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Archive for the ‘reproductive rights’ Category

For the first time since our congresscritters launched their attack on Planned Parenthood last winter, I have the feeling that public outrage has risen to a boiling point. The attacks continue, of course, but their extreme brazenness is finally provoking a robust counter-reaction. Maybe I’m just spending too much time on Facebook (and certainly my Facebook friends are far from a representative sample), but the Komen Foundation’s de-funding of Planned Parenthood – and subsequent backpedaling – seems to signal a change in the people’s tolerance of the war on women’s bodily autonomy. At the very least, it showed that millions of pissed-off women could use social media to defend health services for the most vulnerable among us.

Then Obama actually stood up to the bishops and told the insurance companies to cover contraception, period. As Katha Pollitt noted, he finally noticed that American women are more numerous than the bishops. Darrell Issa’s farcical all-boyz hearing on religious freedom contraceptive coverage earned a backlash as furious as the Komen decision’s. As usual, Jon Stewart perfectly skewered the hypocrisy:

Now, after a couple of days of public shaming by silent protestors at the state capitol, Virginia’s governor has been forced to “reconsider” supporting a bill that mandates transvaginal ultrasounds prior to abortion – and (in breaking news) its sponsor says she’ll kill the bill altogether! She claims an attack of conscience. (Yes, a woman sponsored this rapey bill. No, she didn’t have any ethical pangs until it became a national disgrace.) As Jon Stewart put it, the poor governor evidently didn’t realize the procedure is “like a TSA patdown for your vagina.”

Hey, we’d better not give the TSA any new ideas.

I’m also tickled pink at state legislators’ over-the-top proposals to regulate men’s bodies, for a change. Virginia Senator Janet Howell countered the transvaginal-ultrasound madness with a bill that would’ve required rectal exams before a man could be prescribed an ED drug. In Oklahoma, Senator Constance Johnson proposed (then withdrew) an amendment stating “any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.”

Now, Georgia Representative Yasmin Neal has put forward a bill to sharply restrict vasectomies: “It is patently unfair that men avoid the rewards of unwanted fatherhood by presuming that their judgment over such matters is more valid than the judgment of the General Assembly. … It is the purpose of the General Assembly to assert an invasive state interest in the reproductive habits of men in this state and substitute the will of the government over the will of adult men.”

It’s high time someone stood up for spermato-Americans!

Of course, no one’s seriously out to punish men. These legislators just put anti-choice laws through the Regender translator, instantly exposing their absurdity and cruelty. It’s telling that these mock proposals hold the power to shock, while anti-choice legislation remains business as usual. Georgia, for instance, is weighing one-to-ten-year jail terms for abortion after 20 weeks – which last I heard was still constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade.

I’m hopeful, though, that these extremist proposals are galvanizing a majority that will force extremist legislators to back down. But not just yet. Let them keep horrifying every voter who’s ever used contraception. Maybe we can throw out all the Tea Partiers and Blue Dogs, come November.

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Remember when proponents of Ohio’s proposed “Heartbeat Bill” tried to get a fetus to testify in favor of the legislation, which would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat becomes detectable? (That’s usually between the 6th and 8th weeks, when many women still don’t know they’re pregnant.)

Well, apparently pre-born witnesses aren’t awfully reliable. One of the two pre-born tykes invited to testify last spring flat-out refused to make a statement. No galloping hearttones were entered into the legislative record for her (or him).

The lastest trick, now, is to bring in post-born children. This age group is bound to afflict our legislators with a new level of chaos. The messes! (I still have one prone to wreaking EVIL with crayons.) The backtalk! (Ditto for both of my beloved boys, though vastly improved.) The irreligiosity! (At our annual Christmas Eve foray to church, my Tiger kept asking loudly what “Amen” meant. Meanwhile, his older brother the Bear managed to set his church bulletin aflame during “Silent Night,” the candlelit portion of the service.)

But not all post-born children are like the hoydenish heathens I’m raising.** Those who testified were surely obedient, docile Christian children. They know when to say Amen. Granted, they’re no longer imbued with the perfect innocent of the pre-born, but at least their heartbeat is reliable.

This is how the testimony of post-born children played out last week (thanks, Daily Record, for covering it):

Christian Harrington didn’t mince words during his moment at the Statehouse Tuesday.

The 8-year-old wants the Ohio Senate to take action on the Heartbeat Bill, legislation that would ban abortions within weeks of conception.

“I’m here to save babies with beating hearts,” Christian, barely tall enough to peer over a podium, told a packed committee hearing room. “And I want to tell the senators to pass the Heartbeat Bill right now. And when I mean right now, I mean right now.”

The youngster was one of more than 50 children who were in Columbus Tuesday as part of the latest attempt by backers of the Heartbeat Bill to convince lawmakers to pass the legislation.

They had a press conference with reporters, held a faux committee hearing showing lawmakers how to vote in favor of the bill and delivered Teddy bears, complete with real heartbeat sound chip, to all 33 Ohio senators.

“Do not believe the stuff the people tell you at the abortion clinic,” said 11-year-old Sydney McCauley. “The just say it’s a blob of tissue, and that is not the truth. That blob of tissue is actually forming into a baby.”

She added, “Think if someone aborted you. That would be a whole generation of people who (would not) be able to live their lives.”

Fifty kids? That’s a veritable Children’s Crusade. These children are being brainwashed into a key tenet of movement pro-life belief: that their existence was predestined. No one is telling these kids, “Well, you wouldn’t exist had the condom stayed put.” “You were only possible because Mama lost her first pregnancy after four months, and you came along 12 months later.” “The only reason you came into this world is that my ex was just too damn hot, and oh, I know I shouldn’t have – I know it! – but I just could stop loving him. A week later he punched me in the jaw. Never seen him since.” Or even: “You can be glad your Mom and I got drunk and horny on New Year’s. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here today.” (This last one came to me via my own father, though I’m pretty sure he didn’t quite say “horny.” I was, in any event, a September baby – and fortunate to have been wanted and well-loved.)

The “Heartbeat” movement has no truck with chance. Its obsessions with the pivot point of abortion as the arbiter of live and death effaces all the other contingencies and serendipities – every crazy chance of fate – leading up to the conception and birth of  a particular baby. It constructs a teleology in which every baby was always and forever meant to be, and thus their (potential) mothers are obligated to carry every pregnancy to term.

Catch me if I’m wrong, but are there Christian religions other than Mormonism that envision a pre-heavenly waiting room of souls? Otherwise, it’s just silly luck that you were born as opposed to another combo of gametes in your parent’s DNA deck of cards.

But this seemingly philosophical question – “what if you’d never been born?” – is a standard cudgel in the hardcore anti-abortion toolbag. It’s as simple as it is existentially threatening. No wonder it resonates with the tween crowd.

The kids hauled into Columbus to testify can’t begin to gauge the depth of dishonesty and muddy thinking in the slough of despond (first their churches, then the Ohio Legislature) to which their parents have led them. And so it feel abusive to me to use children to try to score a few cheap emotional points. All kids can do until their early to mid teens is to parrot their parents’ opinions. I mean, my Tiger has political ideas at 8, but danged if I’m gonna force him to the mat to defend them. I’d much rather test and challenge my kids’ ideals –  in hopes that they will eventually understand what is truly their own.

Let us hope to all the gods – their God, my Buddha-Jesus, and the Ceiling Cat – that these kids urged to perform for the legislature will someday find enough distance from their manipulative parents that they can later make their own wise, considered sexual decisions.

And let us hope that the Heartbeat Bill, which was left to languish last month, won’t be revived by this small horde of child crusaders.

Further, we can only hope that the vicious overreach of the Heartbeat Bill – its overly broad provisions, sloppy thinking, contempt for women, prima facie unconstitutionality, and far-ranging interference with the rights of both doctor and patient – will doom it, no matter how many post-born children mount testimony, church pageants, or lemonade stands in its favor.

But given that the latest  Quinnipiac Poll found public support for the Heartbeat Bill at a dead heat (45% favoring, 46% against), I’m skeptical that Ohio has any chance of electing pro-choice legislators (the theme for this week’s Blog for Choice day).

Instead, we need to start pointing out how the self-styled champions of children are using other children as a political ramrod. We need to question their leaky teleology of sex –> pregnancy –> birth –> earthly arrival of souls from heaven. And we need to howl to the moon about the lunacy of the Heartbeat Bill, which – like a zombie, a vampire – isn’t dead yet, but poses a mortal threat to women’s autonomy.

** My kids are actually quite wonderful, in my wholly unbiased opinion. But the incident with the church bulletin aflame really did happen.

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When the Ohio Senate didn’t pick up the Heartbeat Bill immediately after the House passed it, I started to hope that it would be allowed to die a quiet death. No such luck. Last week, it was discussed in committee, and it’s liable to come before the entire Senate this week. If it passes this hurdle, Governor Kasich is almost sure to sign it.

Why is this a bad idea? Well, here’s what I wrote to my local newspapers:

This week, Ohio’s Senate begins deliberations on the so-called “Heartbeat Bill” (HB 125) – anti-abortion legislation so extreme that it failed to garner the support of Ohio Right to Life. [By now, it's "last week," and the bill has made it out of committee.]

Imagine you (or your daughter, or your sister) were six weeks pregnant and didn’t know it. This bill would take away your right to choose even at that early date. It’s very common for women to be unaware of their pregnancy when they are only six weeks along. For those women, the Heartbeat Bill would effectively outlaw abortion altogether.

Even in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the woman’s health, HB 125 destroys a woman’s right to choose. This is an extreme position that most Ohioans do not embrace, including many folks who have qualms about abortion.

Perhaps you’re sure you would never get an abortion yourself. But do you really want the government deciding instead of women? Should legislators be making medical and moral decisions that impact a woman’s health and future? That’s what I’d call big government.

Would you want to criminalize health care providers who serve women? This bill would make felons of doctors or nurses who help terminate a pregnancy unless they can document a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” Medical professionals will be forced to weigh legal risks to themselves against the physical risks to their patient.

The Heartbeat Bill is so extreme, it’s almost surely unconstitutional. The framework set forth in Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court opinion affirming a woman’s right to choose) says that states cannot ban abortion prior to fetal viability – the point when a fetus can live outside the woman’s body. Even with all our technological advances, viability occurs no sooner than the 22nd week of pregnancy, much later than the six-to-eight week deadline set by the Heartbeat Bill.

If the Heartbeat Bill passes, it will be appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it’s nearly certain to be struck down. (That’s why Ohio Right to Life opposed its introduction into the House.) First, though, the state of Ohio would be exposed to a costly legal battle funded by us taxpayers.

This week [again - last week!], the Senate committee on Health, Human Services, and Aging is holding hearings on this extremist bill. I urge our legislators – especially Republicans committed to “small government” – to do the common-sense thing: vote NO on HB 125.

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If you’re an Ohio resident and feel moved to contact your senator, here’s a locator.

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In my previous post, I promised I’d deal with feminist ethical objections to delving into the veracity of Palin’s claimed pregnancy with Trig. Is it illegitimate to ask questions about a candidate’s reproductive history? Are we invading Palin’s privacy, down to her very uterus?

The arguments for backing off from the tale of Palin, Trig, and her alleged Wild Ride fall into two main categories. (Let me know if you can think of others.)

1) Palin and especially her children deserve at least a modicum of privacy.

2) It’s always anti-feminist to second-guess women’s choices in childbearing and mothering.

On 1) privacy: As I mentioned in my last post, it’s standard operating procedure for presidential and veep candidates to disclose their medical records. While I would object strenuously to laws and policies that demanded the same of grocery clerks and accountants and locksmiths and (yes) college professors, the presidency isn’t just any job. There’s a reasonable case to be made for the citizenry knowing whether a candidate has a condition that might render her or him incapable of serving or exercising good judgment. We should have known, for instance, that Ronald Reagan was experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

We expect this disclosure of all candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency. Why should Palin get a pass? Why should her records remain private? Is it justifiable simply because she has a uterus? That would be sexist in its own twisted way, wouldn’t it – throwing us back to the days when ladyparts were still “unmentionables”?

Now it’s rather late to demand medical records be released, since Palin is no longer a candidate. But I think it’s still fair to say that Palin would have set the record straight on Trig’s birth, one way or another, had she only behaved like other candidates back in October 2008. Instead, she substituted secrecy for transparency (which didn’t surprise many Alaskans). She was nominated without any real vetting by McCain’s people, and they built an opaque wall between her and the press. She guarded her secrets while piling up lies. It’s not surprising that quite apart from Trig’s birth, the contents of her medical records would become subject to speculation.

Concern for the privacy of the Palins’ minor children (which included Bristol in 2008) is a legitimate and noble cause, one that I’ve consistently espoused. Let’s be clear: None of the brouhaha around Trig’s birth is actually about Trig. It’s about Sarah Palin.

The Palin children’s privacy has been breached, all right, but this has been almost entirely Sarah Palin’s own doing, apart from Bristol’s own self-promotion as a (*cough*) abstinence advocate. Who chose to use Trig as a political prop? Who decided to out Bristol’s pregnancy to the world instead of directly laying to rest the rumors about Trig’s birth? (Let us be clear: Bristol’s pregnancy in fall 2008 did not prove Sarah gave birth to Trig; it only made Bristol an unlikely mother to Trig unless he had actually been born earlier in the winter of 2008.) Who carried on a public feud with Levi Johnston’s family (which ultimately involved Palin’s grandson Tripp)? Who signed her family up for a reality TV show?

Mind you, I disapprove of the Gosselins and Duggars, too, for televising their children’s childhood. It’s just that none of them are running for president.

On point 2) – reproductive choice and trusting women – Melissa McEwan writes:

Birtherism, in which both conservatives and liberals are engaging, is a terrible and intrinsically misogynist game to play, entirely dependent on a belief that policing women’s bodies and reproduction is an acceptable recreation.

Actually, what’s going on here is not policing Sarah Palin’s body. What’s truly at stake is not what or who came out of her uterus. It’s what came out of her mouth. It’s her self-contradicting statements and outright lies.

McEwan tosses out a straw man when she says mockingly that the only acceptable evidence for “Trig birthers” would be video of Trig emerging from Palin’s vagina. Of course that’s silly. On the other hand, medical records showing that Palin truly was pregnant, underwent amnio, and gave birth when she claimed – well, that would be pretty darn conclusive. The unreasonable few would continue to hatch conspiracy theories. The rest of us – people like me and Litbrit – would say great; case closed; let’s carrying on dissecting why Palin, Bachmann, Trump, Santorum, and Co. are a danger to the United States. Andrew Sullivan would back off it too and devote himself more fully to his irrational quest for fiscal austerity. (Hmm, that’s one good argument for keeping the mystery of the Wild Ride alive.)

As I’ve written before, if Palin’s account of the wild ride is true, it displays epically poor judgment. By her own account, she board not one but two long flights after her water broke, without even stopping for a check-up before she left Dallas.

The party-line feminist response is: trust women. And I agree, we have to do that. Generally, women are trustworthy. That presumption underlies any pro-choice position on reproductive rights.

But what happens when a woman (or a man!) is reckless? What happens if a mother (or father!) makes egregious choices? Are we obligated to suspend judgment?

The consensus at both Shakesville and Feministe is that you turn in your official Feminist card as soon as you question the wisdom of anyone’s parenting or reproductive choices, no matter how irresponsible they may be.

Really?

To take a more extreme case, do I have to agree that it’s hunky-dory for a woman addicted to heroin and meth to have one baby after another, only to have them taken by Child Protective Services? As a matter of fact, I think it’s a pretty terrible situation. What makes me pro-choice is that I don’t want that hypothetical – but all-too-real – woman to be thrown into jail (as South Carolina has done, repeatedly, with pregnant women of color who are addicts). I don’t want her to be forced or coerced into Depo-Provera shots or Norplant. I do want the people who provide her prenatal and birth care (assuming she gets any) to compassionately counsel her about treatment programs. I want drug treatment programs to be abundant and free, so that no barriers prevent pregnant women from using them – unlike the many programs that have historically refused to admit expectant mothers! I want her caregivers to kindly and non-coercively explain her birth control options, including the potential benefits of long-term contraceptive methods (both the IUD and hormonal methods). I want her to have free access to birth control. If her children must be placed for adoption, open adoption should be the default unless there are very compelling grounds to separate the children from their birth mother.

That is a pro-choice position. I do see a need to exercise judgment. I do assert that childbearing while in the grips of an addition is a Bad Idea. Abandoning judgment, in such cases, would be abandoning responsibility. What makes this position pro-choice isn’t a refusal to judge; it’s rejecting punitive and coercive measures.

Now, Sarah Palin obviously is not comparable to a poor drug addict (unless you want to call power an addiction). Palin lives in a realm of privilege that insulates her kids, to some degree. CPS is not about to seize them even if she and Todd serve them Lucky Charms with crystal meth sprinkles for breakfast.

But the basic question still stands: Must feminists withhold judgment when a woman – or man! – makes reproductive or parenting decisions that are grossly unwise? Does it make us anti-choice to say that even though a woman has the legal right to implant eight embryos into her womb, it’s nonetheless an über-crappy decision? Does it make us anti-choice to say that medical evidence unequivocally shows that smoking is worse than crack for a developing fetus, and so every effort must be made to help expectant parents (not just mothers!) stop smoking?

And is it really anti-choice to say that Palin’s decision to fly home after her water broke not only potentially endangered her and Trig, but also exposed the whole plane to the risks of an emergency landing? I’m not saying “There oughtta be a law,” just that it was a piss-poor decision.

Again, this is not policing Palin’s uterus. This is questioning what went on in her brain. And if she runs again for POTUS, her brain is the organ that ought to concern us.

The good mother/bad mother dichotomy is still used as a cudgel. It’s one that feminists should always regard with deep suspicion.

But sometimes, bad mothering – and importantly, bad parenting – is egregious. When it occurs in politicians who position themselves as paragons of family values, it’s reasonable to ask about their general judgment and scrutinize them for hypocrisy. So while I regard it as out-of-bounds to criticize Todd and Sarah Palin for the fact that Bristol became pregnant, I do think it’s fair to criticize how they handled it in the national spotlight. When the Palins announced Bristol’s pregnancy instead of debunking the Trig rumors head-on, both parents threw their eldest daughter under the bus. (It was Sarah and her political who made that decision, but the First Dude was part of that inner circle and I’ll bet he could have vetoed it.) Similarly, it’s understandable that Sarah Palin would have kept her pregnancy quiet until late in the game. Most women who work for pay realize that they may be seen as less competent and committed once their pregnancy becomes public, and that goes doubly for female politician. What’s not reasonable is boarding a plane without any idea how imminent labor might be after leaking amniotic fluid.

If wanting politicians to exhibit sound judgment not just in public life but as private individuals – and yes, as parents – makes me an anti-feminist, so be it. Just let me know where I should turn in my F-card.

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I’ve got to disagree with Clarissa on this one: It’s not fair to equate pregnancy with a hangover (even if the nausea can be similarly overwhelming). Specifically, a student who misses class for pregnancy-related disability should not be treated the same as one who misses due to oversleeping or a hangover.

But let’s back up. Clarissa was responding to a post by The Feminist Breeder on prodromal labor, in which TFB also mentioned that she was feeling crappy enough in her 40th week of gestation that she just couldn’t hang with her college-degree program. Here’s the bit that set Clarissa off:

I have to keep going to class until I’m really in labor, and school is pretty far away.  My Tuesday class is a reasonable half hour away, but my Wednesday class is 90 minutes away in traffic.  If I started hard, active labor at school, I have no idea what I would do.  Also – get this – I left class early last Tuesday because I was so sick I couldn’t see straight, and my professor actually had the balls to dock me 20 out of 25 possible Participation points just because I had to leave.  Clearly she’ll be docking me ALL 25 Participation points for each class I miss while I’m doing a silly little thing like trying to have a baby, so I cannot take off a single extra day other than what is absolutely necessary.  (And yes, I am SOOO writing a letter about that.)

Now, I think jumping straight to a letter to college administrators, rather than trying so say, talk to her prof, is pouring gas on the flames. If a student has a beef – especially an adult student like TBF who’s got the cojones and verbal skills – she should first talk to the the instructor, preferably when she doesn’t feel on the verge of hurling. Personally, I would be much more receptive to a conversation than a formal complaint. Going slow offers a chance to preserve the student-teacher relationship as a collaborative one. Going directly to the administration strikes most teachers as an act of aggression (which is why I’ve never done that to my kids’ teachers, even when it might have been warranted). Often, too, the instructor will cool down and reassess a rash decision, opening the gate to a reasonable compromise. If not, there’s still time to write a scathing letter, though I suspect TBF, who could very well be in labor as I write this, felt the hourglass was empty (prodromal labor has a way of remininding one of the clock). And so I understand perfectly why she might skip negotiating and just lodge a formal complaint.

That said, I just can’t sign on to Clarissa’s reaction:

There is no doubt in my mind that her pregnancy is very special to this woman. It must also be very special to her relatives and friends. For strangers, however, of which her professor is one, it is neither more nor less special than another student’s hangover. Both the pregnancy and the hangover are the results of the choices these students made as adults. In my capacity as an educator, I don’t think it’s my place to judge whose choices are more legitimate and deserve of greater consideration. All I need to know is that the student wasn’t there and, as a result, didn’t manage to participate.

This is a false conception of “fairness.” As my friend Moonglow (who just happens to be the mother of a brand-new daughter, yippee!!!) told me today: “I never promise my kids that I’ll treat them all equally. But I do commit to treating them all fairly. That means knowing what each of them needs and when they need it.” (And if I misquoted you, my dear, please blame it on the delectable distraction of brie with fig jam.)

Much the same goes for my students. Last spring, a student of mine landed in the ER with appendicitis and only appeared two weeks later (full documentation in hand). I’ve had multiple students felled by mono, over the years. I’ve had students come to me with serious mental health issues (sometimes exacerbated by the portion of my syllabus dealing with sexual violence). I’ve had students totter to class on crutches due to slippery messes in the dorms. I’ve had students with arms in casts due to (ahem) barroom brawls.

I am not happy about the last category of problem – injuries that result from drunken stupidity – but I am grateful for those students’ frankness. And once a student acquires a disability, don’t I have an obligation – both human and feminist – to accommodate it? Would I not be a monster to mark down a student on participation just because his appendix tried to kill him? How could I live with myself if a student went into a spiral of depression, and I exacerbated it with rigid expectations of attending every single class meeting?

Last year, I had a graduate student announce to me that she was likely to give birth within the next couple of weeks. I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even noticed she was pregnant, only that she’d put on a few pounds. (That alone should’ve given me pause, because I tend not to notice even major changes in people’s shapes. I’m obtuse that way.) The very next class meeting, she was absent, because she’d just come through labor. A week later, she showed up for class, her iPhone brimming with baby pictures. She worked very hard not to let her pregnancy interfere with her coursework, but I certainly could have found ways to accommodate her if she’d asked for more time off.

There’s an easy, pragmatic, fair solution to most of these situations. Exempt the student from work missed (as long as it’s not a major project) and weight the rest of their grade more heavily. This little trick works as well for a pregnant student as for anyone else struck by unexpected disability. The student does pay a small price, in that there’s more pressure on the rest of their work and less opportunity to dilute a crummy grade. But it’s a fair price that makes allowances for the fallibility and vulnerability of our flesh. However much a university might pretend that we’re all disembodied brains, in the end those brains still rely pretty heavily on their whole-body support systems.

I guess I’m a bit of a feminist-Marxist on these issues: from each according to hir ability, to each according to hir needs. That doesn’t mean abandoning all standards. It simply means realizing that life intervenes. Death intervenes. And all kinds of other shit – good, bad, and ugly – intervenes, too. Students are whole people, often needy people, coping with lives more complicated than we instructors often know. They cannot be reduced to their throbbing-in-a-petri-dish brains (or pickled-in-a-game-of-beer-pong brains, either).

This isn’t a matter of trusting my students. (Mostly they deserve my trust; sometimes they prove that they don’t.) It’s a matter of trusting my own judgment. I trust myself to distinguish between the student who couldn’t turn in her final paper on time due to strep and the one who added my class late, then fell asleep in the back row after a mere three minutes! Hey, at least he zonked out so fast I couldn’t take it personally; there was no time for me to bore him to sleep.

This is also an arena where I have to live true to my principles. Any feminist ought to be committed to disability rights. Heck, even Sarah Palin (a nightmare feminist, but a feminist nonetheless, in my book) at least pays lip service to disability rights. You cannot honor human rights without acknowledging that most of us, if we live long enough, will eventually live with a disability. You cannot work toward gender justice but then insist it’s only for those of completely able bodies and minds. What does that mean for me, practically speaking? If a student is struggling to achieve with a disability – of any sort, be it a physical, mental-health, or learning-style condition – it’s my job as an educator, feminist, and mensch to help them perform at their peak, on as level a playing field as I can cobble together.

But hey – isn’t pregnancy a natural, healthy condition? Well, for all the work that women’s health educators, natural childbirth advocates, and feminist historians have done to unseat the idea that pregnancy = disability, we do childbearing women an awful disservice if we insist that pregnancy never spawns disability. Most of us suffer at least debilitating fatigue. Most of us have stories about how we nearly ralphed at work. My students from fall 2002 and winter 2003 – when I was gestating the Tiger – can consider themselves lucky that I maintained a barf-free classroom. And I got off easy, compared to my friends who landed in the hospital, hitched to an IV, after weeks of incessant vomiting.

If you care about women, you must care about mothers, and thus you must be willing to honor pregnancy-related disability as real disability. And yes, pregnancy usually results from a planned, voluntary choice, these days, but not always; women still find themselves pregnant against their will, and they still sometimes decide to carry out a surprise pregnancy, even with the option to terminate. Anyway: Should I only make allowances for students’ injuries if they can prove that, say, the other guy started the fight, or the other driver broke the law? And do I really want to start interrogating a pregnant student about why she and her partner didn’t both get sterilized before they ever had sex (after all, every other contraceptive is fallible), or why she didn’t terminate the pregnanacy early on? That way lies fascism.

To be crystal clear – and fair! – Clarissa doesn’t advocate bare-bulb interrogations. She instead argues that one should never cut students slack when their free will contributed to their inability to participate; that a class missed due to a hangover is no different than one missed due to pregnancy symptoms, because in both cases, “choice” was involved. I trust Clarissa enough to believe her when she says she’s a good teacher – and actually, I trust that in a few more years, because she’s smart and tuned in to her students, she may very well trust herself to draw finer-grained judgments, which just might put the pregnant students in a different category from the hardcore imbibers.

But this other extreme – harshly penalizing pregnant women for making a “lifestyle choice” that most couples eventually make (but predominantly women  pay for) – sets feminism back a couple of generations. It tells women, “It’s fine if you want to compete with the men – as long as you’re just like the men!” Didn’t we leave that trap behind us in the ’80s, along with big hair, shoulder pads, and Tears for Fears?

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As of this writing, our so-called leaders are still engaged in budget brinksmanship. Alternet called it correctly: This is the Republicans applying shock doctrine. They are doing their damnedest to break democracy. They’re such patriots that they’re willing to delay paychecks reaching our already-underpaid rank-and-file troops.

The Tea Partiers, in particular, are willing to hold our government hostage to their unhinged plan to defund Planned Parenthood.

For the Tea Party, this seems to be a win-win. If they get to defund Planned Parenthood, they’ll have achieved an unimaginable victory in their war against women’s bodies, which otherwise the Senate would block. If they get to shut down the government, then it’s party time. Woo hoo! We’re gonna party like it’s 1995!

A lot can happen in 16 years of politics. Since Newt Gingrich threw his slimy wrench into the works, we’ve had presidential blowjobs, welfare reform, the rise (and now fall?) of the DOMA, hanging chads, Enron and Bernie Madoff, 9/11 and the security state, at least three U.S. wars (that we know of), torture and secret prisons, an economic meltdown, election of our first black president, the rise Mama Grizzlies, pistols at Tea Parties, the attempted assassination of a congresswoman, and gallons of Boehnerian tears. Oh, and a substantial portion of the present electorate was still in the Blues Clues or Britney Spears demographic in 1995, and they have no memory of Newt’s machinations.

Even Newt’s own memory seems to have blurred. In the late ’90s, the conventional wisdom held that the shutdown hurt the Republicans, making them look like the extremists they were (and are), and paving the way for Bill Clinton’s re-election. Back then, the Newtster concurred with with this view. By now, though, he’s hyping the shutdown threat as a positive, viable tactic for his comrades.

The Tea Partiers are practically drooling over the prospect of a shutdown. What more dramatic way to demonstrate their small-government cred to the voters back home? What better way for Rep. Mike Pence to show that women’s bodies are expendable that he really, really hates abortion? Sure, some of us will see it as childish and irresponsible to practice blackmail and hold women’s health hostage. We are the same people who already found the “me-first, me-second, and me-third” attitude of the Tea Party childish and irresponsible. (Not to mention cruel.) We are the same people who know that the Planned Parenthood funding in question cannot legally be used to subsidize abortions.

For Tea Party supporters, though, a shutdown is red meat.

As I write this, the talking heads on MSNBC are discussing whether John Boehner can deliver on a potential compromise deal that may have been hammered out behind closed doors this evening. My take on it: I don’t think he can. As right-wing as Boehner is himself, his Tea Party colleagues are neck deep in anti-government, anti-woman ideology. They see this as a matter of principle. They perceive, again, a win-win.

So I fully expect a shutdown. My hope is that the party will end as it did in 1995: with a lose-lose for the Republicans, who will look petty and extreme. (Which is, of course, exactly what they are.) In any event, the Democrats have already made such deep concessions that no one will be dancing. The compromise already reported includes the $33 billion in domestic spending cuts that Republicans have demanded.

What do y’all think? Will the shutdown happen tomorrow? Will it be deferred ’til later? Or will Captain Boehner deliver?

And is there any hope that Obama would veto a package that included the demolition of Planned Parenthood and/or the full $33 billion in cuts? Remember: The 1995/96 shutdowns only occurred after President Bill Clinton vetoed the heaping pile of a budget that the Republican Congress sent him. Obama frequently tries to frame himself as Reagan’s successor, but it’s Clinton who learned from Reagan not to negotiate with hostage-takers.

Update, 4/8/11, 12:15 p.m.: Maddow had a great segment on the potential shutdown tonight, arguing that unlike the mid-1990s, there’s no high-profile Republican to take the heat, as Newt did in 1995/96. I am now feeling like the game may be lose/lose, after all.

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Oh, Ohio. The batshittery just never ends. As you may have heard, we’ve got pending legislation (House Bill 125, aka the Heartbeat Bill) that would make abortion illegal as soon as a heartbeat can be detected. That would be at six or seven weeks, when a woman might well not know she’s pregnant. (Keep in mind that spotting is fairly common during the first month of pregnancy when one’s period would usually be due, so even a woman tuned into her body could be fooled.)

This is the same bill for which Republican lawmakers called a fetus to testify. Actually, it was two fetuses, whose heartbeat was played for our esteemed legislators via ultrasound. (Quite sensibly, one of the fetuses refused to cooperate with the proceedings.)

Yesterday, the bill emerged from committee, but House Speaker William Batchelder won’t yet commit to a date for a vote. Batchelder is a Republican and a hardcore pro-lifer. Why would he waffle?

Turns out that this bill is splitting the anti-abortion camp. Ohio Right to Life – the biggest anti-abortion lobby in the state – is actually begging state legislators to back off of the Heartbeat Bill. They fear the bill couldn’t pass constitutional muster. Of course, this isn’t a principled objection. Ohio Right to Life remains committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. They just realize Anthony Kennedy is unlikely to vote to uphold a measure this extreme. (It doesn’t even include a rape/incest exception.)

I say, bring it on. Anything that divides the Republicans and anti-abortion lobbies is good by me. This direct challenge to Roe – which is what the Heartbeat Bill’s supporters actually crave – will go down in flames. If it passes the Senate and goes to the courts, the Supreme Court will surely refudiates it. This will strengthen Roe’s basic finding that the state cannot prohibit abortions prior to fetal viability. A successful court challenge might even take down Ohio’s 24-hour mandatory waiting period and “counseling” – or so fears Ohio Right to Life! My, this bill is sounding better all the time.

Here’s what really worries me. While we’re all distracted by chatter about vaginal sonograms in the Statehouse and the circus of fetuses “testifying,” another bill (H.B. 78/S.B. 72) has passed both chambers and is headed for the desk of Governor Kasich, who’s certain to sign it. That bill’s viability (so to speak) looks much stronger. It would ban abortion after 20 weeks (instead of Ohio’s current 22-week limit). In addition, H.B. 7 – which would place the burden of proof on abortion providers to show a fetus was not viable – is still lurking in the wings, along with other anti-choice legislation.

At least none of my representatives has threatened to criminalize miscarriages. Not yet.

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I continue to be transfixed by the situation in Japan, where technology has shown its best and worst face in the past few days. “Best,” I say, because the terrible human losses would have been greater yet, had builders not prepared for violent earthquakes. There were certainly gaps in planning for the tsunami, in particular, but overall Japan’s construction technology saved untold lives – tens of thousands.

The nuclear plants partly had bad luck, but then again, the chain of power failures that’s now leading to overheated radioactive fuel rods was fairly predictable. I don’t know enough about the technology to give an explainer. Rachel Maddow continues to have good coverage. But essentially, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to know that highly radioactive spent fuel presents a problem for decades at a minimum, even under controlled circumstances. How many civilizations have survived for tens of thousands of years – long enough to keep ploutonium contained? And yes, some of the fuel rods (about 6%) at the Daiichi plant contain some plutonium.

Then again, with some technologies you really don’t need to be an expert in order to say: this is stupid. A case in point is the use of hormones to stunt girls’ growth lest they grow too tall to catch a husband. I knew that this was a fairly common practice in the 1950s. A recent study reports that the estrogen used to stop growth also mucked with these girls’ fertility, and as adults they have had trouble conceiving. Not all that surprising. What did shock me? The fact that this practice continues today.

This use for estrogen gained popularity about 50 years ago after researchers found it might limit the growth of girls who were much taller than their peers in adolescence. According to one estimate, up to 5,000 girls in the U.S. were treated with estrogen, and many more in Europe.

At that time, “women were basically supposed to get married and have children, and that would be harder if you were a very tall woman, everybody believed,” Christine Cosgrove, co-author of Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height, told Reuters Health.

“There were so many parents, mostly mothers probably, who just feared that their daughters’ lives would be ruined if they ended up being six feet tall, because they’d never have a husband and a family,” she said.

Some tall girls are still treated with estrogen today — more in Europe than in the United States — and estrogen is currently given to these girls in about the same dose that is in a birth control pill, Cosgrove said. In the past, it might have been given at 100 times that dose before doctors realized the potential dangers, she said.

[Cosgrove is co-author of Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height, speaking here to Reuters.]

Two very different scenarios – one a matter of life-and-death, the other “merely” a matter of life foregone through infertility. Yet both reflect the foolhardiness of humans when it comes to technology. I’m no Luddite (my laptop is a cyborg extension of my brain), but could we just cut it out with the human experimentation? Because that’s what nuclear plants are, at bottom, too – an uncontrolled experiment with far too many uncontrollable variables. Also, perhaps friend-of-the-blog Hydraargyrum will chime in on this: humanity will never win against CORROSION, which is basically what I understand to be happening at lightning speed in those uncooled fuel rods.

Can’t we humans please learn for once, and put an end to the techno-hubris?

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Here’s an item from the annals of “no shit, Sherlock!” science: A UCSF study shows a stunning decrease in unintended pregnancy and abortion when women are dispensed a year’s supply of birth control pills at once. What’s stunning is not the basic trend line, but the magnitude of the study’s findings. Science Daily recaps it:

Researchers observed a 30 percent reduction in the odds of pregnancy and a 46 percent decrease in the odds of an abortion in women given a one-year supply of birth control pills at a clinic versus women who received the standard prescriptions for one — or three-month supplies.

Can I rephrase those numbers? Pregnancy declined by nearly a third, and abortion by nearly half!

This is such an an simple yet elegant idea, you’d think it would have occurred to someone decades ago. It’s also a politically charged idea in an era where Planned Parenthood is having to fight for its very existence.

Insurance usually issues a maximum of a three-month supply of any medication, including birth control pills. This is true even for medication that people clearly have to take for the rest of their lives, such as thyroid pills. (I haven’t been on the Pill in years, but I still sometimes come close to running out of my thyroid meds.) The situation is often tougher if you have to buy the Pill through a community clinic:

The findings of this study have implications for women using oral contraceptives across the country. Most oral contraceptive users in the United States get fewer than four packs at a time; nearly half need to return every month for resupply, according to a 2010 study published in Contraception.

Obviously, the requirement to physically show up at a clinic is most likely to hit poor women – and it will be most onerous precisely for these women, whose low-wage employers are unlikely to grant them time off for medical matters. As is so often the case in reproductive health, this is a social justice issue. I really hope this study will get the attention it deserves.

I adore this quotation from the project’s principal investigator:

“Women need to have contraceptives on hand so that their use is as automatic as using safety devices in cars, ” said Diana Greene Foster, PhD, lead author and associate professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. “Providing one cycle of oral contraceptives at a time is similar to asking people to visit a clinic or pharmacy to renew their seatbelts each month.”

Of course, some Americans object to seatbelt laws – and even seatbelt use – as an infringement on their liberty. But I’m not talking about laws to require use of the Pill; I’m only saying that women should have access to it.

While we’re on the automotive analogy, isn’t the Pill more like a reliable set of brakes?

And wouldn’t the conservative attack on access be akin to sabotaging someone’s brakes?

 

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This week I’m reading Michelle Goldberg’s masterful The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World with one of my classes. In it, Goldberg traces the history of foreign aid for women’s health – especially reproductive health – from its Cold War, Rockefeller/Ford/Guttmacher beginnings to the present era.

In 2011, well into the second decade after the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, you’d think we’d be well along the path blazed there: foregrounding women’s need for education and autonomy. Nuh-unh!! Instead, the proponents of women’s reproductive autonomy in developing nations and the Global South face constant friction and opposition from groups funded by the Radical Christian Right in the U.S. This trajectory toward radical rightwing interference is lucidly, chillingly described in Goldberg’s book. It’s as though women’s bodies became a proxy war for the tensions over reproductive rights and justice back here in the U.S.

And now, with the House of Representatives today voting to defund Title X funding, that proxy war has come home. For details, see excellent recaps by Lindsay Beyerstein and Jill Filipovic. The legislation wouldn’t affect abortions – except to inflate their numbers by making birth control less accessible to poor women and young women. No, the target here is broader. It’s a war against all women, but especially those who are poor.

When I was young and underinsured, I too turned to Planned Parenthood, and I’m forever grateful for their services. Some women are transiently poor, like I was. Many struggle with poverty throughout their childbearing years. All of us deserve affordable access to basic services like a Pap test.

I believe this even though – or especially because! – I had a few dodgy Pap test results in my early twenties. Those diagnoses of “cervical dysplasia” scared me. Cone biopsies were threatened. The cellular abnormalities resolved on their own, as HPV usually does. Had I progressed toward cervical cancer, Planned Parenthood might well have saved my life.

All women deserve preventive care, and that includes the prevention of pregnancy. This is sooo not rocket science.

Odds are good that the Senate won’t stand for the House’s crap. Still, I’m appalled that a majority in the House signed onto it. While some members may try to hide behind a figleaf of fiscal responsibility, that’s balderdash, as Amanda Marcotte argues:

Of course, rhetoric that attacks federal funding for contraception as a state-subsidy for promiscuity obscures the fact that continuing Title X is one of the more fiscally sound things the government can do: Research from the Guttmacher Institute demonstrates that every dollar spent on family planning saves the government four dollars down the road.

(Read her whole piece – it’s excellent.)

No, this is strictly culture war ammo, just as the Mexico City rule and all the other right-wing meddling into brown and black women’s bodies has to do with ideology and misogyny – not fiscal soundness.

This is merely the continuation of funding politics imposed on the “Third World” – now aimed at women that Chandra Mohanty once called the “Third World” in the United States. This is the redirection of contempt for brown and black women’s bodies to those women living within U.S. borders. Women like me – white, securely middle-class, employed, insured, and slouching toward the end of my reproductive years – will be just fine. It’s poor women of color who will suffer. College students who can’t tell their conservative parents that they’re on the pill. Appalachian women lacking any form of health insurance.

Senate? The ball’s in your court. Please show us that you consider women human beings whose health is as important as men’s – who should have a chance to participate fully in society – and who should not be written off if they lack racial or class privilege.

In the clip below, Michelle Goldberg suggests that the U.S. culture wars have affected women outside the U.S. more profoundly than women here at home. Up until now, she’s been right. As to the future? Well, that might just be up to the Senate.

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With my partner a whole ocean away from me, I’m not in a very lovey-dovey mood for Valentine’s Day. That leaves plenty of time to think about what allowed Love to sneak out of courtly ballads and Shakespearean plays and into the hearts of average Americans. And no, it’s not chick lit or rom-coms.

The long answer would involve reading Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage – the story of how marriage made the historical shift from an economic arrangement to a partnership from which we expect love and companionship..

Oh, and by now we also expect hot sex for more years than humans used to live, period, from birth to death. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther set us down this road when he rejected the Catholic insistence on procreative sex, and instead embraced pleasure in marriage. Luther liked marriage. He termed it a “hospital for lust.” Bear in mind that in those days, hospitals weren’t in the business of curing; they took the poor and the insane and the unwed-but-pregnant off the streets. They were a way of containing social problems. Bear in mind, too, that Luther thought women’s lot was to be wives and mothers, undoing some of Eve’s screw-up in the garden. Still, there’s a solid though wavy line from Luther to Susie Bright.

The short answer: If we feel free to love today – or to lust outside of of the old “hospital” – we can thank two things: 1) the right to say no to sex, the key prerequisite for sighing a breathy, enthusiastic YES, and 2) reliable birth control with legal abortion as a safe backup. From the Ohio Statehouse to the House of Representatives, these rights are under more ferocious fire than I can recall in the post-Roe era.

But it’s a holiday, and so instead of gloom, let there be satire! It’s the more festive response – and maybe more effective , too. Here’s Kristen Schaal of the Daily Show, mocking the piss out of the “No Taxpayer Money for Abortions” crowd.

I used this in class last week to illuminate rape myths, and students got it like never before. (Does this mean college administrators will one day replace me with a semi-random mix off the tubes?)

And I knew I liked Felicity Huffman anyway (Lynnette is my favorite housewife, of course) but now I’m besotted:

(Via Rachel at Women’s Health NewsIf you can’t see either clip from your blog reader, click on through and say hey while you’re here.)

Take that to your next Tea Party, and sip it!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, especially to those of you who are celebrating it alone with chocolate, champagne, or blogging. (I’ve only got two out of three but am wondering why I am too cheap to open the champagne sans partner. Wandering off to the kitchen now to rectify what I can …)

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This year’s Blog for Choice Day theme is to contemplate what the electoral gains of the anti-choicers will mean for “choice” this year. I’m sure other bloggers will ponder the damage liable to be wrought by our virulently anti-choice new Congress. For my part? I think most of the mischief will occur at the state level, where a new crop of reactionary leaders will exploit the abortion issue to pander to their base.

Take Ohio. (Please! Or at least, deliver me from our new “leadership.”) With John Kasich, we now have a blithering idiot as a governor. He’s so far right that if the earth were flat, he’d tumble off  its right edge. We have a completely Republican legislature. The anti-choicers are emboldened. And they’ve already made their first move.

Modernesquire at Plunderbund reports that one of our Democratic (!) legislators, Lorraine Fende, has introduced a bill that she and the media are framing as a ban on all late-term abortions. As Modernesquire notes, Ohio already has a law in place that prohibits “partial-birth abortions”: Ohio Revised Code 2919.151.

Modernesquire (who unlike me, is an actual lawyer) suggests that the late-term ban is redundant with ORC 2919.151, except in one crucial respect:

It potentially criminalizes all abortions.  H.B. 7 enacts a new section 2929.17 that makes the performance of any abortion in which the fetus is arguably “viable” a fourth-degree felony.  “Viable” is defined under the bill as:

“the stage of development of a human fetus at which in the determination of a physician, based on the particular facts of a woman’s pregnancy that are known to the physician and in light of medical technology and information reasonably available to the physician, there is a realistic possibility of the maintaining and nourishing of a life outside of the womb with or without temporary artificial life-sustaining support.”

The statute also creates a rebuttable presumption that any fetus at 24-weeks gestational age is viable.  But note that the statute does not create a converse rebuttable presumption that any fetus before 24-weeks ISN’T viable.  The bill declares the issue of the viability of the fetus to be an affirmative defense.  What does that mean?  It means that the State has no burden to proof that a fetus was viable to criminally prosecute a doctor under this provision, even in instances that don’t involve a late-term abortion.  Instead, the doctor has the burden at trial to convince a criminal jury unanimously that the fetus was not viable, or that the abortion was necessary to protect the life of the mother, or to protect from serious and irreversible impairment of the pregnant woman’s medical health.

If a doctor carries the burden of proof to show that the fetus was not viable, this bill would surely have a chilling effect. It would be still be pointless for a prosecutor to pursue first trimester abortions, but what’s to stop him from questioning the viability of a 20-week-old fetus? An 18-week-old fetus? Second-trimester abortions.

In criminal cases the burden typically falls on the state to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the burden of proof is reversed in a stunning disregard for basic principles of jurisprudence. Modernesquire again:

Normally, affirmative defenses are things in the criminal law in which the law recognizes that the Defendant committed a crime, but holds that certain factors require the Defendant to not be held culpable for the crime such as insanity and self-defense.  In this instance, however, it takes what should be a major element for the State to have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and forces the accused to prove the negative instead.  Such element shifting can only be by design to encourage prosecutions against any abortion provider.

Yes. Furthermore, this “element shifting” constructs second-trimester abortions as presumptively illegal. It essentially says that any abortion within the latter part of the second trimester is assumed to be a crime – unless proven otherwise.

With all due respect to Modernesquire’s legal smarts, I do notice a difference between the proposed bill (House Bill 7) and the existing law. They don’t appear to be entirely redundant, because existing law is limited to a single procedure (which it charmingly terms “feticide.”) ORC 2919.151 explicitly distinguishes between dilation and extraction (aka “partial-birth abortion”) and other techniques; it explicitly exempts dilation and evacuation, another late-term technique that is often an implicit target of restrictions on “partial-birth abortions”:

This section does not prohibit the suction curettage procedure of abortion, the suction aspiration procedure of abortion, or the dilation and evacuation procedure of abortion.

House Bill 7 is silent on these other procedures. It does not exempt any particular procedures. It appears to broaden the scope of the earlier “partial-birth” ban to any technique used in the second trimester – and even to those, like suction curettage, which are used only for early abortions!

Fende’s bill contains another little bombshell: it significantly narrows the health exemption for late-term abortions. Where the law previously included multiple sclerosis and diabetes as conditions that impose a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” and thus permit abortion late in pregnancy, now those two diseases are downgraded: they may be included among such conditions, but they’re clearly ranked lower than preeclampsia, which isn’t saddled with such a qualifier:

A medically diagnosed condition that constitutes a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” includes pre-eclampsia, inevitable abortion, and premature rupture of the membranes, may include, but is not limited to, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and does not include a condition related to the woman’s mental health. [my emphasis]

In what appears to be a very substantial change, mental health would never qualify as a reason for late-term abortion. Where Fende invokes the image of a woman cavalierly choosing to abort at 8 1/2 months, my imagination conjures up a woman struggling with psychosis – a woman in acute danger of ending her own life. We are not talking about a woman who’s having a lousy day, feeling a tad blue, and flips a coin: an abortion or a pedicure as a quick pick-me-up? Hmm, if I get the abortion, I can paint my own toes??

Oh, and in any case where the fetus could be remotely considered viable, H.B. 7 mandates that the doctor performing the termination get a written certification from a second physician that abortion was medically necessary. The only exception would be for dire, acute emergencies.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that some Ohio lawmakers want to tinker with H.B. 7 to define a fetus as potentially viable all the way back to 20 weeks. As far as I know, no fetus born at 20 weeks has yet survived. For those of us who get ambiguous test results during the 19th week (as I did in my second pregnancy) and need to pursue further testing to learn what we’re up against, a 20-week deadline would be a nightmare. It would trigger precipitous decisions to abort in some instances, while potentially criminalizing those who choose termination after additional tests.

I’d like to close with some comforting words about how this bill doesn’t stand a chance. But you know, the Statehouse leadership saw fit to introduce this bill among its first ten. The Repubs are making it a priority. It’s sponsored by a Democrat. And Governor Kasich is shaping up as the kind of guy who’ll make G.W. Bush appear intelligent, humane, and pro-feminist.

If by some miracle this bill flounders, it’ll only be a matter of weeks before the anti-choicers launch their next salvo.

And that’s just my adopted state of Ohio. My purportedly purple state. I cringe to think of what will happen in those states that are even more retrograde.

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Gratuitous flowers for a sex post: Cascading morning glories captured by me, Sungold, in October, back before the frost bit ‘em.

The Denver Post ran an article today asking why an arousal-booster for women called Zestra can’t find TV stations willing to run their ads, even as Viagra ads are literally driving in circles around us. Historiann took the article to task for its casual disavowal of feminism, and I’ve got nothin’ to add to her critique except a vigorous nod of approval. Figleaf chimed in to say that the stations’ ad policies spotlight the illegitimacy of autonomous female desire.

What most struck me about the article, though, was its conflation of libido and arousal, which is endemic in “science writing” that reports on “pink viagra.” Here’s how reporter Mary Winter framed it:

Now, you would not know it from the $300-million annual ad campaign for erection-enhancing ads for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, but women suffer more sexual dysfunction than men do — 43 percent to 31 percent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In other words, the potential market for flagging female libidos is huge. But here’s the irony: When the makers of Zestra went to 100 television networks and stations to buy ads, the vast majority refused them. The few stations that did take their money would run the ads only after midnight or during the daytime.

The stations “told us they were not comfortable airing the ads,” Zestra co-founder Mary Jaensch told “Nightline.” The double-standard here — men, you deserve sexual pleasure, and women, what’s wrong with you hussies? — is breathtaking.

So how about this ad: a Camaro, a woman, and a vibrating driver’s seat?

(This is just the end of the article; read the whole thing here. Winter is very sharp and witty on the Viagra ads!)

In a way, it’s unfair to pick on Winter, because most writing about female sexual dysfunction fails to draw basic distinctions between arousal, orgasm, desire, and libido. It also tends to ignore the reality of the physical pain some women experience (which K has explored eloquently at Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction.) In practice, women can of course have issues with any or all of the above, and problems in one area can easily spill into another. A woman  suffering from vulvodynia, for instance, might be able to orgasm, but if sexual activity hurts, that’s likely to dampen her libido. Another woman might have a generally low libido (meaning she doesn’t crave sex very often) but develop desire responsively to her partner, at least in certain situations. There are probably as many variations as there are women.

Now, getting back to Zestra and the Denver Post: Winter’s article refers mainly to libido. She’s partly on the right track, insofar as that “42 percent” figure refers mainly to women who complain about low libido. (Some feminists have criticized that figure as too high, but let’s set that debate aside for today.) Winter does hint at the primary issue here – arousal – in that apparent throwaway line about a vibrating driver seat in the Camaro. Why yes, I think quite a few of us gals might enjoy such a ride! But if we got a good buzz per gallon, that wouldn’t mean our libido was revving – only that our engine was purring smoothly.

Libido is not the primary target for Zestra, though Zestra’s website refers to a whole host of potential benefits: stronger libido, greater satisfaction, more earth-shaking orgasms, and a more harmonious relationship with one’s partner. (That last point comes up only in testimonials; the overall tone of the website is “try this for yourself,” not “use this to please your long-suffering husband.”) It’s being marketed to women who suffer from sexual problems of any sort due to illness (including cancer), postpartum changes, menopause, antidepressants, stress, and even widowhood. But what does it really do?

Zestra’s primary mechanism, as far as I understand it, is to enhance arousal and response during sexual activity. As far as I can see without having tried it myself, it looks like it might increase engorgement and/or creaste prickling sensations in a nice way. In the best case, yummy sensations start a cascade of increasing desire during lovemaking. As a topical agent applied directly to one’s ladyparts, Zestra doesn’t act directly on libido, which is regulated by the brain and a complex dance of different hormones and neurotransmitters (including estrogen and testosterone, but also thyroid hormone, stress hormones, dopamine and lots of other nifty “messenger” chemicals). A topical gel won’t directly influence that chemical brew. It’s only logical, though, that if sex is more pleasurable, some women might want it more. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has written about how hot sex with a new partner gives us a dopamine high akin to cocaine (quick summary of her ideas here). Maybe hot sex with in a newly reinvigorated relationship can give us the same buzz?

Also, the testing for Zestra relied on women who committed to have sex eight times in a month, so it’s unlikely many of them had a super low libido. (For more details on the testing, check out the clinical study.) These women were already open to regular sex. As a group they sound to me more like women who basically like sex but were frustrated by difficulty getting aroused. They don’t sound like the subset of women who’ve given up on sex – a group that constitutes about 15% of American marriages, by the way. (This according to Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times, where “sexless” was defined as no sex at all with one’s spouse during the previous six to twelve months.)

In other words, the mechanism behind Zestra appears to be entirely different than flibanserin, an orally-administered drug recently rejected by the FDA for ineffectiveness. Flibanserin was supposed to increase libido directly by changing one’s brain chemistry. It too was compared to Viagra, and quite wrongly so: Viagra targets a mans plumbing, so to speak. It produces an erection (though it almost always requires mental and/or physical stimulation to be effective). Flibanserin left physical arousal untouched while aiming to increase psychological arousal and desire.

Calling flib a “pink viagra” was just misleading. In the case of Zestra, the comparison appears more apples-to-apples, since both Viagra and Zestra appear to work by increasing engorgement.

I still think it’s too bad that flib flopped. Yes, the drug was intended to be a Big Pharma Bonanza. I don’t really give a shit. If it had really helped women live better, I’d be all for it. I trust women to make decisions about their bodies (though I also insist on our responsibility to understand our bodies. At any rate, flib failed to gain FDA approval because it didnt work.

As far as I know, there’s still nothing  on the market that specifically helps women who only desire sex once in a blue moon. For some women, hormone therapy (sometimes including testosterone as well as estrogen) delivers a libido boost. But hormones carry some risk. Women fear breast cancer if they take estrogen and they fear growing a beard and unibrow if they take T. But these are the choices, because there’s no drug that specifically targets libido.

Zestra interests me because it seems to be quite safe (worst side effect: transient burning sensations in some rather precious real estate). I’m skeptical to the extent that their studies are pretty small. Unavoidably, the very fact of running a study is an intervention in itself. This can have real effects on its findings. How many of the couples studied would have had sex at least eight times in a month? If most would’ve had less, that means Zestra wasn’t the only independent variable. Perhaps the twice-weekly commitment, combined with a new toy or just wall-to-wall pictures of George Clooney and Jon Hamm would fire their engines just as well. I’m pretty sure I’d be off and roaring on that program! (Where do I sign up?)

Seriously, I have been meaning to try Zestra just for the fun of it, since it sounds like its potential benefits might not be limited to people suffering from difficulty with arousal … and, y’know, anything for science! I’ve got a packet of it in a drawer but I’m not so sure what my lab partner would think.

As always, I’m very curious if any of you out there in bloglandia have given Zestra a whirl? And if so – are you willing to dish? Pretty please?

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You probably caught the story a couple of weeks ago about Dubya seeing the remains of his mothers’ miscarriage in a jar. As New York Magazine reported:

After Barbara Bush suffered a devastating miscarriage, “she said to her teenage kid, ‘Here’s the fetus,'” [George W.] Bush told [interviewer Matt] Lauer, “gesturing as if he were holding the jar.” According to the Post, Bush says he got special permission from his mom to recount the private incident in print. Lauer reads an excerpt from the memoir where Bush, who had to drive his mother to the hospital, wrote, “I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital.” In the interview, he tells Lauer, “There’s no question that affected me, a philosophy that we should respect life,” adding that, “[The anecdote] was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”

As Knitting Clio explains, it’s actually not surprising that Bush mère and père were pro-choice, like other Republicans of their day. Dubya thus couldn’t claim a lifelong affinity for the anti-choicers. Given his fondness for conversion stories (e.g., the tale of how he was saved from alcoholism), it makes perfect sense that Dubya would present a dramatic tale to explain his departure from the family’s pro-choice legacy. Bush Jr. has denied that it was meant as a political morality tale, but it’s been received as one anyway.

What I originally found astonishing about the story was Barbara Bush’s apparent presence of mind. How many of us, in the midst of a miscarriage, would think to catch the fetal remains and put them in a jar? Grisly as it may sound, the remains might have been medically useful, indicating whether the miscarriage was complete, though I imagine her doctor performed a D&C regardless. I thought this was mildly strange but also strangely admirable.

Showing the remains to her son was a bit odder. Dubya offering this story to illustrate an evolving relationship? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother dimension of weird. Once upon a time, my mom showed me her gallstones in a jar. (Said jar resided in her medicine chest for at least decade, and might still be there.) Even accounting for the difference between gallstones and a miscarried fetus, I wouldn’t consider my mother sharing her gallstones a key event in our relationship. Frankly, I thought Dubya would’ve been well advised to just let the story stand as his anti-abortion conversion tale – full stop.

Today, the fetus-in-a-jar story took a turn for the outright bizarre. Here’s Politico’s transcript of Larry King interviewing Barbara Bush (via Shakesville):

KING: You also disclose, Barbara — George discloses something very personal about you, which he says you gave him special permission to write about. He wrote that when you once had a miscarriage, you showed him the fetus in the jar.

BARBARA BUSH: No, really, the truth is …

KING: We touched on it before. But we didn’t elaborate.

BARBARA BUSH: I didn’t put it in the jar.

KING: What?

BARBARA BUSH: It’s not in the library. No …

KING: I know.

BARBARA BUSH: George — Paula put it in the jar. And I was shocked when she gave it to him to. But, you know, memories dim a little bit.

“Paula” is evidently their long-time housekeeper. Why, for heaven’s sake, would Dubya tell the story differently after checking with his mother before publishing it? Barbara says memories dim, but why present this as the truth if they have two different recollections? Methinks her son is just in the habit of truthiness.

But the oddest thing of all is that Barbara Bush’s housekeeper would be handling a miscarried fetus. This raises all sorts of unsavory questions, such as where the fetus resided before it was placed in the jar. Did Paula handle the fetus on her own initiative, or did Barbara ask her to package it? And why would Paula give the fetus to Dubya?

Still left unanswered: the burning question of where that jar is now. I’d originally thought it went to the hospital with Dubya and Barbara – end of story. Now, all we know is “it’s not in the library.” Perhaps in the conservatory? With Professor Plum and a candlestick?

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Yesterday at 1:29 EDT, I was lecturing on fundamentalism in my religion class, listing some of the phenomena fundamentalists generally condemn as symptoms of moral decay – among them, abortion and pornography.

Yesterday at 1:29 EDT, someone using the server of the Pro Life Action League in Chicago accessed an older post of mine, “Feminist Porn: Where Are the Men?”

I made the point to my students that people aren’t as simple as their ideologies might sometimes imply. Here’s a great case in point.

I’m not even sure that one should call this hypocrisy. I think I’d rather regard it more charitably as an instance of people perhaps being creative and flexible in their ideas and behavior – a case of refusing to conform to stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that this reader was looking for ammo to prove how sexually depraved feminists can be. He or she might have a guilty relationship with sexuality that projects one’s shame onto the abjection of women that appears frequently in industrialized, mainstream porn.

But I’d prefer to imagine this reader as embracing his or her desires – not least, because it’s impossible to sustain a hard line against abortion if one regards sexual pleasure as a birthright for women and men alike, part of a full and fulfilling human life.

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The controversy about the term “birth rape” has ebbed in the blogosphere (which has a shorter attention span than my seven-year-old son). But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about it. Nor, it appears, have other people. A reader named Ann took the time today to disagree with me vehemently:

To me there is not the slightest smidgeren of doubt that the women who state that they were raped, indeed were raped. Rape is NOT, absolutely definitely NOT only about sexuality. It is mainly about power and dominance. You will find very few among the BDSM community who are not aware of this.

Rape can – also – occur in the total absence of a feeling of guilt of the perpetrator. Whether a nurse, midwife or doctor think their deeds are justified because they have a right to go home early, or that woman birthing is too dumb or distraught to know what she wants, or whether a pedophile reasons that the 5 year old boy “wants it” because he happened to leave his knickers off, or whether the husband holds his wife down, thinking she’ll eventually come around, it all does not matter. It still is rape.

(Read the whole comment here.)

I fully agree that rape is not just about sex but about power. However, by its very definition, rape is about sexualized power. The abuse of medical power has to do with power too, but it has little or nothing to do with sexuality. (An exception would be a doctor who subjects patients to sexual touching – which most definitely belongs on the continuum of sexual assault, and which happens with distressing frequency.)

A doctor who violates consent is not acting from the same motivations as the pedophile. He or she is supported by our cultural values in ways that a pedophile is not. Yes, we live in a rape culture, but you would find very few defenders of a pedophile. By contrast, medicine enjoys partial immunity from criticism because of assumptions that lay people cannot understand it, that medical personnel always hold humanitarian values, and that they will always act in the best interests of the patient.

Of course, this isn’t true. Consider another truly vile category of gynecological violation: forced sterilizations. Doctors in Nazi Germany sterilized about 400,000 women and men, the vast majority of them against their will. About half of the victims were women. The Nazi program was inspired by smaller-scale compulsory sterilization programs in the United States, whose legality the Supreme Court affirmed in its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell. Compulsory sterilization declined after 1942 in the U.S., but poor women of color have still been subjected to it in the post-war era, most notably in Puerto Rico and on Indian reservations.

There seems to be a common conception that if declining to recognize a phenomenon as rape is the same as trivializing it. And yet, we don’t call forced sterilization “rape,” nor should we. Doing so would obscure its specific nature. It would draw attention to the particular values that legitimated it: the pseudoscience of eugenics, contempt for disabled people, and society’s exaggerated deference to medical authority.

In short: something can still be an atrocity if it’s not called rape.

Insisting on accurate naming is not “language policing,” contrary to what Cara argued at The Curvature:

I also thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was about broadening our definition of rape, not narrowing it — throwing out the stranger jumping from the bushes with a knife as the only model of rape, and recreating a model that encompasses a wide variety violent experiences and promotes affirmative, enthusiastic, meaningful consent as minimum standard of decency rather than a nice bonus if you can get it. I thought that anti-rape activism was about acknowledging that rape is not just one thing, that there is more than one way to violate a person and to be violated, and that whether consent was given was more important than how much force was used. Especially in this context, the posts in question come off as nothing more than language policing, against particularly marginalized populations, no less.

(The rest of the post is here.)

First, I think we should be able to discuss the applicability of “rape” to specific phenomena without shaming other feminists as rape apologists, or saying that they are acting as oppressors, or blaming their words for harming victims. That happened in both Cara’s post and the comments to it. Critique is good; disagreement is healthy. But shaming only leads to groupthink, as the comment thread to that post shows. Only one commenter deviated even slightly from Cara’s position.

I actually don’t think that anti-rape activism is “about broadening our definition of rape” – not if this means extending the term into entirely different realms of violence that are not basically sexual. Of course I strongly support recognizing acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and other instances of sexual violence as just as real, traumatizing, and illegal as the “stranger in the bushes.” But “rape” is not an infinitely elastic term, nor should it be.

Specific names for specific violations are politically and analytically important because they push us to understand the roots of different forms of violence. In cases of medicalized violence, we need to consider the values that enable a scenario like this one, described at the blog Forever in Hell:

The problem isn’t that women in labor are uniquely in a position to be victimized by medical professionals. The victims of such medical professionals are not uniquely women in labor. In other words, you don’t have to be a woman in labor to be victimized by a medical professional. You simply have to be in a room with certain medical professionals.

Case in point: a friend of mine needed a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) in order to tell if he had Multiple Sclerosis or Lyme Disease. These two diseases can cause similar symptoms and similar MRI results, but have vastly different treatments, so distinguishing between the two is necessary. My friend is a large man, so he needed to have the lumbar puncture done at the hospital by a doctor.

Before the procedure began, the nurse told the doctor that the needle they had was too large, they needed to get another. “Too bad,” snapped the doctor. He had a schedule to keep, he had a golf game to get to. Waiting for someone to get the correct needle would take too long, so, before my friend could object, doctor forced the needle into my friend’s spine. When I say “forced”, I mean forced.

I could hear him scream from down the hall.

Then, to add insult to injury, the doctor refused to draw enough cerebral spinal fluid to allow for two tests. “We’ve got enough to test for MS, what more do we need?” he said.

That’s right. This doctor tortured a man so as not delay a golf game and didn’t even get the damn test done.

(The whole post is here.)

I don’t agree that doctors are the only offenders (as this post goes on to argue). The potential for abuse is greater among those who are more powerful, but other medical personnel aren’t outside the value system that enables medical battery.

But this example does show that the problem really is primarily with the values that underlie medicine. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the days when a white coat commanded automatic obedience. We have the patients’ rights movement to thank for that, which was driven in large part by feminist critics of medicine. However, as long as medical personnel remain unaccountable for violations of consent, some practitioners will abuse their power.

If we want to stop battery of women in childbirth, we’re not going to make much headway by combating rape culture. We need to call for more humane and democratic medicine. We need to demand medical education that would weed out arrogant abusers and reinforce respect for the patient. We need to insist that doctors hold each other and their subordinates responsible – and if they can’t, or won’t, the law needs to intervene, with civil or criminal remedies as appropriate.

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And she knows where your other hand is, of course.

I’m a little late to the snarkfest. I’ve been toying with – oh, playing with! – a post on how hard it must be for a politician like O’Donnell to glad-hand a crowd, knowing where their hands have been. I’ve been flashing back to the precious scene in The Education of Shelby Knox where the youth pastor earnestly tells the very young Shelby that you can catch HPV from just a handshake. But I just can’t find the right way to approach that post without sounding like, well, a wanker.

Worse yet, I nowthink the snark might be a bit premature. Andrew Sullivan explains how O’Donnell’s anti-masturbation campaign isn’t an outlier, but integral to a much larger theoconservative project.

O’Donnell’s stance against masturbation is related to the new natural law that is central to the theoconservative project that Douthat endorses and believes in (and that is at the core of the Republican party base). It is rooted in the notion that any sex that is not self-giving in a lifelong marital bond between a man and a woman is destructive of the human soul and also of the community at large. (See “The Theoconservative Project” chapter in The Conservative Soul for a longer treatment of this.) And theocons are not classical liberals – they see all this as interwoven with society at large and central to what the Pope sees as modernity’s core sexual and spiritual problems.

They do not believe that masturbation can be a truly private act, no more than gay sex or homosexual relationships can be. The way in which jerking off divorces sex from procreation and marriage is as repugnant to them as is same-sex marriage and for the same reasons. O’Donnell, in other words, believes that masturbating has social ramifications, because it reduces sexuality to what used to be called self-abuse, and this itself corrupts society as a whole and weakens the family. This is exactly and explicitly the same rationale for the thoecon refusal to acknowledge gay relationships, their opposition to contraception and pornography, and, in part, to abortion.

(Read the rest here.)

Now the good side of this is that when the theocon agenda is exposed, most Americans recoil from it. My mom (who’s a sort of mushy liberal and a devout Presbyterian) says that O’Donnell is a nut and she’s doomed to fail. Mom hangs out with a lot of nice older ladies who are probably a pretty accurate political barometer. If she’s right, then the Dems get to keep Joe Biden’s seat. Sure, Mom’s just one data point, but Nate Silver agrees.

So let’s say O’Donnell goes down in flames. The theocon agenda won’t spontaneously combust along with her. It has leaders who are less obvious than O’Donnell or Sharon Angle. They may not be what I’d call nuanced, but at least they haven’t been blathering out loud about the evils of self-abuse. Some of them will win. Gradually, they’re becoming part of the “normal” U.S. political scene. Every theocon who wins a primary emboldens the Tea Party and lends new legitimacy to the fundamentalist oppression of women and LGBT people. (Yes, I realize that not every Tea Partier is a theocon, but there’s a substantial electoral overlap.)

I’m afraid that after November 2, we won’t be clapping at all. Okay, that frees up our hands for other things. Cold comfort, indeed.

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Addressing a proposal in Australia to make baby formula a prescription-only product, Spilt Milk strikes the perfect balance between breastfeeding advocacy and respect for women’s individual situations, experiences, and autonomy.

As a lactivist I obviously have a problem with the marketing of infant formula and any implication that it is as good as, or better than, breast milk. But as a human being I also know that people are hurt, seriously hurt, when they feel judged and shamed and when they are exhaustedly holding a hungry, crying, baby at 2:30 am and it feels like no one can help them.

Removing systemic barriers to breastfeeding certainly may require improved measures to reduce the popularity of formula – popularity which can be attributed to decades of marketing not only to the public but to health professionals. A big part of that marketing is about convenience: huge displays in chemist shops and regular sales at the supermarket of products in familiar-looking tins add to the impression of ease of use and the normalisation of artificial feeding. But whether we like it or not, formula and its ready availability is important to many families. Removing that now feels like a stick where a carrot should be.

Give parents the tools to make sound decisions that benefit them and their babies. Give parents not only choices, but supported, realistic choices. Don’t tell a woman who has to go out of the home to work, or who has other children to look after and little support, that the choice to dedicate perhaps days to increasing her milk supply through frequent feeding and skin-skin contact to avoid supplementing with formula is an easy one: it clearly is not. Education and information are hugely important but they are only part of the picture when practical barriers still so often interfere with breastfeeding relationships.

Adding practical barriers to formula use, as I think this proposal would, isn’t a particularly kind way to help parents. Being caught between a rock and a hard place doesn’t make the rock seem any easier to budge: it just makes it hurt more to be stuck there.

(There’s lots more where this came from.)

I want to zero in on the problem of shaming. It’s illuminating to shift the focus away from infants and toward the choices that we adults make about our own bodies.

For instance: I had a super healthy dinner tonight: baked tofu, locally-grown Carola potatoes, locally-grown watermelon, and sliced golden tomatoes that I grew from seed. (I had been trying to grow these ‘maters, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, since I read rave reviews about them on Garden Web, but managed to kill them on the first attempt by mixing in too much organic fertilizer when I planted them out. Another year, they failed to germinate. This year – success!) I added a dab of butter to the potatoes and marinated the tofu in teriyaki sauce. I was in late-summer heaven.

But last night? Late after the kids were in bed? I ate a strawberry Pop-Tart. And damn, was that good too.

What if someone had decided to shame me about that Pop-Tart? Would that have caused me to ascertain that those potatoes were also organically grown, instead of just sustainably? Might I have foregone the butter? (Admittedly, if I’d been feeling well instead of ushering out a nasty GI infection, that pat of butter would have blossomed.)

Hell No!

I would have had a Pop-Tart for dessert.

Now, luckily people have not often shamed me for my Pop-Tart weakness. We don’t eat them regularly. My kids love them precisely because a Pop-Tart is a pink unicorn in their world, and a yummy one, at that. Most crucially, though: I am NOT FAT. And therefore I can only shamed along the “bad mommy” axis for keeping Pop-Tarts in stock; I’m pretty impervious to fat-shaming. (Fat-shaming would surely be worth a whole ‘nother post, and this post would be a whole lot different if not for my thin privilege.)

Of course, “bad mommy” shaming is the main tactic used against women who don’t conform to the loftiest ideals of breastfeeding practice. They’re told in no uncertain terms that their child’s survival depends on what they feed him or her. And they’d better feed mother’s milk, but then the true shaming begins. The new mother is eating all wrong! At least, this must be true, or the baby would settle better, sleep longer, give up his eight-hour crying jags. And so they’d better watch out for garlic! Peanuts! Soy! Cow’s milk! Eggs! That dejected bottle of prune juice, purchased solely in the hope of warding off postpartum constipation? Might as well dump it, dear; no one else in your family will go near it.

Through all this, the mother is trying to suss out her child’s new and changing needs. If she’s poor and/or not white, the “well-meant” advice may well come wrapped in a thick wrapping of paternalism. How’s she supposed to develop her sense of mastery and competency in this hullaboo of “Yer doin’ it rong!”

Really, what new mothers need is respect for the fact that they still are humans, and that their body remains their own. The baby has a moral claim on breastmilk, sure; the mother has a moral claim on being an autonomous person. In most cases, she also is willing to make very significant sacrifices for her baby – her sleep, bodily fluids, her illusion of invulnerability,  the very minerals from her bones. Shame her, though, and you’ve shortcircuited her chance to figure out what combination of sacrifices (because there will be sacrifices) could help her child thrive without eviscerating her as a woman – as a person.

And darn it – sometimes every mother needs a Pop-Tart. Mine was strawberry. Toasted. And I haven’t breastfed since spring 2003, so how much more do new mothers need a Tart? I don’t believe food should have to be earned through moral machinations, but I do tend to think that I’ve got a lifetime entitlement to Pop-Tarts. I’m certain that there’s still one box of brown sugar/cinnamon in the basement. I will eat it with utter lack of shame. Next morning, with nothing but a Tart headache, I will help my kids get their reasonably healthy breakfasts and lunches. They are growing. I’m pretty sure we’re doing something right. Quite possibly something that deserves a Pop-Tart and champagne celebration.

I’d be interested in your metaphorical Pop-Tarts – and that goes for non-parents, too. What small self-indulgences keep you afloat? How do you gird yourself against scolds?

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(TMI alert, especially for the medically squeamish, and trigger alert for medical violence.)

The story of how I birthed my first child is a far cry from the dimly-lit, romantic scenarios pictured in hospital brochures and natural birth guides alike.

The Bear got stuck before his head was even properly engaged. I was in Germany, so you can’t blame what happened next on medicalized childbirth, American-style. I did have an epidural (at my own request, nay, demand!) and enough Pitocin to deliver a small elephant. My midwife tried acupuncture. We tried every possible position: all fours, squatting, draped over an elevated bed with my head hanging down. I even swallowed some homeopathic remedy. This was Germany, after all.

Still, he was stuck. After seven hours (!) of being fully dilated – which is four or five hours longer than a U.S. ob/gyn would tolerate without a c-section – my midwife had to turn me over to a doctor. Even then, he didn’t go straight for the knife. He proposed trying vacuum extraction, with a c-section as backup. Three tugs, three giant pushes, and three mighty shoves on the top of my uterus – out came the Bear.

I was grateful my son was healthy, and glad I’d avoided a cesarean. I thought I’d gotten off easy. The recovery proved me wrong. I’d lost a lot of blood and my healing was difficult and incomplete. In the long run, I probably would have been far better off with a c-section. The pushing on my uterus (“fundal pressure”) did a lot of damage to my pelvic floor, which persists a decade later. I was given a lengthy consent form that explained the risks of a potential c-section, but it said nothing about the risks of fundal pressure and vacuum extraction, particularly an extraction from so high in the pelvis.

In other words, I had no crack at informed consent for what was actually done to me. And I don’t want to hear that none of it matters since my baby was healthy. The violence of my delivery severely affected my ability to be an effective mother. Try hauling around a 13-pound infant six weeks postpartum, feeling as though your viscera are about to fall out. Then try it again with a 19-pounder at four months. The Bear was not a sleepy, contented baby. He was irked at the world. He needed to be walked around. I couldn’t do it. Not on the scale he demanded. For optimal healing, I shouldn’t have been lifting anything heavier than ten pounds. I felt utterly trapped.

Many women have traumatic childbirth stories. Many are uglier than mine and revolve around disrespect by medical personnel, which sometimes edges into outright violation. Over the past few years, some birth activists and feminists have started to label such stories “birth rape.” The term struck me as wrong when I first saw it (which I’m pretty sure was this post at the F Word). So I was glad to see a flurry of criticism ripple through the feminist blogosphere over the past few days, starting with Irin Carmon at Jezebel and then spreading to Amanda Marcotte at XX, Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet, and Lindsay Beyerstein at Big Think. Even my friend figleaf has weighed in against using “rape” to characterize traumatic birth experiences.

In discussions of sexual violence, it’s not unusual for women who’ve actually experienced the trauma in question to use their experience as a trump card against anyone who disagrees with them. Ditto for childbirth experiences. In actuality, experiences vary, as do our interpretations of them. One woman may feel violated by a c-section, while another might feel relief.

So far, none of the feminist bloggers who’ve criticized “birth rape” have actually experienced childbirth in their own flesh. Their opponents may well say that this disqualifies them. I’m weighing in to support them, partly as a mother (and partly as a professional historian of childbirth and critic of medicalizaiton) who has in fact experienced a failure of informed consent and a traumatic birth (and who has studied some truly egregious instances of it in the past). Of course, my labor experiences don’t give me the right to trivialize other women’s feelings of violations, and I would never want to do that. At the same time, the trauma women experience doesn’t justify the inflationary and misleading use of “rape” to describe violations of medical consent.

It’s important that we can talk about birth trauma. We need a language of childbirth that will help us protect women’s autonomy. But it’s hyperbolic to call incidents of unwanted vaginal exams or artificial rupture of the membranes “rape.” It does an injustice to victims of actual rape by conflating two different phenomena, thus watering down the meaning of “rape.” It’s not as bad as the trivialization that goes along with saying, “Man, that test really raped me,” but both uses are on a continuum, because they’re both metaphorical, not literal.

I realize that proponents of the term say that a speculum is no different than a penis. Here’s how Amity Reed expressed it at the F Word:

A woman who is raped while giving birth does not experience the assault in a way that fits neatly within the typical definitions we hold true in civilised society. A penis is usually nowhere to be found in the story and the perpetrator may not even possess one. But fingers, hands, suction cups, forceps, needles and scissors… these are the tools of birth rape and they are wielded with as much force and as little consent as if a stranger grabbed a passer-by off the street and tied her up before having his way with her. Women are slapped, told to shut up, stop making noise and a nuisance of themselves, that they deserve this, that they shouldn’t have opened their legs nine months ago if they didn’t want to open them now. They are threatened, intimidated and bullied into submitting to procedures they do not need and interventions they do not want. Some are physically restrained from moving, their legs held open or their stomachs pushed on.

These things happened commonly in the past, and they still occur today. A commenter at Salon wrote:

Once, while still a nursing student, I heard a nursing supervisor inform a screaming patient in labor – “maybe you should have yelled like that 9 months ago and you wouldnt be here”. Later, during my own labors, I remembered her remark and it made me smile.

She smiled? Boy, I’m glad she didn’t attend one of my births. And it gets worse. A self-identified midwife commented at Salon:

The quickest example I can come up with is the time a doula friend of mine heard the OB say while a VBAC mom was pushing (pretty much under his breath, I don’t even think the mom heard this): “It’s the LEAST you can do for your VBAC” and he put one end of the scissors in her vagina and one in her anus and cut her a 4th degree episiotomy. No fetal distress, no reason beyond what I guess was his irritation at not just doing a repeat cesarean?

(Her whole comment was terrific, if you can stand to wade through the morass of misogyny that is Salon’s comment section.)

Stories like these are appalling. I feel sick and angry when I read them.

And yet, this is not rape. There’s nothing sexual about it, even though the assault is perpetrated on a woman’s genitals.

Let’s take a look at the legal definition of “rape.” It requires, as Amanda Marcotte points out, intent to violate someone sexually against her will. This is what the law calls “mens rea,” or awareness that one is committing a crime. If a prosecutor fails to demonstrate mens rea in a rape case, it’s still possible to convict on a lesser count of sexual assault (e.g., gross sexual imposition). “Rape,” however, is off the table.

The intent of this OB was to hurry the birth along. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was also high on his own power, getting off on his dominance. But he wasn’t getting off sexually. Nor was he intending to commit a sexual act. What he perpetrated was neither rape nor a lesser form of sexual assault.

“Birth rape” is not just an exaggeration, though. It also does not say enough. It fails to specify what makes such violations of autonomy in labor reprehensible in their own awful way. First, doctors and nurses enjoy a high degree of trust. The minority of them who break our trust deserve contempt. Similarly, the discourse on medical ethics has been hammering on the importance of informed consent for the past few decades. We rightly expect medical professionals to have internalized this. Most of all, a woman in labor is extremely vulnerable. I don’t know of any situation where I’ve felt comparably exposed, defenseless, and liminal. To receive abuse from the very person charged with expecting you and your child has got to leave emotional scars.

What should we call these violations, then, if not “rape”? Well, “medical battery” works for me. (“Medical assault” would be more satisfying because of the parallel to “sexual assault,” but legally the correct category, as far as I understand, is battery, not assault.) I would also distinguish between situations where real bodily harm is perpetrated, as opposed to assholish behavior such as slut-shaming women in labor, and also as opposed to neglect of informed consent, such as I experienced. (I’m not speaking here of outright malpractice, though some cases of abuse may also constitute malpractice too.)

Medical battery in childbirth ought to be treated as a criminal offense. That’s not a stretch, legally. For instance, except in an emergency, a physician who performs surgery against the patient’s will is guilty of battery, and is subject to both criminal and civil law. Even failure to obtain informed consent is already subject to criminal penalties. In cases of assholish behavior or flawed consent (as in my own experience), medical professionals should be sanctioned by their peers. In those cases where professionals protect their own and refuse to discipline offenders, patients should go public with their stories.

The law already supports a woman’s right to autonomy in labor, just like it does for any other patient. Actually enforcing that right in court is tricky. Doctors may argue that they were forced to act due to an emergency. Proving otherwise may be difficult. But just the awareness that medical battery carries penalties could work as a deterrent to battery and lesser forms of abuse. In addition, it might serve as a counterweight to the pressure OBs often feel to take action – any action, even if it’s not supported by evidence – to avoid a later malpractice suit.

To avoid failures of informed consent, obstetrical doctors and nurses could do much more to enlighten expectant mothers on possible interventions, their justifications, and their risks. I would have been better off if I’d been provided any information on the risks of vacuum extraction. I knew a lot about forceps because they were used in the period of history I study. Vacuum extractors are newer, and so I was flying blind, even though I was an exceptionally well-educated parturient. I didn’t even know that vacuum extraction carries a significant risk of damage to the baby’s brachial nerves. Most women would’ve known less. This is just not necessary in childbirth, where there’s usually nine months to prepare and become truly informed. And yet, neither doctors nor nurses nor midwives nor childbirth educators are really preparing the women whose bodies and children are at stake.

I don’t imagine that these potential solutions would be a panacea. I do think, though, that they’re closer to the mark than the tactics that a notion of “birth rape” would suggest.

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It’s really cool to see a New York Times op-ed co-authored by Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes. Women are still underrepresented on op-ed pages, and these two have the distinction of getting their start online (at Salon and Jezebel, respectively). Maybe this is the start of feminist bloggers storming the NYT?

Their piece – “A Palin of Our Own” – makes the incontrovertible point that progressives have done too little to celebrate high-flying female politicians. (Echidne lays out why Traister and Holmes are right about this.) They note that this has concrete policy implications that harm women, especially regarding abortion rights. If women weren’t considered marginal and disposable, Nancy Pelosi could have passed a health care bill that safeguarded access to abortion. So far, so good.

But do we lefties and feminists really want a Palin of our own?

It’s not the shooting-wolves-from-helicopters that puts me off. (Well, okay, that too.) Most of all, I’m disturbed by the idea that we should emulate Palin’s character and style. Palin’s distinguishing features are her willful ignorance, reckless disregard for truth, contempt for the reality-based world, and plain old playground-variety spite. Traister and Holmes write:

Imagine a Democrat willing to brag about breaking the glass ceiling at the explosive beginning, not the safe end, of her campaign. A liberal politician taking to Twitter to argue that big broods and a “culture of life” are completely compatible with reproductive freedom. A female candidate on the left who speaks as angrily and forcefully about her rivals’ shortcomings as Sarah Barracuda does about the Pelosis and Obamas of the world. A smart, unrelenting female, who, unlike Ms. Palin, wants to tear down, not reinforce, traditional ways of looking at women. But that will require a party that is eager to discover, groom, promote and then cheer on such a progressive Palin.

(Read the rest here.)

Anger has its place – you betcha! (Yes, I’m still pissed that I can’t employ Northdakotanisms any more without people thinking I’m aping Palin.) But unlike Palin, progressives aren’t trying to appeal to people’s basest nature. If we recruit and foster female politicians who speak “angrily and forcefully about [their] rivals’ shortcomings,” we’re just going to get into a mud wrestling match with Palin and her Mama Grizzlies. The end result? Everyone’s covered with mud.

I’m not convinced that Twitter offers much hope, either. Sure, lots of liberals and lefties use Twitter. Heck, I’m even on Twitter! The Ceiling Cat is on Twitter! The presence of all that goodness doesn’t change the bedrock fact that it’s easy to convey simplistic ideas in 140 characters. You need more space to develop an argument. And really: Would Palin’s tweets get so much media exposure if they weren’t so unrelentingly stupid?

That said, Palin has lobbed the F-word back into public discourse. Now it’s our job to catch it and reclaim it. “Feminism” has never been the property of any faction within it. As I argued back on September 4, 2008 – long before the feminist blogosphere ever discussed whether Palin deserves to be a feminist – she is a feminist, of a sort. The history of feminism includes activists who were also anti-abortion and anti-choice, as well as people who were deeply racist or homophobic. After all, the history of feminism is bound up with the history of the Western world, not a thing apart. There has always been a subset of feminists who reduced the movement to “equal opportunity to compete with men” and to hell with the collateral damage (poor women, lesbians, women of color, even mothers). Palin can definitely claim those feminists as her ancestors.

Palinofeminism is screamingly reductive. It’s all about claiming a woman’s right to compete in a man’s world – something liberal feminists have historically demanded – though in order to reap its benefits, you have to be, well, pretty much a clone of Palin. But the very narrowness of Palinofeminism offers an opportunity to redefine feminism, for those of us who are broader of mind and bigger of heart. Feminism can and must oppose poverty, racism, cissexism, homophobia ableism, ageism – the whole panoply of oppressions that make people less than they could be. Feminism needs to be about ending gender-based oppression, and yes, that includes practices and norms that harm men, too.

We need to seize the moment, now that Palin has dragged feminism back into public view, and put forth an inclusive, compassionate vision of a United States where everyone has equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How we achieve that, I’m not quite sure. I’m just a marginal university instructor in Appalachia with a small (albeit smart and loyal) blog readership. But I suspect that publishing more feminist op-eds is a great place to start.

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