Juveniles no Longer Sentenced to Mandatory Life Without Parole

It’s about time, don’t you think? Amidst the flurry of SCOTUS activity today (striking down three components of the Arizona immigration law, but retaining the ability for law enforcement officials to require anyone they stop to show their papers, confirming that Citizens United does indeed apply to states in the case study of Montana), I was moved by their (late) decision to rule that ordering life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional and was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Now courts will not be able to automatically hand a juvenile a life-without-parole sentence for some crimes. This doesn’t mean that sentence will no longer happen – it just means that for crimes like murder, that sentence is not automatic.

One of the most important things to remember about childhood and adolescence is that actions taken during that time are so often misunderstood in terms of their impact and their consequences, juveniles so often lack the ability to grasp the implications and depth of their choices, and they always lack real-world context. This is long overdue. It’s true that these sentences are often brought down upon juveniles who have committed atrocious acts, or were accessories in brutal crimes, but isolating the incident from the developmental stage is risky and unfair. Putting someone away without the affirmation that we also believe they can grow and develop and change is also a psychological judgment that would likely result in the juvenile’s agreeing self-assessment that they are unable to be rehabilitated.

Is This Real Life? The Reproductive Rights Version

My support of a woman’s right to choose is well-documented. I champion a woman’s freedom to make a decision about whether or not she should be carrying a fetus, and the availability of resources for her to safely and quickly terminate a pregnancy if she sees fit.

We are in  troubled times. Ceaseless efforts to deny women these rights are abound, and I could link to hundreds of articles that document this, but the handful I’ve chosen certainly upset me enough. I, along with scores of women’s health advocates, have tried any number of measurable ways to fight back – raising more money; drafting opposing legislation and striking down initiatives; testifying before hearings; writing op-ed pieces that detail our positions and rationally lay out the reasons why these reproductive rights are essential to women’s health, well-being, and even economic prospects; explaining that abortions and contraception are also necessary for reasons far beyond prevention pregnancy, and that all reasons are valid and worthwhile.

We’ve been insulted, condescended to, systematically stripped of essential healthcare resources.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the hypocrisy of the anti-choice wing. Tired of the false rhetoric. Tired of their offensively misguided and false claims to care about women as much as they care about fetuses, tired of the aggressive push to force women to maintain pregnancies that they are unprepared for and do not want, and further impact their educational and economic statuses. Tired of the trumpeting of false information about contraception that is subsequently followed up by happily taking money from the very creators of products that prompted their supposed moral outrage. Tired of their total disregard of the reality of many of these women who make the decision to have an abortion. Tired of total disregard of the statistics that undermine their arguments about the United States valuing children and their yet-to-be-realized lives. Tired of the total disregard and dismissal of real ways that abortions could be prevented – complete and comprehensive sexual health education and easy access to a variety of contraceptives. Tired of the complete disdain for women as sexually independent beings, tired of their disgust of the sexual lives of women while giving men and their sperm an unlimited free pass and the ability to impregnate and take off without even a slap on the wrist. Tired of the inability to empathize and simultaneously mete out punishments to the half of the population they deem fit the ostensible crime of engaging in sexual activity. If you want to harp on the issue of responsibility, then it is essential to ensure that both parties are equally responsible in every way – and as about half of the links I have put in this post show, that simply does not happen. Women are disproportionately – vastly so – shouldered with the entire burden of and the entire blame. That’s the reality, and it can’t be separated from the issue.

I’m tired but not worn out. I remain entirely committed to this cause, and won’t be sidetracked by opponents who use everything from personal insults to false science to shaky numbers to try to distract me. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL, recently announced that she is stepping down – largely due to the fact that she feels millennials need to begin steering the abortion rights ship, to combat the intense dedication of anti-abortion activists. Over 50% of anti-choicers maintain that abortion is a primary issue for them in elections, while only about a quarter of pro-choicers say the same. Well, I’m here. This remains my number one issue. Are you with me?

A friend recently sent me yet another HuffPo article, that I certainly enjoyed, but that for some reason was the straw that broke my camel’s back in many ways, as I saw her argument struggling mightily to encompass all of the above reasons why we should protect contraceptive access for all women. I’m so tired, in fact, that my response to these attacks has been harrowingly brought down to the essential core that I never thought I would need to stray from when I first realized what being pro-choice was; stripped of the attempts to rationalize (issues of medical necessity outside of pregnancy prevention aside, issues of risk to the mother aside, issues of childcare concerns and education concerns aside) with those who are, in fact, irrational about these issues. What happens in my uterus is my business alone. If you want the babies that these fetuses become, that women made the decision they cannot care for, then there should be no difficulty in deciding that you should take them. Take them all. Take them lovingly and fully, not cynically or begrudgingly. Cultivate them for 9 months, care for the baby when it’s born, love her, feed him, clothe her, educate him, without any help from me. If your goal is to punish women who you think have made flagrantly immoral mistakes, let us air all of your dirty laundry as well, and dissect every single decision you in your life made, and force you to pay for it as we see fit. And by all means, find a way to keep the men who didn’t use condoms, or bullied their partners into not using contraception and subsequently fled, or who threatened or coerced their partner, sitting firmly next to a baby’s crib. Come up with solutions to the myriad of complex social and economic issues that contribute to reasons women get abortions. Re-educate yourself on the fundamental fact that it is not your right to dictate the decisions of another person, and while that lack of control may infuriate you, it’s the way it is.  What happens in my uterus is my business alone. Wherever I go, the uterus goes. You don’t get to stake your judgment flag in my sex organs selectively at will, running “protectively” towards it when it suits you, and fleeing from it (and from what it carries) when it doesn’t. You don’t get to be there at all!

So don’t tell me that we have a collective duty to care for these unborn babies when what you are actually doing is attempting to control the freedom of women while doing everything you can to make sure that no true collectivism actually does benefit women or their babies.

The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ’em my way!

Sebelius Caves, Girls Pay the Price

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard that Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has blocked the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration that the over the counter (OTC) drug Plan B, commonly known as the ‘morning after pill,’ be made available without a prescription for girls of all ages. It is currently available without a prescription to girls ages 17 and up, and requires a prescription for girls ages 16 and below.

It is worth noting that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled the FDA. This is not insignificant. The purpose of HHS is to promote the health, safety, and well-being of Americans. The FDA is an obvious component of this. While the FDA is an agency of HHS, the purpose of the FDA is to promote and protect public health, through the regulation of OTC and prescription medications, vaccines, food safety, medical devices, and more. They do this through clinical trials and testing, which is how we come to know of drugs’ side effects as well as how significantly they aid in the relief of what they purport to treat. The FDA recruits researchers who understand both the purpose of and execution of this research. Attempts have been made to loosen the regulations of the FDA; for example, some terminally ill patients have petitioned the FDA to allow them to access experimental drugs after Phase I of a trial – the FDA has denied these requests due to the lack of research regarding a drug’s long-term effects post- Phase I. The FDA is not without criticisms; they have been accused of being both too hard and too lax on the pharmaceutical industry. Members of the FDA have also expressed feeling pushed to present certain results. Scientists at the FDA complained to Obama in 2009 that they felt pressured under the Bush administration to manipulate data for certain devices, and the Institute of Medicine also appealed for greater independence of the FDA from the powers of political management.

The commissioner of the FDA, who is a physician, reports to the Secretary of HHS. Sebelius’ job is not one of medicine or research, and requires a background in neither. It does require a background in politicking, which is exactly what we’re seeing here. The purpose of pointing that out, and of articulating that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled an FDA recommendation, is that Sebelius’ refute would not be based on differing scientific results, or research that opposes the FDA’s recommendations – because there is none. The override has different drivers, and the assumption floating out there – for good reason, since there is little alternate explanation – is to appease social conservatives and the anti-abortion contingents.

Plan B is not the abortion pill. It is the equivalent of an increased dose of a daily birth-control pill, and has no effect on already established pregnancies – it prevents pregnancy from occurring. Scientists within the FDA unanimously approved the access of the drug without a prescription for girls of all ages, after an expert panel put the recommendation forward. It is, to quote a USC pharmacist, one of few drugs that is so “simple, convenient, and safe.”

The conservative Family Research Council claims that requiring a prescription will protect girls from sexual exploitation and abuse – I fail to see how requiring a girl to get a prescription will protect against sexual violence, especially since girls may be attempting to get Plan B because sexual violence has already occurred. This comment is also a flagrant indication of misunderstanding of sexual violence and abuse – a young girl is not likely to disclose to an unknown physician that she is being sexually abused or assaulted and that’s why she needs a prescription for Plan B. Make no mistake, this ban is a victory for anti-abortion rights activists. If a girl cannot prevent a pregnancy from occurring, she is subsequently faced with trying to terminate an existing pregnancy (again – that could have been prevented!). Given how reproductive and abortion rights have been systematically chipped away at for the past few years, this girl who did not want the pregnancy and tried to prevent it from happening but was denied because she is shy of 17 years, will be in an even worse position. This is what anti-abortion activists are counting on – that once she is pregnant she will have to carry to term.

Plan B can prevent abortions from happening. HHS, with its mission of protecting the health and welfare of all citizens, should do everything they can to protect the health of girls’ reproductive development, which includes the prevention of unwanted pregnancy at its earliest stage. The girls under the age of 17 who need Plan B the most are the ones who also need it to be as easily accessible as possible. Much like requiring parental permission for abortions for girls under the age of 18, this ban actually can put girls at risk. Many girls will not have the family support, financial means, or healthcare to manage a pregnancy; some girls may face parental and familial abuse if they have to admit to needing to prevent a pregnancy with Plan B. What if a girl is a victim of sexual assault within her family? Should she be forced to deal not only with this trauma, but also have to determine how to prevent herself from being forced to carry a fetus to term as a result of this tragedy? Most girls under the age of 17 do not have easy access to clinicians and hospitals on their own, nor are they able to navigate our increasingly complex healthcare system on their own, which they would not only need to do to access Plan B, but would need to do within 72 hours for the pill to be effective. Girls whose bodies are not ready for pregnancy, girls who were victims of assault and rape and incest, girls whose futures will be dramatically changed and opportunities truncated – they all become casualties of this ban. Before we start sex-shaming and proclaiming that they shouldn’t have had sex if they didn’t want to deal with the consequences, let’s remember that these girls were not miraculously impregnated. Whether consensual or not, a boy was involved. This is a gendered issue – the girls are the ones who will have to deal with the lack of access to Plan B, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Originally, advocates in 2003 successfully petitioned Plan B to be available OTC for girls 18 and up (after having been available with a prescription since 1999), but a judge overruled that decision and lowered the age to 17 after he deemed the decision had been made politically, not for scientific reasons. It appears that history is repeating itself.

Good Riddance, Paterno.

After watching the appalling, immature response to the rightful firing of Joe Paterno last night, I had difficulty sleeping. I could not reconcile in my mind how people were so willing to further discard these children who were victimized, further negate their trauma and reduce their suffering to something negligible and less important than the football trophies lining Penn State’s halls. I’m not introducing the main characters of this post, because by now I’m sure you all know them.

In situations like these, you don’t even have to say “I’m on Paterno’s side,” which is just what all the screaming rioters on Penn State’s campus and outside his home are doing. By bemoaning a lost season, a coach’s supposedly truncated career, a football team’s interrupted success, you are contributing your voice to the chorus of people who think this isn’t such a big deal. That the interruption of Penn State’s stellar season is actually what’s pretty sad! That a coach with such success deserves to be forgiven for some things! And they were awful things, but they happened years ago! And he reported it to the Athletic Director, so he did his job!

If you’re a rape or sexual assault victim, that chorus can sound mighty deafening. And ceaseless.

So, I’m here to tell you that this is a big deal. A really $&%/!*$ big deal. And I can’t help but cringe anytime I hear a comment on this issue that hints at anything otherwise. That Paterno didn’t have this in his control. That reporting a criminal act and the victimization of a child to an administrator with no follow-up was sufficient. That marching his ass down to the closest precinct wasn’t something he unquestionably should have done, and ensured that Sandusky didn’t get within a hundred yards of a kid ever again. We are told that we should do the best we can with what we know; Paterno and McQuery did nothing of any consequence with what they knew. They moved at a glacial pace and took actions that were of minimal requirement. They worked at a university and with students, whose well-being is ostensibly the greatest concern of any educational institution. In case anyone doubted that the cash cow athletics of some colleges is what is of greatest concern, I give you this sick and disturbing example. There is quite literally no excuse, no “explanation” of the multiple failures of multiple leaders, that doesn’t rest on the fact that compromising a winning and money-making football team was in no way an option, that this team would not be brought down by ANYthing, not even the physical, emotional, and mental sacrifice of children.

Do I sound pissed? You bet I am. You should be, too. Let’s try, for a daring second, to re-prioritize the issues of our country. Let’s move “college football” from its precious perch and consider the prevention of rape and sexual assault to be of greatest importance. The swift punishment of the criminals who perform these acts to be the first order of business, not falling behind the next desperate grasp for a game win, a series win, a university parade.

I don’t care much what happens to Paterno and the other members of a coaching or admin staff who have had blessed careers and public lives rife with success. What I care about is the little boys who suffered rapes, forced oral sex, molestation, tried to negotiate the fear, humiliation, anger, and physical ramifications of these. Who did not leave the locker rooms, living rooms, camping trips or tents with any swollen bank accounts, any buildings or stadiums named after them, any hordes of fans claiming that they supported them no matter what. Yep. I’m on their side.

And to those screaming Penn State students, knocking over news vans and co-opting an act (rioting) reserved for disenfranchised populations (of which you are not) to demonstrate their subjugation, I’m going to bring this down to as personal a level as I can. I ask of you this: You have a father. Or a brother. Or a son. Or a boyfriend. Or just a close friend. Someone you love and care deeply for. Imagine they had been anally raped in the Penn State locker room, and someone had walked in and seen it and done nothing. Walked right back out instead of saving him. And that the very man you are crowing about knew of it. And turned his head. And your father/brother/son/boyfriend/friend was ignored, his pain deemed not important or relevant, his subsequent suffering that you would have witnessed first hand dismissed and cast aside. Now picture him standing in front of this narcissistic crowd, and asking you to tell him to his face that his raping isn’t as important as your beloved football coach keeping his job. If you can easily do that, then we are in even more depraved trouble than I thought.

After the absurd riots started following his firing, Paterno said that he appreciated the outpouring of support but to please “remain calm and respect the university, its property, and all that we value.”

Respect the university! Nothing about those boys, still, who I knew were raped and assaulted, nothing about respecting them and their pain and ordeal. Respecting the university doesn’t appear to have been on Paterno or McQuery’s mind when they covered up rape, abuse and molestation cases that would ultimately be forever associated with the university and debase its reputation. They showed no respect for the little boys who lives were forever marked by the despicable actions of their buddy Sandusky. They created a chain of administrators and coaches who failed time after time to immediately stop and fix this. So, no, Paterno, despite that your plea was directed at your supporters, I’m pretty riled up and have lost respect for much of Penn State myself. Remain calm and respect the university? – that’s a mighty tall order. Don’t think I can fill it.

He followed his statements with this claim: “With the benefit of hindsight, I should have done more.”

How hollow that rings.

The DSK Decision and the Definition of Consent

I have held off writing about the DSK case being tossed out because honestly, I can’t really bear it. Plenty of other news sources and bloggers have reported on the reasons why I feel this is a catastrophic blow to victims of sexual assault, and reiterating it would likely only upset me and readers even more. However, a news story reported in my hometown paper, The Chronicle, got me thinking about the definitions of consent and what it means to be a person worthy of a trial, and I thought I’d tie these two instances together.

According to the DSK decision, if one has lied in the past they are considered unworthy of a trial in the eyes of the DA – whose goal seems to be focused solely on winning as opposed to determining if in this particular instance one is lying. Let’s look at the specific lies in question – namely, the reason behind Diallo’s asylum in the United States and her recounts of the story.

First, the defense is claiming that since she allegedly lied on her asylum application about being gang raped in her home country, she cannot be trusted in this accusation of DSK. Had she lied? Yes, she admitted to that. Does that matter in this specific case of DSK assaulting her in the hotel room when a forensic examination, including a medical exam, proved to be consistent with her story? No. When she lied on her asylum application – as many, many people do (an interesting and poignant piece in the New Yorker recently profiled this in a case example) – she did so to escape a country in which she felt constantly at risk and in danger and wanted to protect her daughter from the same fate. Should the fact that many people do this – and lie about repeated gang rapes in particular – immediately excuse the lie? No. But it does put it in the context of a reality that should not go unexamined. While lying in previous instances can make a case harder to win, and isn’t something I’m championing or condoning, when you look at her reasons for a falsehood on her asylum application, it make no sense that she would then risk a job she was grateful and proud to have gotten as a hotel housekeeper, raising in her daughter in New York, by having what the defense claims was consensual sex in the middle of her cleaning duties.

In regards to the changing of her story, it is well known and understood by trauma experts that women who have experienced sexual assault (and not just sexual assault, but any traumatic event, for both genders) often recall the order of events differently and clarify them as time goes on, due to the effects of the shock, denial, and the coping mechanism of blocking out of painful incidents. This does not mean that the assault didn’t happen, particularly since this reaction has been seen and understood many times over by many other rape and assault victims.

What I also find interesting in these cries about credibility is how gendered they are. DSK has a notorious history in France of being too forward and sexually aggressive with women; in my mind this causes some credibility issues for him as well, as he claims in this instance it was only consensual. It also reminds me of the fact that one of the NYPD officers acquitted this summer had a history of sexually harassing women, unsubstantiated arrest of a woman and blocking the filing of a report of the woman whom he sexually harassed – yet this was not seen as hampering his credibility. Nor was the fact that he made false 911 calls that routed him back to the apartment of the East Village victim and denied ever sleeping with her and then promptly changed his story to one of doing so but using a condom and assuring it was consensual. If we’re saying Diallo has credibility issues, I’d say these two need to join her on that wagon.

In the San Francisco case, we are confronted with a similar – though not the same – situation; one of assessing the validity of the accuser based on previous actions or claims. A SF lawyer (who specializes in sexual harassment cases, interestingly) is accused of raping three women, ages 19 – 36, whom he met over Craigslist while searching for partners interested in dominant-submissive rough sex. Two of the women had consented to having sex with this man on previous occasions before filing specific incidents of assault and rape. The man’s attorney has used this as evidence that the women were consensual partners, interested in engaging in sex and agreeing to what the man proposed in his post.

It seems we need a reminder of the definition of consent.

It does not matter if a woman is a prostitute. It does not matter if a woman had sex with you consensually in the past. It does not matter if in an email a woman expressed interest in specific sexual roles, positions, and activity. What matters is if in the specific encounter at hand, both parties have expressed the desire to go forward, and that if one withdraws that consent at any point it is the responsibility of the other to stop. The women could have easily agreed over an email exchange to engage in dominant-submissive sex, arrived at the man’s home still agreeing to it, and agreed to it right up to the minute they were to begin. But if in that minute she decided she no longer wanted to do this or was hesitant and unsure and wanted to wait, and he went ahead anyway – then it becomes rape.

Rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try. They are usually he said/she said situations, at best aided by forensic evidence. Each case is unique, each has elements that are often not introduced or examined until a trial begins – this exemplifies the importance of scrutiny and juries who devote days to understanding the nuances and details of cases that are not reported or perceived by the media.

Setting the precedent that previously engaging in sexual activity, lying, or expressing interest in sexual experimentation eliminates your chances for a fair trial regarding the specific assault case at hand pushes us into the realm of implausibility. It is also worth noting that despite outcries of false accusations, the most frequently repeated results of studies regarding false claims and filings of rape show that the real rate of these is between 2% at its lowest and 7% at its highest (American Prosecutors Research Institute). But the media sheds so much light on the false claims that people presume it is much higher. The vast majority of rape and sexual assault charges never see the spotlight – perhaps because they aren’t dangerous enough or don’t involve high-ranking political figures or people whom media isn’t able to coin as gold-diggers and attention mongers because of their social or socioeconomic status. The bottom line is that each story deserves to be closely and carefully examined, and not discarded because a DA thinks he can’t win the case. District Attorney Vance is quoted as saying “If we don’t believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot expect a jury to.” I would venture to say that given the outcry over his decision, many people would like to hear the full story (and who do in fact think that the issue of reasonable doubt is in question) from both sides, with all the available evidence and fleshed out arguments. The issue of the truth, and seeking it, should take the precedence over one’s doubt at a courtroom victory.

Abortion Isn’t That Simple, Mr. Douthat

Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times conservative columnists whose pieces I occasionally force myself to read, wrote an article yesterday about sex-selective abortion. In short, he claimed that the reason 160 million women were “missing” (that is, the reason they were so outnumbered in many countries like India and China, as well as other nations in the Balkans and Central Asia) was because they were “killed” via sex-selective abortion. In his words, the women weren’t “missing,” they were “dead.” (He also claims that the author of the book he cites, Mara Hvistendahl of the book “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” appropriates the issue to one of patriarchy, of greater social issues and inequities – which I agree with. He then says that “the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence,” saying that she is more upset by the idea of abortion itself than she is about the issues surrounding abortion. Don’t you think that’s for her to decide? And doesn’t it seem she’s already decided what she thinks based on her book?)

Douthat, however, manages to contradict the crux of his argument near the start of his column.

He begins by saying “female empowerment often seems to have led to more sex selection, not less.” He then quotes Hvistendahl as saying “women use their increased autonomy to select for sons,” because male offspring bring higher social status. In countries like India, sex selection began in “the urban, well-educated stratum of society,” before spreading down the income ladder.

If this were the case – if in fact women had become truly empowered in their respective lands – culturally, politically, economically – then why would they be aborting based on the opposite – that men in their communities are still holding the cards? Are they imagining that men still hold positions of power and wealth in their countries, or are they living the ramifications of that painful reality everyday? Women do have some increased autonomy in many of these regions. But guess what? This autonomy has likely served to highlight the still very real inequities and disparities that exist in their communities, which contributes to the rates of sex-selective abortion. If women see which sex has the higher status, and one of the few autonomous decisions they can make is to choose the sex of their baby – they are likely going to choose the one with more status. This upsetting power dynamic shows just how far away true empowerment is for many of these women and their communities. If they felt their children would have the same opportunities if they were female than if they were male, the sex selection abortion Douthat decries would actually decrease. It is not the responsibility of the female fetus to ensure she is treated with the same respect and equality as the male fetus. Douthat seems to really care about female fetuses – but seems less interested in addressing the massive social, political, and economic issues that create so many difficulties for them once born. (His colleagues Paul Krugman and Nick Kristof seem to have handles on that. Too bad they were off yesterday.)

It seems that Douthat wants to push for the feelings of regret and remorse about abortion itself, separate from the issues surrounding it. Does sex-selection abortion sadden me? Yes. Does aborting a fetus that indicates it will have Down Syndrome sadden me? Yes. You know what else makes me sad? That a woman cannot afford a baby because she is single and has no familial or community support; because she has an abusive partner (homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women); because she has a low-wage hourly job that offers no maternity leave which could help her stay well while carrying the baby if needed; because she has no health insurance meaning she can’t access quality pre-natal care to make sure her baby would be healthy since we are systematically closing down those facilities that offer services for women who are uninsured (and also help provide birth control to prevent pregnancy!); because she has no way to pay for day care and she may have to quit her low-wage job to care for her baby; because she would then have no money for all the supplies, food, and developmental tools her baby would need to thrive which can lead to malnutrition, behavioral problems, child depression; because she could then become part of the 29.9% of families in poverty that are headed by single women, and her child could become part of the 35% of those in poverty who are under 18 years of age – the poverty rate for households headed by single women is significantly higher than the overall poverty rate.

We’ve cut child welfare services that aid women by the tens of millions in the past few years. Georgia alone cut over $10 million in Child Welfare Services. We’ve also cut subsidies that support adoption agencies – the organizations that help women find families that may be able to care for her baby were she to carry it to term – and who make sure these families are actually fit to do so! TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) provides women and families with aid so that children can be raised in their own homes or with relatives, instead of being placed in foster care and becoming wards of the state. How much have we cut from TANF? 17 of the poorest states, with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, have already stopped receiving funds.

Birth control, one might say? Sure – birth control is expensive, so if she doesn’t have health insurance, she isn’t likely to be able to afford birth control (hey, Planned Parenthood can help with that, too! Seeing a pattern?) And if her partner refuses to wear a condom? If she is in an abusive relationship, if she fears leaving her partner, if she relies on her partner for added economic security – she’s much less likely to argue with him about the condom use. Or even feel that she has the agency to begin a negotiation discussion at all.

These facts make me sad. And all of these facts might lead a woman to decide she can’t have a baby. And many things not listed here may lead a woman to decide that she will not have a baby. And that she will have an abortion. Is it my decision? No. It’s not. It’s not yours or Ross Douthat’s, either. Again, Douthat represents the contingent of pro-lifers who want to make it seem like pro-choicers are cheering the performing of abortions right and left. What we are cheering is the right for women and respect of women to make their own decision based on their very specific personal circumstances. And given the fact that the medical establishment has not agreed with the pro-life camp in claiming that fetuses before a month into the third trimester can feel pain (reacting to stimuli does not equal pain, to reiterate, and pain without a cerebral cortex is seen by physicians as not possible), which has most recently become the pro-life camp’s wildly off-base rationale for preventing a woman’s right to choose, and given the fetus’ place of residence in the woman’s uterus as a part of her body, not as a human, these issues that Douthat sees as “sideline” are actually very much at the center of the argument. Bottom line – it’s the woman’s body. It’s the woman’s choice. She will be the one carrying it, she will be the one birthing it. No one else. So why should anyone else decide?

Additionally, it is not a crime for a woman to not want children. Since she is able to give birth, it is her decision as to when and how that will happen. Everything about her life and future will change once she has a baby. So she needs to be sure she is ready for that. How can one disagree with that? Douthat may not like it, but “the sense of outrage that pervades his story” (see what I did there? 😉 ) seems to me more rooted in his anger and frustration with his opinion not being considered by women in these decisions and not being able to control what a woman decides to do about what is going on in her body.

All of the things I listed – the job issues, the healthcare issues, the family and community issues, the issues that arise when a child doesn’t have access to food, clothing, and developmentally appropriate stimulation – are the causes. So why don’t we start figuring out how we can mitigate those facts and issues instead of attacking the effect – the abortion – which is a decision women come to after weighing all of those facts and issues just discussed. Douthat’s fear tactics of talking about female fetuses strewn across Indian hospitals is scary imagery. So is this:

Photo thanks to ehow.com

And this:

Photo via Captain Hope's Kids Blog

And this:

Photo property of streetkidnews.blogsome.com

Want less abortions? How about providing health insurance, that covers both birth control and pre-post natal care? How about equal pay for equal work, so women are more financially and economically secure, providing them with the resources to stay out of poverty and keep their children out of it, too? How about child care in work environments, helping women who cannot afford day care can stay in their jobs and remain a part of the economy? While we’re at it, how about great public schools and clean community centers, so women know their children are being intellectually fed and socially stimulated in safe environments that help keep them out of more dangerous and potentially life-threatening social circles? How about comprehensive sex education so men and women know how to protect themselves not only from pregnancies but from diseases that can endanger a fetus and create complications during birth and cause health issues for them and their children – creating more expense, particularly if one has no health insurance.

Let’s talk then. And how about you follow me on Twitter?