Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

Looking For My Inner Pollyanna–Roe v. Wade Edition

Along with all the other legal mayhem we can now expect from the most reactionary Supreme Court in over a century, most observers predict the demise of Roe v. Wade, despite polling that suggests most Americans would strongly disapprove.

If Roe is overruled, there will certainly be some horrendous consequences. But there may also be some unanticipated positives. Bear with me, here.

We have all recognized the intransigence of the “one issue” anti-choice voter. Without Roe, it’s conceivable (no pun intended) that the wind will go out of that sail. (It will be much more difficult to energize a national movement against birth control, which is actually a target of the most rabid anti-choice activists.) Anti-choice voters have been a mainstay of the GOP–and they will arguably be considerably less motivated.

If Roe is no longer the law of the land, the issue will revert to the states, and a number of states will opt for reproductive choice. Those of us who care about women’s autonomy will need to do some serious fundraising to make it possible for poor women in Red states to travel to states where abortion is legal, and that’s a pain. But even now, with abortion theoretically legal, there are many places in the U.S. where clinics are few and far between; women have to travel long distances, put up with bogus “counseling,” and deal with other barriers to the exercise of the currently constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

What the confirmation of Kavanaugh and the de-nationalization of Roe might do–should do–is redirect liberal and pro-choice energies from national to state-level political action. And that could be a huge game-changer.

The current dominance of the Republican Party doesn’t reflect the desires of the American majority–far from it. GOP numbers have been shrinking steadily; some 24% of voters self-identify as Republican. Their dominance is due primarily to the 2011 gerrymander, and that was made possible because they controlled a large number of state governments. The GOP vote suppression tactics that depressed Democratic turnout and disenfranchised Democratic voters have also been facilitated by state-level control.

The next redistricting will occur in 2021. Between now and then, women, Democrats, liberal-leaning Independents and new voters need to focus their efforts on statehouses around the country. We need to eliminate gerrymandering wherever possible, and we need to put an end to vote suppression tactics.

There will be other strategic decisions necessitated by a rogue Supreme Court. Lawsuits implicating civil rights and civil liberties, for example, may have better prospects in state courts interpreting state constitutions than in the federal system. (When the Supreme Court was less open to arguments from the LGBTQ community, the ACLU and Lambda Legal had some considerable successes in state courts.)

The next few years will be critical. Success will depend upon the “staying power” of those Americans for whom the 2016 election and the travesty of Kavanaugh’s confirmation have been wake-up calls. It’s one thing to post despairing messages to like-minded friends on social media; it’s another thing entirely to continue the day-to-day drudgery of organizing and registering our fellow citizens, and getting out the vote.

If we are going to reclaim the America we thought we had, however, anger and determination are great motivators.

Asking The Wrong Question

As the Senate “considers” the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (note quotation marks, since  support for this particular nominee is entirely partisan and no genuine consideration of his record is being allowed), much of the focus is on his presumed “pro life” approach to cases involving abortion.

Media framing of this issue highlights the most frustrating element of America’s “pro-choice” or “pro-life” public debate:  the persistent refusal to confront the actual question, which is not whether a pregnant woman should continue or terminate her pregnancy.

The question is: who should have the power to make that decision? 

As I have repeatedly argued, a government with the authority to forbid abortion is a government with the authority to require it. I usually point to China, where the government has done precisely that, but yesterday, my lawyer son pointed me to a case right here in the good old U.S. of A.– and a judicial decision by none other than Brett Kavanaugh.

As Salon reported, 

In 2007, as an appellate judge in Washington, D.C., Kavanaugh was presented with an unusual case involving two women who had wanted to continue their pregnancies but had been forced to have abortions instead. They sued and Kavanaugh ruled against them, denying their claims that they had a right to be consulted about the decision to terminate their pregnancies.

Many Americans, probably most, understand the abortion debate to be about a struggle between the right of women to bodily autonomy and the “right to life” that anti-choicers claim embryos and fetuses have. In reality, as this case shows, the legal debate is really only about autonomy — so much so that an anti-choice judge like Kavanaugh ruled against women who wanted  to “choose life,” as conservatives say, rather than allow them a greater measure of autonomy….

The case is a complex one, but the basic story involved three women who received care from the District of Columbia Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. All three women had intellectual disabilities and had been determined legally incompetent. One woman had an elective eye surgery and two had abortions, all chosen for them without any consideration of their wishes. The women argued that they had a right to have their wishes considered, but Kavanaugh ruled against them….

Legal standards regarding who is competent to make medical decisions for themselves are complicated and vary quite a bit from state to state. But Mathis said that even in states that have the fewest autonomy rights for people with certain disabilities, “most courts consider the person’s wishes,” even if they may ultimately rule against them. Kavanaugh, however, “just rejected the notion that there was any reason at all” to ask the women in that case what they wanted.

I emphasized that last line, because it illuminates what is truly at stake in these arguments. The question is not “to abort or not to abort.” The question is: who decides? The Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government does not get to decide–what you read, what you believe, whether or to whom you pray. Government officials don’t get to decide to  search you (or your “papers or effects”) simply because you look shifty, or out of place, or because the officer “has a hunch.”

As snotty as the faux originalists are about the constitutional “penumbra” referenced in Roe, it is impossible to read through the Bill of Rights without recognizing that the entire document rests on the Founder’s concern to protect personal autonomy and to safeguard the right of individuals to make their own moral and political decisions–including what the Court has subsequently dubbed “intimate” decisions–free of government coercion or interference. The 9th and 10th Amendments make it clear that rights not “enumerated” (that is, not specifically listed) are not to be “denied or disparaged,” and that powers not specifically delegated to the central government are to be retained by the states and the people.

It is an act of intellectual dishonesty to dismiss the limits that the Bill of Rights places on government’s authority to control its citizens’ exercise of self-determination.

The question, I repeat, is not “what shall be decided?” but “who shall decide it?”

The question for Brett Kavanaugh is not whether he fancies himself “pro-life.” It is whether he is willing to acknowledge that the power of government to control women’s lives is limited by our constitution.

His jurisprudence makes it abundantly clear that he is not willing to make that acknowledgement. For that reason (and a number of other very troubling decisions he has handed down), he is unfit to sit on the nation’s highest court.

 

 

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.