Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

Reflections On The Vote In Ireland

When the votes were counted, it was a landslide. Nearly 70% of Irish voters rejected their government’s total ban on abortion.

The Irish electorate understood something too many Americans fail to grasp: the issue is not abortion. The issue is the proper role of government.

There are certain decisions that governments in free societies should not be empowered to make. Anti-choice activists should understand that a government with the power to decide that women may not abort is a government with the power to decide that they must. (Future lawmakers might conclude that controlling population growth requires such measures. Don’t believe it? Look at China.)

According to news reports, the vote in Ireland was influenced by widespread recognition that the decision women face is complicated– a woman who has been raped, a woman who has eight children she is struggling to feed, a woman carrying a fetus certain to die within hours of birth, or a woman whose health will be compromised by another pregnancy–have to weigh very different, and difficult, concerns. Taking the position that there is only and always one “correct” choice–and that the government gets to make and enforce it — flies in the face of human experience. It also defies human compassion.

I’d like to think the vote in Ireland was also influenced by recognition that–despite posters showing bloody fetuses and constant references to embryos as “babies”–  framing the issue in that way is dishonest. The question is not whether to abort a fetus or carry it to term. The question is: who should have the right to make that decision?

Those who crafted America’s Bill of Rights understood that the principle at the center of human rights is respect for individual moral autonomy. Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty.  If those in positions of power and authority can prescribe your life choices, and punish any deviation from officially sanctioned conduct, you are a subject, not a citizen–and you definitely are not exercising moral choice.

I keep returning to the wisdom of what has been dubbed the “libertarian principle.” Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own telos–so long as they do not harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That principle undergirds the U.S. Bill of Rights, and its example has been persuasive world-wide.

I realize that some people would confer “personhood” on a fertilized egg and would equate destruction of that egg with the murder of a human being. I am not one of those people. I am equally well aware that the argument about when human life begins is an intractable one. Those who oppose abortion should be free to make their case to women facing these difficult decisions, and of course women who oppose abortions must remain free not to have them.

But in a country where there is a demonstrable lack of consensus on the issue, a country in which different religions have very different theological positions about the moral propriety of terminating a pregnancy, laws requiring all citizens to obey the religious tenets of one segment of the population are both unenforceable and illegitimate.

The Irish don’t have our Bill of Rights, our religious diversity, or our particular legal history. But they clearly understood the importance of limiting the power of the state to force women to give birth . Last week, they voted to return responsibility for moral decision-making to the individuals who must exercise that responsibility and live with the consequences.

The vote was a rare bit of sanity in an increasingly autocratic world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Aren’t Going Back

Friday night, I spoke at a local synagogue about women’s rights. They were very nice to me. Here’s my talk. (Apologies for the length.)

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I don’t know how many of you remember when it was considered tactful to refer to older women as “women of a certain age.” I’m one of those women, having attained and then passed that “certain age,” and I’ve seen a significant evolution in women’s rights in my own lifetime. Not too long ago, someone asked me if I had experienced discrimination because I’m a woman. I responded that I’ve really been lucky; I’ve been able to do pretty much anything I wanted to do. But when I began to think about it, I realized that my entire life has played out against the restrictive laws and patriarchal social expectations of the times. A number of options that were available to males simply weren’t options for me. As noted, some of those options were legally unavailable, but many other limitations were products of prevailing, deeply-rooted social attitudes. To the extent women accepted those attitudes, we didn’t see discrimination—we just saw “the way things are.”

My mother—who was born the year women finally got the vote–didn’t work, although she was a woman who would definitely have been much happier pursuing a career. But for middle-class women, participation in the workforce was seen as evidence that one’s husband  wasn’t an adequate breadwinner—so it wasn’t an option.

When my sister and I were in grade school and high school, there were no women’s sports. Girls were cheerleaders, boys played team sports. When I went to college, my parents wanted me to choose a profession I could “fall back on” if my eventual husband died. I could choose among the three professions suitable for women—I could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. Three times in college, I switched into the school of Liberal Arts, and three times my father switched me back into the School of Education. (I get nauseated at the sight of blood, and I was never a good typist—so voila—I was a teacher!).

When I got married the first time, women still couldn’t get credit or establish a credit rating separate from that of their husbands. Later, when I went to law school, my sister’s brother-in-law told me I should be ashamed that I was taking the place of a man who would actually practice law. A cousin who was a lawyer was more supportive; he told me that if I really excelled, I would probably get hired, but the only lawyer job I could expect would be in the “back room” of a large firm, doing research. I wouldn’t be allowed to work directly with clients. A “friend” told me that my selfish decision to go to law school meant that my children would end up being drug addicts.

When I was interviewing for my first job as a lawyer, the EEOC was only a few years old, but lawyers at the firm knew that certain questions were off-limits. I had three small children, a fact disclosed by my resume, so I volunteered my childcare arrangements. (It seemed reasonable.) One of the lawyers was so visibly relieved that I evidently wasn’t going to burn a bra then and there that he blurted out “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a woman! We hired a man with a glass eye once!”

When Bill Hudnut appointed me Corporation Counsel, I was the first woman to head the city’s legal department. That deviation from the norm evidently triggered a lot of speculation. The Indianapolis Star identified me as a “divorcee” and the Indianapolis News ran a “gossip” item, asking “Did a city official just appoint his most recent honey to a high city position?” Evidently, the notion that a woman might be a good lawyer never crossed their minds.

When I ran for Congress in 1980, I was told by a number of people that they wouldn’t vote for a woman with young children, because my place was at home with those children. (I don’t need to remind you that men with young children are never the subject of similar sentiments—nor do I need to share my strong suspicion that they wouldn’t have voted for any woman, with or without small children.) When I joined a small law firm after losing that election, one of the partners suggested that I stick to wills and divorces, which were areas deemed appropriate for women lawyers. That actually represented progress, since by that time there were at least some limited areas in which it was acceptable for women to be lawyers …

Virtually all of these examples seem ridiculous today, when girls excel at sports and law school classes are more than 50% female. So there has been progress—actually, a lot of progress.  I am always bemused when female students assure me that they aren’t feminists—a word that some of them evidently associate with beefy women who don’t shave their legs.  The young women who don’t think of themselves as feminists simply take for granted that they will get equal pay for equal work, that they won’t have to “put out” for the boss in order to get that promotion, that they can choose the number and spacing of their children, and that there might even be a pediatrician whose office hours don’t reflect the assumption that mom is home all day.

As the commercial says, we really have “come a long way, baby.” But as the “me too” movement, the persistence of the glass ceiling, and depressing statistics about earning discrepancies all attest, we still have a long way to go.

And that long way to go was before the hard-won gains for women’s equality came under sustained attack. At the Women’s March, an elderly woman carried a sign saying “I can’t believe I’m still having to protest this shit.” A lot of us old broads feel that way.

The unremitting attacks on Planned Parenthood are particularly troubling, because women owe an enormous amount of our progress to the availability of reliable birth control. Only when we are able to plan our families, only when we are able to be more than baby factories, is it even possible to talk about having both a family and a career. Once women were in control of their reproduction, they entered the labor market in huge numbers, and became less economically dependent upon their husbands. A woman with a decent job could leave an abusive or unfulfilling relationship and support herself. Economic independence is the first step toward equal treatment, and the ability to decide for ourselves the number and spacing of our children is what makes economic independence possible.

That independence is also what has triggered the backlash we are experiencing from insecure men and especially from the Christian fundamentalists who believe that God made women to be submissive to men. Let me be very clear: there are sincere and admirable people who have principled objections to abortion—but anyone who believes that the anti-Choice movement and the assaults on Planned Parenthood are really about abortion is naïve. The real focus of this attack is on access to birth control and self-determination. It is an effort to deny the equal moral status of women. Let me share just one illustrative example—there are many, many others.

In 2009, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation donated over $23 million to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative. That was a five-year experimental program offering low-income teenage girls in the state long-acting reversible contraceptives—IUDs or hormonal implants—at no cost. These devices, which require no further action once inserted and remain effective for years, are by far the best method of birth control available, with less than a 1 percent failure rate. (The failure rate for the Pill is higher.) One reason more women don’t use these devices is cost: While they save the patient money over time, the up-front price can be as high as $1,200.

The results were staggering: a 40 percent decline in teen births, and a 34 percent decline in teen abortions. And for every dollar spent on the program, the state saved $5.85 in short-term Medicaid costs, in addition to other cost reductions and the enormous social benefit of freeing low-income teens from unwanted pregnancies and what too often follows: dropping out of school, unready motherhood, and poverty.

When the original grant ran out, the state legislature had to decide whether to continue funding the program. Now, you would think continued funding for so successful a program would be uncontroversial–but you would be wrong. The bill continuing funding for the program passed the Democrat-controlled House, but the Senate Republicans killed it.

And what were the highly principled reasons for refusing to continue a program that reduced teen pregnancies, reduced the number of abortions, and saved money? According to one Republican State Senator, using an IUD could mean “stopping a small child from implanting.”

Another said, “We’d be allowing a lot of young ladies to go out there and look for love in all the wrong places.”

If these lawmakers were really “pro-life,” they would support programs that substantially and demonstrably reduce the incidence of abortion. As the travesty in Colorado clearly shows, however, their real objective is to deprive women of self-determination. If necessary, at taxpayer expense.

A full list of the ongoing assaults on birth control and reproductive rights, from the Hobby Lobby decision to   Mike Pence’s effort to require funerals for miscarried fetuses to the constant efforts of state legislators around the country to outdo each other’s transvaginal probes and other punitive measures would take hours. Just in Indiana, the ACLU is currently challenging at least three anti-choice laws. I want to believe that what we are seeing is a last convulsion of old men who are frantic to retain their male privilege…but the jury is still out.

The ferocity of the pushback against women’s autonomy and reproductive rights is particularly dangerous to those of us in the Jewish community, because it represents the belief that fundamentalist Christian dogma should be the law of the land—that government should favor the beliefs of one segment of the Christian community over the theologies of other religions and other Christians.

One reason that the United States has been hospitable to Jews—and Muslims and Sikhs and other minority religions—is that the Bill of Rights not only separates Church from State, but forbids government from making decisions that are properly left to individual citizens. As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government doesn’t get to decide. The American constitution and legal system are based upon respect for personal autonomy and the primacy of the individual conscience—not upon conformance with majoritarian religious beliefs. I don’t think it is an accident that so many of the “family values” politicians who seem intent upon keeping women barefoot and pregnant are also anti-Semites who insist that the United States is a Christian nation.

Opponents of measures requiring equal pay for equal work, pundits who excuse predatory sexual behavior in the workplace (or by the occupant of the Oval Office), voters who reject female candidates for public office simply because they are female, and the politicians and public figures who talk about “making America great” like in the “good old days”—want to take us back to a time when women’s voices were discounted and our aspirations ignored. They want to go back to the “good old days” when women were second-class citizens—a time when being a straight white Christian male conferred automatic social dominance.

I lived through those “good old days.” They are the days I described at the beginning of this talk. They aren’t the reality I want my granddaughters—or my grandsons—to inhabit. We all deserve better.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

File Under “Duh”

I know that evidence and data–let alone logic–are irrelevant to single-issue voters. This is especially true of the more rabid anti-choice warriors intent not just on preventing abortion but also on limiting women’s access to birth control.

Even reasonable anti-choice activists agree with the majority of Americans that easier access to birth control will reduce the incidence of abortion.

A recent study once again confirms that assertion.

Countries with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest rates of abortion, the study by the Guttmacher Institute found. Easier access to birth control drives down abortion rates, the report also finds.

Despite the fact that in his former life, Trump declared himself pro-choice , his Health and Human Services Department has reversed Obama era policies that made contraception more freely available and that used evidence-based approaches to fight teen pregnancy — over the objections of career health officials.

A 2012 study of more than 9,000 women found that when women got no-cost birth control, the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions fell by between 62 and 78 percent. But political appointees at HHS advocate for abstinence-only approaches, which have been shown not to affect unplanned pregnancy rates.

Confirmation that more birth control equals fewer abortions ought to elicit a “no shit, Sherlock” reaction. Abortions typically terminate pregnancies that were unwanted; avoid those unwanted pregnancies and you avoid their termination. Duh.

Given that both logic and evidence support measures to reduce the incidence of abortions by making birth control widely available and easy to access, the obvious question becomes: why are anti-choice zealots so determined to restrict access to contraception?

The only answer to that question that passes the smell test is opposition to women’s autonomy.

The belief that women are “lesser vessels” is often rooted in fundamentalist religious beliefs about the proper roles of men and women. In those communities, men are to rule and women are to submit. But non-fundamentalist culture also plays a role; for eons, prior to the development of reliable birth control, women of childbearing age were dependent upon men, and the social roles that evolved reflected that dependency. It hasn’t been all that long, in historical terms, that contraception freed women from biological inevitability, and allowed us to choose the trajectories of our own lives.

There are sincere people among those who oppose abortion, people who genuinely believe that a zygote or fetus is morally equivalent to a human person. They are entitled to their beliefs, and entitled to try to convince others of their validity (although in a religiously diverse country, where different religions take very different approaches to this issue, they are not entitled to impose those beliefs upon women who do not share them.)

The people who want to restrict women’s access to contraception, however, are not genuinely anti-abortion. They’re anti-woman.

 

 

 

About Those Dire Predictions…

Today is the second annual Women’s March.

The first one was followed by an eventful year for women–from #metoo to vastly increased civic activism to record numbers of women running for political office. Those activities haven’t been universally applauded, but that’s nothing new. Every time we women assert ourselves, we are met with the usual warnings: children will be neglected or traumatized, marriages will fail, society will suffer, we women will enter old age embittered and alone.

I know the defenders of patriarchy will be disappointed, but it really doesn’t work that way.

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stephanie Coontz’ book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, in which–among other things–Coontz reminded us that “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t a documentary. In 2016, she updated the book, and the Council on Contemporary Families, a research institute she heads, issued a report on some of the data that would be part of the revision. That data just goes to show how often all those dire predictions about the effects of social change turn out to be wrong.

A few examples:

In the early 1990s, there was much hand-wringing about “scarlet women” and rising out-of-wedlock births; the warning was that the children would become juvenile “super predators,” morally-impoverished and violent.

But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.

We were warned that women who were selfish enough to pursue both motherhood and careers would inevitably “outsource” our maternal responsibilities and/or neglect our children. We can skip the guilt. (Now they tell me!)

Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965. And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

Remember when pundits and scolds warned that no-fault divorce laws spelled the end of the American family?

In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.

Well–so maybe no-fault divorce didn’t destroy the institution of marriage, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage will surely do it; for one thing, it will never be accepted by the American public; for another, think of the children!

As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.

There’s much more, but you all get the drift. Bottom line: keeping marriage and the unequal relations between the sexes “the way they always were” is neither necessary nor desirable.

Ironically, although the public has adapted, politicians and government haven’t.

Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Other things that haven’t improved in the past quarter-century? Women’s reproductive rights and wage inequality. And as the #metoo movement has illustrated, sexual harassment.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah predicted that “change is coming.” As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile, I’m going to the March.

“Pro Life” Really Isn’t

Those of us who champion individual autonomy and the right of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions often point to the hypocrisy of a movement that labels itself “pro life,” but expresses concern only when that “life” precedes birth.

Many of the same people who express touching concern for a blastula or fetus consistently oppose measures to ameliorate threats to the lives and health of the already-born. This disconnect strongly suggests that their real goal is control of women, not protection of life or the unborn.

Well, we have a new bit of evidence strengthening that claim of hypocrisy, and –unsurprisingly–it involves Mike Pence, Indiana’s contribution to the disaster that is the Trump Administration.

A bipartisan effort to stabilize the U.S. health-insurance markets collapsed last month after anti-abortion groups appealed directly to Vice President Mike Pence at the 11th hour, The Daily Beast has learned.

Amid opposition from conservatives in the House of Representatives, a group of pro-life activists met with Pence to lobby the Trump administration against supporting a health-insurance market-stabilization bill on the grounds that it does not contain sufficient language on abortion restrictions, according to sources with direct knowledge of the meeting. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was also in attendance at the Dec. 19 meeting, three of the sources said.

The next day, key lawmakers involved in crafting the legislation announced they were punting on the issue until 2018.

You may be wondering what the stabilization measure–which is intended to prevent thirteen million people from losing their health insurance due to a provision of the tax bill–has to do with abortion. And of course, in a sane world, the answer would be, nothing. But the supposedly “pro-life” activists who met with Pence last month were opposed to the bill because some of the subsidies in the stabilization legislation (known as cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments) might go to health plans that fund abortions.

This is how Pence’s Party–formerly known as the GOP–protects “life.”

These lawmakers are willing to see thirteen million Americans lose their health insurance if that’s what it takes to prevent private-sector insurance companies from covering abortions (many of which are medically indicated in order to save the life or health of the mother).

There are numerous studies which estimate the number of deaths that are a direct consequence of lack of health insurance.

A 2012 familiesUSA study shows that more than 130,000 Americans died between 2005 and 2010 because of their lack of health insurance. The number of deaths due to a lack of coverage averaged three per hour and the issue plagued every state. Other studies have shown those statistics to be high or low, but all studies agree: In America the uninsured are more likely to die than those with insurance.

So how, exactly, is blocking a measure that would prevent these very predictable deaths “pro life”? Elevating the value of the unborn over the value of existing men, women and children isn’t “pro life”–even if you believe that human life begins at the very instant that a sperm and egg unite–it is rather obviously “pro fetal life.”

More accurately, it’s a war on women’s autonomy. And like all wars, it will take the lives of many innocent, already-born people.

There are certainly people who are truly pro-life. They oppose abortion–but they also oppose the death penalty. They support full funding for CHIP.  They support programs to feed hungry children.

Fanatics like Pence aren’t pro-life in any meaningful sense. They are anti-women and pro-paternalism.