was wrong, though it only takes a single fanatic with a gun. Rhetoric like “murder of innocents” and “the worst Holocaust the world has ever seen” is guaranteed to produce at least a few such fanatics.

I’m sad and angry on behalf of Dr. Tiller, his family, and all the other abortion providers who’ll have to live in even more fear.

You shouldn’t have to be a hero to provide a needed medical service.

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This news isn’t brand new any more (it came out about a month ago) but since mother-blaming never goes out of season, here you go.

You know how there’s a massive body of science indicating that caffeine is harmful in pregnancy? It’s been implicated in low birthweight, prematurity, miscarriage, stillbirth, and being born with Vulcan features such as pointy eyebrows and green blood. Okay, so I made the last one up, but the rest are all conclusions from real studies. Less well known is that many studies have failed to find any associations at all between caffeine and these major poor outcomes of pregnancy. A few have even found possible benefits (in preventing gestational diabetes, for example).

Now a Cochrane review has sifted through all of these studies and found one – just one! – study that met its criteria for inclusion in the review. The problem? There’s a terrible dearth of randomized, controlled trials (RCT). Virtually all research on caffeine in pregnancy has relied on observational studies, which are beset by all kinds of confounders – nutrition, smoking, alcohol, stress, education, etc. This isn’t merely a matter of medical neglect. In the full-length version of their paper which is behind the usual firewall, the Cochrane authors, Shayesteh Jahanfar and Halimah Sharifah, note that randomization poses ethical issues if investigators assume caffeine could have harmful effects.

The single study that actually meets the RCT is very reassuring, however. Here’s Jahanfar and Sharifah’s plain-language summary:

Effects of restricted caffeine intake by mother on fetal, neonatal and pregnancy outcome
Caffeine is a stimulant found in tea, coffee, cola, chocolate and some over-the-counter medicines. Conflicting results found in the literature make it difficult for health professionals to advise pregnant women about avoiding caffeine during pregnancy. Clearance of caffeine from the mother’s blood slows down during pregnancy. Some authors of observational studies have concluded that caffeine intake is harmful to the fetus, causing growth restriction, reduced birthweight, preterm birth or stillbirth. The newborn could also have withdrawal symptoms if the mother has a high intake of caffeine (more than eight cups of coffee per day).

Only one controlled study was identified. The study was based in Denmark. Women less than 20 weeks pregnant were randomly assigned to drinking caffeinated instant coffee (568 women after exclusions) or decaffeinated instant coffee (629 women). Drinking three cups of coffee a day in early pregnancy had no effect on birthweight, preterm births or growth restriction.

Sufficient evidence is not available from randomised controlled trials to support any benefits from avoiding caffeine during pregnancy.

This suggests that expectant mothers need not stress about consuming modest amounts of caffeine. (The women in the Danish trial drank up to three cups a day.) The preponderance of evidence suggests that a couple of servings of coffee or pop per day is harmless.

My own experience was that I really didn’t want coffee in early pregnancy. It was one of my aversions. But that didn’t make me caffeine-free. My best trick for taming nausea was to eat a few saltines and drink a small glass of regular Coke before I tottered out of bed.

I know someone who got guilt-tripped for drinking a single Pepsi when she was about four months pregnant. She’d been proud of herself for cutting down from several a day. “Don’t you know what that’s doing to the baby?” her friend asked. I guess I was lucky that my Coke habit was hidden behind the bedroom door.

Her experience was in the early 1990s, when What to Expect When You’re Expecting was still edited by an unreconstructed team of food fascists. The “What to Expect” party line has moderated some since then. Currently, their advice is to cut out caffeine entirely, but they don’t totally shame women who manage to drop down to two doses per day.

I happen to think there’s a good case to be made for moderation, though that goes for all habits and all stages of life – not just pregnancy. The Cochrane authors mention that consumption of eight or more (!) cups of coffee per day can lead to withdrawal symptoms in newborns. That’s sounds like avoidable worry and misery. If I’d had more than one miscarriage, I’d cut out caffeine because I’d be totally paranoid.

But ordinary, healthy pregnancies ought not to be training for extreme self-renunciation. You’re preparing to be a mother, not a Desert Father.

So if a cup or two of coffee helps lift the fatigue of pregnancy or clear your muddled mind, Dr. Caffeine says: Go for it!

DrCaffeine2It should be noted that Dr. Caffeine (pictured above) is a fuzzy stuffed toy bird with even less medical training than I have, and no credentials whatsoever. The authors of the Cochrane review are, however, the real deal.

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For reasons that you surely would rather not know, I found myself googling “mucus in stool.” The third link was to a site that described various causes for this condition, ranging from bacteria to Crohn’s disease.

The page is illustrated with a picture of a conventionally attractive young woman who’s apparently just stepped out of the shower. Her hair is wet. Her front is covered (modestly or coquettishly?) with a white towel. Her naked back is visible to the viewer. There’s a link to enlarge the image. If you click it, you get an embiggened version under the title “Mucus in the Stool.”

I’ve been trying to dream up a possible connection between a naked woman and any sort of digestive abnormality. And no, this isn’t a scat fetish site. Maybe they’re just trying to make the subject matter more, um, palatable?

I guess you truly can sell anything – even information on weird poop – with a naked woman.

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Okay, so this is pretty far afield from my blog’s usual fare – but it’s pretty cool, too, so I can’t resist. Thursday I accompanied my kids’ classes to the spring performance of the university’s School of Dance, which is one of the really strong programs here. All but one of the pieces were riveting – even for the kindergartners. Even the boys! It’s such a false stereotype that boys don’t like dance. When the one and only male soloist performed a very muscular dance, inspired partly by break dancing and partly by robotics, the kindergarten boys went crazy, rocking out in their seats.

My favorite was also the kids’ favorite: a ultra-abstract piece called “Noumenon,” originally performed in 1953. Visually, it made me think of what the Wrapped Reichstag would look like if it started to move.

Reichstag2

Photo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995) by Flickr user zug55, used under a Creative Commons license.

The dancers were encased in rectangles of knit silver cloth that stretched in all directions. As this picture from The Post shows, the fabric reflected the colors of the lights. The dancers, who couldn’t see through the fabric and were basically dancing blind, moved in and out of eerie shapes ranging from a seal to a pig to aliens. Or so said the kids. I missed the pig, myself.

Noumenon

Philosophically, the idea was apparently to display the concept of a noumenon – a thing in itself, prior to the human mind and perception, as distinguished from a phenomenon, which is a thing as we perceive it. Don’t ask me to go any deeper; this is why we have Wikipedia and  the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’m not sure if the choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, intended dance or motion or the human body itself to be the noumena displayed through its choreography. Maybe he had the seal and the pig in mind. Maybe he just wanted us to reflect on what we perceive and how we perceive it – or the gap between his intentions and our perceptions as spectators. At any rate, the dance was visually spellbinding, even to those who didn’t trouble their little heads with the philosophy.

The music, which Nikolai also created, was suitably dramatic. In fact, between the shiny alien shapes and the opening crashes of the music, I thought some of the kindergartners might be scared. They weren’t.

Part of “Noumenon” is available online. It doesn’t do justice to what I saw (which also featured three dancers, not two). It’s fuzzy in quality and seems substantially shorter. But maybe this very indeterminacy is inevitable when dealing with noumena?

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Some folks have some pretty squirrely ideas about “safety” and who deserves it:

Cincinnati police arrested eight people in an undercover prostitution sting at the Millennium Hotel Cincinnati on Fifth Street downtown Thursday after the hotel sought help in light of two disturbing armed robberies.

The hotel said the classified advertising Web site Craigslist connected two women offering massages with men who ultimately robbed them in their rooms at gunpoint May 3 and on May 20. …

In the May 20 incident, the robber accidentally dropped a handgun and it discharged, sending a bullet into the mattress, said Jordan Cooper, the hotel’s general manager. No one was injured, but the incident prompted management to contact police to safeguard legitimate guests and the reputation of Ohio’s largest hotel. [my emphasis]

(Source: Cincinnati Enquirer)

So illegitimate guests are fair game? Would it have been hunky-dory with the management if a hooker or two had been shot on the premises? (Um, probably not, because that just might sully the hotel’s reputation.) And what is an illegitimate guest, anyway? There’s nothing in the article to indicate the women didn’t pay their bills. They may have been breaking the law as sex workers, but not specifically in their capacity as hotel guests.

And what is wrong with our priorities when a violent crime (robbery) is viewed as a handy aid to help catch prostitutes who aren’t hurting anyone? Nothing can possibly justify viewing them as a mere means to an end. Our judicial system has no right to objectify them in this way. We don’t know anything about the women arrested. They might have been forced or coerced into their jobs. They might love their work. Maybe they see it like many Americans view their jobs: as a boring but necessary activity for putting food on the table. Maybe they have children. Maybe they love cats as much as I do. Maybe they love to garden. I’m guessing there are lots of points of potential empathy – lots of ways that the press could choose to humanize the women caught in this sting.

Instead, the media coverage and the criminal justice system do a seamless job of obliterating these women’s humanity. And yet, the women did nothing to deserve becoming the targets of armed robbery. Their jobs made them more vulnerable, but mostly because they’re forced to operate underground and the robbers know that they’re more likely to be persecuted (see above) than protected by the police. Imagine how scared those women must have felt while the gun was pointed at them. Imagine how terrified the second woman was when the gun went off.

And the robber? The article doesn’t mention his fate. It seems reasonable to assume he got away. But hey, at least he wasn’t selling sex.

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Here’s a guest post by Euchalon Grandy, swiped from my comments section, offered here with no commentary from me just yet except that I agree with almost everything he says. (Bonus points if you can pick the one spot where I have some qualms.) The first half of his comment is also worth a read. Everything that follows is his; I skipped the “indent quote” feature for better readability.

—————–

OK, so here’s my issue — Not necessarily in your post, but underlying this whole discussion [of withdrawal as birth control] I sense an assumption that unwanted pregnancy is so incredibly awful that it must be avoided at all cost.  Thus the ‘wear three condoms, use a diaphram, and you *are* on the pill, right?’ tone.

Now, I understand that for many women, including a sizable portion of American women, abortion is not safe, legal, or available.  For those women, extraordinary caution is justified.  However, for a good portion of American women, safe, legal abortions are still available.  Absent personal religious or moral objections, isn’t abortion OK as a backstop once contraception is used to bring the odds of pregnancy down to a reasonably low level?

What disturbs me is that this extraordinarily cautious approach to contraception implies that abortion is off the table as an acceptable way to end an unwanted pregnancy.  It makes me wonder if, after decades of exposure to the abortion prohibition movement, that movement has on some level won our hearts and minds about abortion, if not the right to it.  (When I say “we”, I mean feminist and feminist-oriented men and women who have no explicit personal moral objection to abortion).

After all, if we don’t subscribe to the idea that a human being is created at the moment of conception, and if we acknowledge that legal abortions are a relatively safe procedure, why do we give ending a pregnancy through abortion such weight?  For a number of practical reasons abortion is lousy as a first-line method of contraception.  But as a backup isn’t it similar in function to other methods of contraception?  Why do we treat it as an evil to be avoided if we don’t believe it to be evil? When we treat something as an absolute last resort, we strongly imply that there’s something very bad about it.

People like Obama talk about this common ground where ‘we’d all like to see fewer abortions’.  I’m not sure I agree.  When children enter the world unwanted, I’d rather see more abortions.  When women go through pregnancy and labor for no other reason than avoiding having an abortion, I’d rather see more abortions.  When young men and women for years deny themselves the joyfulness of a good sex life, I’d rather see more abortions.

For those of us who support the right to an abortion, aren’t we losing ground here?  Don’t things get a little worse every year?  Gay folks didn’t make much progress until the slogan ‘gay and proud’ came into common usage.  When will we come out of the closet?  What’s our slogan?  I’d suggest, if not ‘pro-abortion and proud’ at least ‘pro-choice and I just don’t think an abortion is a big deal’.  Those of us who identify as pro-choice are strong on the political right to an abortion.  It seems, however, like we’re conflicted and afraid when it comes to abortion itself.  The prohibitionists are very clear on both.

I would like to see a life-affirming narrative that supports abortion rights and abortion.  Life-affirming as in the better life the pregnant woman (and often her male partner) can have without the burden of an unwanted pregnancy/child.  Life-affirming as in pro-sex, taking a practical but not fearful approach to contraception.

If we take our cue from the prohibitionists and frame this issue as something that takes place only inside the uterus then it’s just an argument about death or not-death and we can’t win.  If we expand our vision to outside the uterus then we are pro-better-life, pro-freedom, and pro-sex.   With these values on our side, we will prevail over the narrative of death which the prohibitionists have used so effectively, but only if we have the courage to embrace not only the right to an abortion but abortion itself.  And it seems to me we ignore this at our peril when discussing contraception.

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