You are browsing the archive for Media.

Mexico’s Abortion Wars, American-Style

12:04 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Kathryn Joyce for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and originally published in the September 16 issue of The Nation.

Anti-choice activists hand a small child propaganda material in Mexico City.

On May 1, a familiar anti-abortion story line played out on Azteca 13, a popular television channel in Mexico. In the opening scenes of an episode of Lo Que Callamos Las Mujeres (What We Women Keep Silent), a Lifetime-like telenovela series about “real-life” stories, a pretty brunette with a heart-shaped face, Alondra, discovers she is pregnant when overtaken by a sudden bout of morning sickness. Her sister Sofía is concerned, but later that night, when Alondra’s boorish boyfriend comes home and she breaks the news, he asks if it’s his, then tells her to abort.

Alondra complies and, in a series of hazy scenes, visits a clandestine abortion provider. But she’s haunted by what she has done, and is awoken at night by phantom baby cries that send her searching throughout her apartment until she collapses on the living room floor, her white pajama bottoms soaked through with blood. Her illegal abortion was botched, it turns out, and by terminating her pregnancy, a doctor tells her sister, she has forfeited her fertility as well. Some weeks later, Alondra’s boyfriend is accosted on the street by another woman, also pregnant by him, who begs him to acknowledge his future child. Sheepishly, he does, shrugging as he tells Alondra, “I’m going to be a papa,” before walking out the door to be with the other woman—the one who didn’t abort.

The message seems clear enough, but the story doesn’t end there. Two years later, when Alondra meets a good man who wants a family, she pushes the memory of the abortion out of her mind. In a state of manic delusion, she experiences a hysterical pregnancy, her belly swelling with her hopes, until Sofía forces her to see a doctor and Alondra breaks down, confronted with her unresolved grief. As Alondra again lies in a hospital bed, two years wiser and infinitely sadder, the doctor hands her a pamphlet. On its back cover, facing the camera, is the logo of the Instituto para la Rehabilitación de la Mujer y la Familia, or IRMA, a Mexican Catholic ministry that offers counseling for women suffering “post-abortion syndrome”—the medically unrecognized claim that terminating a pregnancy leads to serious psychological trauma.

The May episode of Lo Que Callamos was one of several instances in which IRMA was invited to suggest a “true-life” story line for the show, broadcasting to millions of viewers its message that abortion causes devastating harm to women and their families. One episode alone had generated some 200 calls and 400 emails to IRMA in a single day, said María del Carmen Alva López, IRMA’s president and founder, when I met her last October.

“They take a real story from us, a real history, and then at the end the lady goes to IRMA and receives help,” explained Alva, a cheerful 42-year-old with beauty-pageant poise. In a lush Mexico City suburb full of gated houses, Alva sat me down on a pleather loveseat in IRMA’s small, stucco-walled counseling room. The bookshelves outside were lined with copies of Alva’s book, Y después del aborto, ¿que? (And After the Abortion, What?), and in her hands she held a thick binder containing the results of a survey of 135 clients. Of these 135 “post-abortive” women, said Alva, her smile dimming and her eyes heavy with sympathy, IRMA estimates that 70 percent have clinical depression and 10 percent have attempted suicide. Results like these, she says, prove that post-abortion syndrome is real.

That these numbers are gathered from a self-selecting group of women who have sought out IRMA’s services doesn’t dampen Alva’s conviction that all Mexican women need to hear how abortion can hurt them. They especially need to hear it now, Alva believes. It’s been six years since first-trimester abortions were decriminalized in Mexico’s Distrito Federal, home to Mexico City, and more and more Mexican women are gradually learning about their limited right to choose—although abortion rights advocates fear this message hasn’t yet made its way to provincial, working-class women.

In this atmosphere, the claims about post-abortion syndrome and other supposed risks advanced by groups like IRMA are having real effects. According to Dr. Raffaela Schiavon, director of the Mexican chapter of the international abortion rights group Ipas and a former OB-GYN who served in Mexico’s Ministry of Health, a 2012 study suggests that Mexican women decide whether or not to have an abortion based not on their religion, politics, or socioeconomic status, but rather on their fears that an abortion will hurt or kill them. The main difference for women, said Schiavon, is whether or not they’ve received information that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, depression, or suicide—exactly the information IRMA is helping to spread around the nation.

“They’ve gotten out the message that abortion is unsafe and dangerous,” Schiavon said. Ironically, she added, “That is the case when it’s illegal.”

When Mexico City’s law changed in 2007, allowing elective abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it was a substantial victory for reproductive rights advocates in a country, and a region, where the Catholic Church dominates daily life. Across Latin America, access to legal abortion is a rarity, and in 2007, all eyes turned to Mexico City to see how the experiment would play out—and whether it could be replicated. To date, only Uruguay has followed Mexico City in liberalizing its abortion law, and this June, the world watched as El Salvador denied a lifesaving abortion to a woman known as Beatriz for five months before finally allowing a c-section delivery for the nonviable fetus.

After decriminalization, however, a fierce backlash unfurled across Mexico. In the first three years, half of the country’s 31 provinces passed new constitutional amendments enshrining abortion bans—two of which were just upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court this May. As a result of the amendments passed after 2007 in 18 Mexican states, women in the provinces are increasingly being prosecuted for “attempted abortion,” often reported by hospital staff when they seek help after self-abortions, unsupervised use of the medical abortion drug misoprostol, or unsafe back-alley terminations.

Regina Tames, a lawyer and executive director of the reproductive rights advocacy group GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), worked with several of the dozens of women being prosecuted for attempted abortion in 2012. If convicted, some of these women could face up to six years in jail, while others would be sentenced to fines or community service. Many were already condemned in their communities after newspapers printed their pictures and identified them as criminals and baby killers.

In Mexico’s so-called Rosary Belt, a band of ultraconservative states like Jalisco and Guanajuato in the center of the nation, anti-abortion advocates and other traditionalists are embracing U.S.-style culture war tactics and rhetoric. Conservative Mexican Catholics have mobilized across the provinces to Catholicize public school education, block public health announcements for condoms, and even destroy public school books that contain comprehensive sex ed. Some anti-abortion activists have marched under a powerful old symbol: the flag of the 1920s Cristero War, which pitted devout Catholics against a secularizing government that persecuted religious expression. The bloody conflict resulted in atrocities on both sides, including priests being executed among their flocks—some since canonized as martyrs of the faith—and a 2012 film about the war has resonated with conservatives in both Mexico and the United States. (U.S. Catholic commentator George Weigel recently went so far as to compare the contraception mandate in Obamacare to the legacy of the persecuted Cristeros.) Waving the flag now helps cast the terms of Mexico’s current abortion debate as a new clash in an ongoing war over religious freedom. Some abortion rights advocates say there’s a sense that today’s Mexican right “has the Cristero spirit again.”

Next to the harsh penalties of criminalization and the simmering threat of culture war, groups like IRMA and its peers seem to offer a softer, gentler approach to the anti-abortion cause. When I spoke with María del Carmen Alva López, she was preparing to meet with the ministry’s partners at Vifac, a nearby maternity home that houses women who have been convinced not to abort. Both IRMA and Vifac count themselves as part of a network of anti-abortion groups in Mexico, along with a proliferating number of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that are adopting the same ostensibly women-centered focus that has marked the modern U.S. anti-abortion movement.

On a sunny day in October, a 29-year-old Mexican-American woman named Katia walked into a CPC in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Anzures, explaining that she thought she might be pregnant. After Katia entered and gave her name, she was taken to a back room by a Catholic volunteer, who asked her why she didn’t want her baby. If she was pregnant, the volunteer suggested, she should marry her boyfriend or, barring that, accept the center’s offer of a place to stay where her parents wouldn’t have to know. The CPC staffers told Katia that they would perform an ultrasound to show her the fetus, but first she was legally obligated to watch a video: a four-part movie starting with the miracle of life and proceeding to a graphic abortion, interspersed with testimony from women who had variously given birth to their babies and were happy, or who had chosen abortion and were devastated. When a CPC staffer who claimed to be a nurse finally performed the ultrasound, she puzzled at length over the image on the screen before suggesting that Katia was probably seven-and-a-half weeks pregnant. When she left, they handed her a lollipop.

Katia’s experience would be nothing out of the ordinary in heartland America, where CPCs have been a fixture since the 1960s. What’s new is that this model has been exported to Mexico, where anti-abortion groups have established more than 40 CPCs in recent years.

Frequently posing as medical facilities, and often located right next door to actual abortion clinics, CPCs function by attracting women with free pregnancy tests and implied offers of abortion services, only to ambush them with graphic videos, intensive anti-abortion coercion, and strategic misinformation. (Some in the United States have even been sanctioned for fraud.) Now, thanks to the expanding reach of American evangelical and Catholic anti-abortion activists, CPCs are becoming important players in the abortion debates overseas, in countries as varied as Ethiopia, Israel, Serbia, and South Africa. Mexico is just one of the 47 nations where Heartbeat International, an anti-abortion network based in Ohio, now has partner centers. Heartbeat International, which represents more than 1,000 similar centers in the United States and 1,800 groups worldwide, has partnered with a Spanish-language website to track and promote Mexican CPCs as well. In fact, it was Heartbeat International’s website that had listed the Mexico City CPC that Katia—who was actually my translator—visited.

In Mexico, the history of CPCs (in Spanish, centros de ayuda para mujeres, or CAMs) begins with Jorge Serrano Limón, founder of the early Mexican anti-abortion group National Pro-Life Committee, or ProVida. In 1989, Serrano Limón traveled to New Orleans for a conference put on by Human Life International (HLI), an American group whose ultraconservative Catholic founder, the late Father Paul Marx, charged that Jews control the abortion “industry.” In Louisiana, Serrano Limón (who has his own unsavory connections with a Nazi-sympathizing Mexican historian) met HLI staff and CPC founders who inspired him to set up his own center in Mexico, fighting abortion before it was even legal.

Serrano Limón fell into disgrace in the mid-2000s, as ProVida became the focus of an embarrassing embezzlement scandal known as “Tanga-Gate” (Thong-Gate)—in which government funds meant to buy ultrasound equipment were instead spent on unauthorized purchases, including women’s clothing and thong underwear. Pro-choice activists gleefully took the opportunity to protest Serrano Limón’s appearances by waving cheap thongs at him in public. But HLI continued to sponsor Mexican and Latin American CAMs.

Greg Berger, a U.S.-born documentary filmmaker living in Mexico, made a film about Mexico’s CAMs in 2008, El Derecho de Decidir en Paz (The Right to Choose in Peace). Implicit in the centers’ rise was a tactical shift: from Mexico’s version of noisy clinic protests—amplified sessions of praying the rosary directed at entering patients—to appearing instead to offer women help in making an informed choice. “I think they found that it was much better to pretend that they were providing information about abortions,” Berger says, “a much better technique than the fetus-in-a-jar model.”

After Tanga-Gate, ProVida seemed to take another lesson from the United States, where women have risen to leadership positions in the anti-abortion movement, when it named a female president, Rocío Gálvez, whose promotion was announced while she was pregnant. “She was [presented as] a pregnant woman who was proud to bring life,” recalled Eugenia López Uribe, a radical young activist who is executive coordinator of the sexual rights group Balance, which works on both reproductive and LGBT rights.

This shift not only mirrored the U.S. anti-abortion movement’s trajectory but also marked a moment when U.S. partners began exerting more influence. At Gálvez’s inauguration celebration in an expensive Mexico City hotel, recalls López Uribe, the featured speakers were all from the United States, and the organizers even screened an anti-abortion video clearly made in the States and featuring an African-American baby.

Since Serrano Limón’s first CPC, Mexican CAMs have grown to several dozen and today claim to have served some 60,000 women and prevented 51,000 abortions. Mostly, the CAMs approach women as they’re heading into clinics or hospitals. Ever since Mexico City’s decriminalization in 2007, CAMs have been setting up small booths on the walkways into clinics, amid stands vending candy and food for hospital visitors. With a banner overhead offering information about abortion, the stands intentionally appear as an official part of the hospital’s intake procedure. If women stop, CAM staffers try to transport them to their remote centers, luring them to a van with the promise of a safer, cleaner, and faster abortion clinic nearby.

For women in a city where abortion is newly legal—an island of access in a country devoid of it—the CAMs’ message is disorienting. The advertisements for these “crisis centers,” including posters along Mexico City streets, make the same ambiguous offer that can be seen in New York City subway cars: “If you’re pregnant, we can help.”

“The message [of decriminalization] has not arrived to the most vulnerable, poorest, least-educated women,” says Ipas’s Raffaela Schiavon, who suspects that most working-class migrant women, often serving as domestics for Mexico City’s elite, aren’t aware of their rights and are therefore the most likely to be taken in.

Women who go with the CAM volunteers are likely to experience the same protocol that has been extensively documented in the United States. They are shown graphic videos about how aborted fetuses cry for their mothers. They are given a letter to read “from a fetus,” forgiving its mother for aborting. They are invited to stay with the CAM’s partner maternity home.

“They have all these choices,” says López Uribe: “‘What are you scared of? That your family will find out? Perfect—we’ll send a letter that you were accepted to a school, and we will take you to the [maternity] house and nobody will ever know.’” In her OB-GYN practice, Schiavon says she sometimes encountered new mothers who came to the hospital from provincial maternity homes, where they’d been cloistered away from family and friends and hadn’t felt free to leave.

But even for women who know to avoid the CAM booths, their very presence undermines the culture of safe access that advocates are trying to foster in Mexico City. “We’re trying to build an environment of rights—that we have this law and that you can exercise your rights,” López Uribe says. “When you have to tell [patients], ‘If you see this stand, don’t go to it, go straight; don’t pay attention to the people praying,’ it makes them feel like they’re doing something wrong.”

It’s no coincidence that the Spanish-language pamphlets that the CAMs hand out bear the exact same pictures of mangled fetuses as the anti-abortion protest signs on the Washington Mall. On the back of one gory leaflet collected by López Uribe’s group Balance, a black-and-white tract with images of dismembered second-trimester fetuses under the caption “human trash,” there is listed, in small type, the name and address of its publisher—in Cincinnati, Ohio. And when Mexican women show up at a CAM, it’s often an American movie they see: a subtitled version of the gruesome anti-abortion classic The Silent Scream.

To Mexico’s pro-choice community, the ties between the Mexican and U.S. anti-abortion movements are so blatant as to be self-evident. There is funding flowing from North to South, but probably more important is the wholesale migration of the U.S. anti-abortion model. “Serrano Limón went and took courses in the United States, networked, and got ready,” explained Sofía Román Montes, coordinator at the pro-choice group Equidad de Género. “He used tactics from the U.S.: The Silent Scream, the screaming at women, the vans with ultrasounds. That was all from the United States. Nothing is made here.”

Well, there might be one part of the Mexican CAMs that is indigenous, a sort of local twist. Though my translator Katia emerged from her visit to the CAM with the suggestion that she was nearly two months pregnant, the ultrasound reading was false: Katia was not pregnant. According to Mexican reproductive rights groups, such false diagnoses by CAMs are routine, with widespread reports of women being shown ultrasound images of fetuses far more advanced than they could possibly be carrying—for example, a woman early in her first trimester being shown images from a late-second-term pregnancy—as well as numerous instances of women who were not pregnant being shown an ultrasound of their “baby.”

Abortion rights advocates believe that the CAMs are showing prerecorded videos instead of actual ultrasounds. When a non-pregnant student working with Balance went to a clinic, she was shown an ultrasound image of a 13-week-old fetus. And Equidad de Género’s Román Montes seconded the experience: every time she’s sent employees into CAMs undercover, she says, “all of our workers come out pregnant, too.”

* * *

Like the CAMs, María Del Carmen Alva López’s group IRMA was similarly inspired by the U.S. anti-abortion movement. Twenty-five years ago, Alva conducted her college thesis work on U.S. anti-abortion movement leaders, interviewing many at Project Rachel, the Catholic Church’s official post-abortion ministry, which has chapters in more than 110 U.S. dioceses. Alva dreamed of setting up her own group in Mexico. After a colleague in Monterrey offered to translate Project Rachel’s materials for her, she started her own organization and assembled a team of counselors.

Today, IRMA offers individual counseling and special Bible-study weekend retreats for women who have had abortions, modeling their therapy on a support group manual written and sold by Rachel’s Vineyard—another U.S. organization that takes its name from the biblical Rachel, who mourns her dead children, this one founded by the New York-based anti-abortion group Priests for Life. On Rachel’s Vineyard’s website, IRMA is listed as the group’s Mexican partner.

Last year, an official of Human Life International spoke of visiting “as many key players as possible” to help coordinate the fight against Mexico’s “culture of death.” HLI also sponsored the creation of a large-scale, online anti-abortion resource site in Latin America. The Knights of Columbus send money. And on it goes.

Reproductive rights advocates say that with this support, the anti-abortion movement in Mexico has built a strong advocacy network to rival that of feminist NGOs, growing beyond the initial activism of the Catholic Church and ProVida to a coalition of hundreds, with new groups sprouting up “like mushrooms.” One “pro-family” leader in Mexico, Red Familia, aligns hundreds of partner organizations on a shared traditionalist platform. Red Familia is itself part of a larger network, the American-based global conservative coalition called the World Congress of Families. The WCF is an interfaith right-wing group that condemns the international expansion of abortion and LGBT rights as a form of U.S. cultural imperialism, forcing decadent liberal social mores on allegedly orthodox, traditional nations.

It seems like a laughable accusation, given conservatives’ own abundant overseas networking, but it’s a familiar argument to filmmaker Berger, who was inspired to make his 2008 film on CAMs by the frustrating popularity of the charge that abortion rights are a form of “Yankee imperialism” aimed at limiting Latino birth rates. There’s a reason why the story has appeal: The shameful history of abusive population control measures enacted on the developing world, often by U.S. groups or with U.S. money, give potency to the claim that abortion rights are a form of contemporary eugenics being forced by Americans onto a life-loving Catholic people. But what Berger found instead was that the reverse was true. While Mexico’s Catholicism may be indisputable, the recipe for its “pro-vida” movement was the true U.S. export: its leaders trained and supported in the United States, its activism model a mirror image of the U.S. one.

Mexican women, on the other hand, have needed and obtained abortions since long before colonialism. “The desire for a woman to end her pregnancy when she doesn’t want to carry to term isn’t an import from the U.S.,” said Berger. “That’s something that women go through every day and is a personal experience—not somehow imported from abroad.”

Nor is Mexico’s Catholic heritage everything that the “pro-vida” activists claim. In an attempt to counter IRMA’s widely broadcast message, the pro-choice group Catholics for Choice-Mexico has begun airing a short, regular animation series, Catolicadas, on a TV news program, advancing the idea that being a good Catholic can include supporting reproductive rights.

For some Mexican pro-choice advocates, that heritage—and the different tradition of Catholicism they practice—is already the backbone of their activism. A woman I’ll call Ramona, an abortion provider working illegally in the state of Morelos, says it was precisely growing up Catholic in Morelos—a cradle of Mexico’s liberation theology movement in the 1970s and ’80s—that made her pro-choice. She can recall the moment when a Catholic teacher in her radical church asked the class whether they thought it was acceptable for a woman to have an abortion. The students were told to answer by moving to one side of the room or the other, and Ramona found herself alone on her side.

Though abortion rights were anathema to Catholic doctrine, Ramona said, everything else the church had taught her about the fight for justice convinced her that it was right for a woman to be able to choose, and that other Catholics might come to see that. “Jesus, for me, was another person fighting for justice. It’s why it’s easy for me to be where I am. It was a chance to say the struggle is here in the world, not in heaven.”

For more from this issue of The Nation, click here.

Image worldfocusonline / YouTube

‘He Said/She Said’ Journalism: A Growing Threat to Public Health

10:38 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Tara Murtha for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Jenny McCarthy

Why does the mainstream media give crackpots a voice?

The recent announcement that actress Jenny McCarthy is replacing Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the popular ABC morning talk show The View has sparked an intense wave of backlash.

The problem is that after McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, she became convinced it was because of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and over the last several years she has reinvented herself as the leading celebrity voice of the anti-vaccine movement. Although the study that originally sparked the MMR vaccine-childhood autism panic has since been completely discredited, many parents have stopped vaccinating their children, in part because of anti-vaccine advocacy carried out by McCarthy and others. As a result, measles cases have spiked in recent years.

Critics say that McCarthy’s anti-science views are a public health hazard, and giving her a platform, on a morning talk show or in other media outlets, legitimizes her view. For instance, “Larry King had [McCarthy] debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert,” The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote recently, adding, “False equivalency is one of journalism’s great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve ‘balance,’ reporters often obscure the truth.” As Brendan Nyhan, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, argued, uncritically repeating discredited statements just amplifies the spread of misinformation.

False equivalence is the worst of what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have called “he said/she said” journalism. It takes much less time—and subject expertise—to frame a story as a “controversy” than to give it informative context. (Not to mention that a non-scientific minority opposition to the vetted facts does not qualify as a “controversy.”)

When it comes to covering health and science, the “he said/she said” short-cut is downright dangerous.

It’s unfortunate then that media coverage of reproductive health issues often falls into this trap as well.

Reproductive Health

Hasselbeck, the former Survivor contestant whom McCarthy will replace, once argued to one of her co-hosts on The View that taking the morning-after pill is “the same thing as birthing a baby and leaving it out in the street.” She said that she believes emergency contraception (EC) disrupts a pregnancy. In fact, EC prevents ovulation from occurring, preventing fertilization in the first place.

Since the medical definition of pregnancy is successful implantation of a fertilized egg, effective use of EC means you can’t get pregnant in the first place.

Yet there was relatively little outrage over Hasselbeck’s remark or the dispute, which was described in many outlets, as usual, as a “cat fight” between hosts.

When it comes to reproductive health, we have a much higher tolerance for hearing anti-science beliefs with serious public health consequences. Of the many fake-science falsehoods published every day on reproductive health issues, only the most obvious draws McCarthy-level heat. Most memorable is the belief, shared by an ever-expanding number of lawmakers, that women’s bodies contain magic lady-venom to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.

While these legislators draw much deserved public ridicule, it’s the less obvious anti-science and evidence-free statements published every day that are most dangerous.

For example, the federal 20-week abortion ban being pushed by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and other bans like it are premised on preventing fetal pain, even though scientific studies have consistently found that fetal pain is unlikely before the third trimester.

Rep. Franks has as little expertise about the science of fetal pain or the public health consequence of banning abortions at 20 weeks as Jenny McCarthy does about vaccinations. Yet he’s pressed the issue, despite the fact that the bill has little to no chance of passing the Senate. Why would Franks make such a production of a failing endeavor?

Read the rest of this entry →

A Gosnell Amendment? Jennifer Rubin Plays Doctor and Legislator—and Fails

12:35 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Kermit Gosnell mugshot

The Gosnell case shouldn't inspire legislators to crack down on reproductive freedom.

There are two roles anti-choicers like to play for which they are ill-equipped. First, they like to play doctor. And second, they like to play God. In doing so, they spread outright lies about both abortion and contraception to mislead and whip the public into a frenzy about sex, pregnancy, and childbirth. And then, believing themselves to be the righteous ones, they seek to capitalize on their self-created panics to make public health and medical policy for the country based solely on emotion, facts be damned. Their end goal, as they make clear, is to outlaw abortion and contraception no matter the costs to public health, women’s lives, or society writ large.

The trial of Kermit Gosnell provides anti-choicers and their allies with a perfect platform for their efforts. In Gosnell, they have an unethical, unscrupulous criminal acting as a doctor. He preyed on women too poor to seek early, safe abortion care, ran a filthy “clinic,” and conducted illegal abortions during which, it is alleged, some infants were born alive and killed. In their quest to make safe, legal abortion care as inaccessible as possible, anti-choicers are now seeking to sway public policy by conflating safe abortion care with Gosnell’s atrocities, to tar all legitimate providers of safe abortion care as Gosnell clones, and to use a criminal case as a justification to drive legitimate providers out of business.

One recent example of this effort comes courtesy of Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who, in a column Wednesday, suggested several ways to further diminish access to safe, legal abortion care in the United States through what she calls a “Gosnell amendment.” If you read the piece, it is clear she has no idea what she is talking about.

Rubin, for example, calls for changes in Medicaid but appears not to understand how Medicaid works in the first place. She also calls for changes in federal funding of abortions, but appears not to understand that current law already severely restricts public funding of abortion.

She writes:

First, all Medicaid and other federal support for abortion services should come with caveats—health standards (of the type Pennsylvania refused to issue and enforce) and appropriate training for all personnel. Second, federal taxpayer dollars should not go for late-term abortions.

Let’s start out by making clear that this is the kind of grasping for irrelevant straws I described above (using the existence of a criminal to tar and feather an entire field of professionals who have no relationship to the criminal activity). For one thing, as confirmed in a phone call today to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, and notwithstanding the fact that what he did was illegal in the first place so the case illustrates nothing about safe abortion care, Gosnell was not receiving Medicaid payments for women seeking abortion. In fact, in 2010, there were only seven abortions in the entire state of Pennsylvania paid for by state tax funds, and no federally funded abortions anywhere in the state that year. As in zero. Zip.

But no mind: Rubin claims that Gosnell proves there are problems with federal Medicaid funding of abortion care, because eliminating Medicaid funding of abortions for any low-income woman under any circumstance is high on the anti-choice agenda and Gosnell gives them a platform for their arguments.

As for regulations and “health standards,” both the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services and state Medicaid agencies already work together both to certify and regulate Medicaid providers of all kinds, and both medical societies and advisory boards at the state and federal level set standards for care. Does this mean there is never any fraud? Of course not: Republican Rick Scott, the current governor of Florida, was implicated in one of the biggest Medicare frauds in the country in the late ’90s, showing that laws on the books are in fact broken until evidence is accumulated to bring a case. It was not lack of law or regulation, but rather lack of enforcement that allowed Gosnell to carry on for so long. Changes to Medicaid would therefore not have prevented and will not prevent past, current, or future quacks or criminals from operating in such a capacity until they are caught, just as homicide laws will never prevent all homicides and laws against arson won’t eliminate arsonists. Laws and regulations are meant both to define and to hopefully reduce criminal activity but will never eliminate it.

Rubin’s suggestion that federal taxpayer dollars should not go for abortions also is a head-scratcher, since the Hyde Amendment already forbids the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest. This law has guided public funding for abortions for low-income women under joint federal and state programs since 1977. At a minimum, states must cover those abortions that meet the federal exceptions. States also are free to expand coverage of Medicaid funding of abortion for other reasons, using their own funds. Pennsylvania does not offer expanded Medicaid coverage for abortion.

Moreover, the system in Pennsylvania (as in many states) is such that even in cases of rape and incest it is virtually impossible to get reimbursed for a Medicaid-eligible abortion. As Claire Keyes, former director of a clinic in Pennsylvania, told RH Reality Check via email:

Read the rest of this entry →

The Media and the Gosnell Case: A Case of Insecurity and a Misinformation Campaign

12:20 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Tara Murtha for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Pile of newspapers

A journalist looks at the barriers to reporting on women's reproductive freedom.

In recent days, amidst cries of a media “blackout,” a number of journalists have admitted to either missing or dismissing the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell over the past two years. As one of the many journalists who has been covering the Gosnell story since it broke in early 2011, all I can say is: We tried to get the story out there. But more importantly, this politics-of-media framework distracts from the circuitous politics that enabled, and resulted from, Gosnell’s actual crimes and the women who were affected.

What Media Blackout?

After spending much of 2010 interviewing 58 witnesses, in January 2011 the Philadelphia district attorney’s office published a 281-page report accusing Kermit Gosnell of grotesque, depraved crimes.

There was blood on the floor. A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs. Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with bloodstained blankets. All the women had been sedated by unlicensed staff — long before Gosnell arrived at the clinic — and staff members could not accurately state what medications or dosages they had administered to the waiting patients. Many of the medications in inventory were past their expiration dates.

Fetal remains were stored in milk jugs and cat food containers. A janitor admitted he routinely pulled fetal parts out of pipes. Unlicensed, untrained staff, including a high school student, pumped cheap, powerful drugs into the veins of women who were chemically coaxed into zombie-like stupors that sometimes lasted days.

Last week, Kristen Powers published an op-ed in USA Today that sparked a Twitter shame campaign, directly asking prominent national journalists why they hadn’t covered the case. And it worked. Now, more than three years after the raid and more than two years after the grand jury report, some national journalists who ignored the case entirely are suddenly wildly interested.

After years of coverage from outlets in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, outlets focused on women’s health issues, and yes, mainstream media outlets, apparently all it took to catch the attention of writers such as Slate‘s Dave WeigelThe Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg was to target their collective egos — specifically, their insecurity about being perceived as having a liberal bias.

Weigel, one of the first writers to develop a sudden interest in Gosnell after Powers’ piece, wrote that when he read about Gosnell back in 2011, he didn’t “see a political story to chase.”

At 3801 Lancaster, the site of Gosnell’s clinic, patients chose their medicine and painkillers a la carte. In other words, the more cash a patient could give Gosnell, the more painkiller she could get. The poorer the patient, the more she would suffer. With all the talk about the Affordable Care Act, you’d think that such starkly stratified access to quality health care would be an interesting political story. The story touches on poverty, abortion, civil rights, state rights, healthcare, increasing inequality and race, to name a few topics of political interest that, if nothing else, came up quite a bit during the presidential election.

What Weigel really meant, of course, is that he didn’t see a story worth chasing. “Bored media,” indeed.

Read the rest of this entry →

Media Silence on Gosnell? Let’s Talk About the Women of Color Without Decent Health Care

1:12 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Erin Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

See all our coverage of the Kermit Gosnell case here.

Kermit Gosnell mugshot

The Gosnell case highlights issues of class, race and access to reproductive healthcare.

Some reporters and media critics have claimed that not enough is being written about the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an illegal abortion provider who operated far outside the bounds of legitimate medical practice. In a recent column for USA Today, for example, Kirsten Powers claimed that the case is not receiving the attention that it deserves.

As a resident of Philadelphia and an abortion provider, I beg to differ. Gosnell’s atrocities have been covered widely. But what haven’t been covered as much as they should be are the reasons why the women who turned to Gosnell for abortion care were disproportionately low-income women of color who felt they had no other place to turn.

Whether you are a supporter or opponent of women’s health rights, or just interested in things related to reproductive justice, you should know that the Gosnell case has been written about steadily since February 2010, when Gosnell’s clinic was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration and his license was suspended. The story was widely covered in the national mainstream media and by women’s health advocates in 2011 when the case’s Grand Jury report came out. So while the trial is news, there is little to no information that has not already been reported about Gosnell up to this point.

Indeed, when Google renders about 9,000 hits in 0.15 sec using the search term “Kermit Gosnell,” it’s hard to say this story lacks attention.

But this case is about more than just a practitioner who did bad things. His case embodies the “off-the-grid” abortions we can expect to see in states like Mississippi and North Dakota, where anti-choice harassment and regulations purposefully pass to close all clinics providing legal, safe abortion care mean only one clinic is left in each state, and even those are under threat of being shut down.

Gosnell’s “Women’s Medical Society” was not an unknown entity. In fact, it was surrounded by well-known and respected hospitals and clinics. But because they adhere to safe abortion care practices and because health care is expensive generally, the cost of care at these clinics was often out of reach to women who, without public assistance, don’t have and cannot afford regular health care of any kind.

Gosnell’s operation bears no resemblance to safe abortion care. His entire “practice” was illegal: There were untrained medical “assistants” and abortions performed at viability without medical cause. His “clinic” was unsanitary and unsafe and what Carole Joffe has referred to as a “chamber of horrors.”

Moreover, in a gruesome quid pro quo, Gosnell charged on a “sliding scale” for anesthesia; you got more anesthesia the more money you paid, so the poorer you were, the more pain you suffered. Women who went to Gosnell may have known of other places to receive abortion care, but they were either beyond the legal time limit when they could get an abortion in the state, or they could not afford safe abortion care.

What this case reveals is that the cost of dignity in health care has risen, and the attack on poor women intensified.

These realities underscore the real missing headline. In 2011, the Grand Jury report stated, “We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color.” Almost all of Gosnell’s patients are identified as poor women of color. Still, the mainstream media is largely not paying attention to the issues of race and class inherent in this story, which contribute to the reasons why Gosnell could thrive. Poor, under-insured women are not getting acceptable health care of any kind, but because this story is about abortion, these usually invisible women are suddenly the subject of public pity by anti-choice activists. They were made to suffer until many lives were taken.

In an age of rising stigma, discrimination, widespread misinformation, and violence against providers, facts get trampled. What Gosnell underscores is a point that women’s health and rights advocates have long asserted: Women who need to terminate a pregnancy will go to desperate lengths to do so, and by isolating abortion care, we drive women to back-alley providers.

Anti-choice conservatives know this but seem not to care. Mississippi state Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter (R-Burnsville) put it bluntly at an Alcorn County GOP meeting:

Read the rest of this entry →

From Big Dan’s to Steubenville: A Generation Later, Media Coverage of Rape Still Awful

10:08 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

The Accused

Like Steubenville, The Accused is loosely based on another incident where the mainstream media seemed to side with rapists.

This past Sunday, 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays were found delinquent (the equivalent of guilty in juvenile court) of raping a 16-year-old girl in front of their friends at a series of parties in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays was also found delinquent on charges of the illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for texting a picture he took of the victim while she was naked.

Almost exactly 30 years earlier, in March 1983, a woman was gang raped by at least four men—six were originally charged—in Big Dan’s Tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The victim in the Big Dan’s attack was Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old mother of two who lived down the street from the tavern. (The 1988 film The Accused is loosely based on the incident.)

There are striking parallels between the two cases. And, notably, they illustrate how little the media’s coverage of rape cases has changed over the decades.

Reporters covering the Big Dan’s case openly struggled with responsible reporting issues, such as whether or not to name the victim and how to give context to victim-blaming quotes from community members.

Araujo was told in court that she had to “prove her innocence.” She was aggressively cross-examined and grilled about her drinking. “She was as much on trial as the defendants,” an advocate told the Associated Press.

In both the Big Dan’s and Steubenville cases, the public was shocked by the presence of bystanders who joined in, cheered, or did nothing to stop the attacks. That shock converged with anxiety over the role a new media format played in each case: As Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict noted in the landmark 1993 book, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, the newfangled media in the Big Dan’s case was 24-hour cable news.

The Steubenville case, of course, was documented on and subsequently unfolded through social media: The assailants took photos of the victim looking unconscious. A friend shot, and later deleted, video of Mays assaulting the victim in a car. A blogger named Alexandra Goddard helped the case gain attention by chiseling away at it on her website. Loosely organized hacker group Anonymous posted a video of the attackers’ friend laughing hysterically about the assault, which galvanized outrage about the case. Crime scene investigators didn’t need the victim’s underwear, which went missing after the assault, to get a guilty verdict; they had the assailants’ smart phones.

Swap “social media” for “television” in Benedict’s assessment of the Big Dan’s case, and it could apply to Steubenville: “The all-pervasive presence of television contributed to making the media part of the story itself, which elicited its own set of reactions among the public,” she wrote.

Benedict added that the Big Dan’s case “evolved into a blatant example of the way women are regarded once they become rape victims. And it put the press to an unusual test—a test of how to be fair in the light of violent feelings, extreme and opposing points of view, and vociferous criticism.”

Media outlets have been put to that same test of fairness while covering Steubenville. Many have failed in significant ways.

Take for instance this recent report from ABC’s 20/20. From the report’s opening lines: “The juvenile trial … is every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world.”

Is it a nightmare that there was a trial, or that a child was raped?

Read the rest of this entry →

Why Zerlina Maxwell Is Almost Right About Teaching Men Not to Rape

11:58 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Tara Murtha for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Last week, Democratic strategist, writer, and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell went on The Sean Hannity Show and argued that men and boys should be trained not to rape. Maxwell was viciously attacked by conservatives following her appearance. But if there’s any problem with Maxwell’s argument, it’s not that it went too far — it’s that it could have gone even further.

Zerlina Maxwell, screenshot

“I don’t think we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there for prevention,” Maxwell said on Hannity’s show. “You’re talking about it as if there’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone that you know and trust.”

“Women need to know that these situations arise,” responded Hannity, apparently unaware that women know all too well that rape is a constantly looming threat. It affects our decisions on a daily basis: when and where to jog, when to walk with our keys in between our knuckles, and when to hop out of a cab a block from home if the driver gives us the creeps.

Maxwell was on the show to address the newest twist in the ever-misinformed public conversation about rape. The subject was the role of firearms in rape prevention on college campuses — a hot topic since the Colorado state legislature has been wrestling with HB 1226, a proposed bill that would ban concealed weapons on campus. (The sponsor spiked the bill after the hubbub surrounding Maxwell’s appearance.)

Maxwell argued that, while problematic on a several levels, the argument that women can prevent rape by packing heat is primarily a failure because it is not rooted in the reality of campus rape.

“I want women to be able to protect themselves, yes, but I want women to not be in this situation,” said Maxwell.

“Knowing there are evil people, I want women protected, and they’ve got to protect themselves,” responded Hannity.

Maxwell doubled down: “Tell men not to rape.”

Glenn Beck’s The Blaze called her argument “bizarre.” But it’s disingenuous to suggest that women must choose between being armed or being raped. Saying that a woman should be able to pack heat for self-protection is one thing. But self-defense is not the same thing as rape prevention — and carrying a gun certainly doesn’t guarantee defense against rape.

“If firearms are the answer, then the military would be the safest place for women,” said Maxwell. “And it’s not.”

For her audacity, Maxwell received a torrent of abusive tweets. These Twitter users said she should be gang-raped and that her throat should be slit. They called her a “nigger.” Many others simply insisted on perpetuating a false, twisted representation of her argument: Zerlina Maxwell believes women should be raped instead of using a gun on a rapist.

So it’s come to this: We now must add carrying a gun to our victim-blaming checklist. “She wasn’t carrying a pistol; she must’ve wanted it.”

As if that list wasn’t already long enough.

Maxwell is right, of course. The only problem with her argument is that it didn’t go far enough. For men and boys to be taught not to rape, they have to first learn what rape is.

College women are more likely to be raped than their unenrolled counterparts, and the vast majority of college rapists are trusted acquaintances of the victim, not a man in a ski mask hiding in the bushes wielding a knife or a gun.

Read the rest of this entry →

What Romney Said: A Timeline of Mitt Romney’s Anti-Choice Positions and the Questions the Media Isn’t Asking

6:22 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Caricature of Mitt Romney

Image: Donkey Hotey / Flickr

In 2007, Mitt Romney stated that in regard to a “human life” amendment to the constitution, “I do support the Republican Platform and I support that being part of the Republican Platform.”

At no point during this conversation or any other in which he declared support for a human life amendment did he suggest support for exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.

Over the past week, and in the wake of statements by Missouri representative Todd Akin which threw into stark relief the positions in the GOP Platform on women’s rights, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney has changed his position on a total abortion ban by insisting he would allow “exceptions” for victims of rape and incest.

Rather than asking probing questions about an issue that is of profound consequence for women’s lives and health, the media–ranging from George Stephanopoulos of This Week to Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation and others–have largely taken Romney at his word on this shift and failed to ask any questions. At the very least, the media ought to be asking Romney how his post-Akin position squares with his own statements of the past several years.

In recent months, for example, Governor Romney has insisted he is the “same man” as we was in the last presidential election; that Mitt Romney had quite a different position than the post-Akin Romney.

But what position does he really have? If he is, as he has claimed, “the same man” as he was in the last election cycle, then he supports a total abortion ban. And if he supports “exceptions,” why has he never stated this when asked about total abortion bans?

In 2011 and 2012, Romney has several times said he “had the same positions today” as “when I ran for president last time, so what you see is what you get.”

In a March, 2012 interview on the Tommy Tucker Show out of New Orleans, for example, Romney stated that he had the same positions as “last time.” In the same interview, he also confused the issue by declaring that he had the same positions in the last presidential contest as he did as governor of Massachusetts, when he claimed to be pro-choice. Which Romney are we listening to now?

Read the rest of this entry →

A Long Way from “The Very Special Episode,” A Main Character Has an Abortion on Prime Time Television

9:21 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Photobucket

Last season, I wrote about how well I felt Private Practice handled abortion when one of its main characters agreed to perform the procedure on a patient who found out that she was still pregnant (19 weeks along) after an earlier abortion failed.  That show deals with abortion quite often and I give the writers a lot of credit for the way they have portrayed the debate. They touch on different aspects of the issue by weaving a variety of stories into the medical drama; in addition to the woman requesting a second-trimester abortion, they’ve written about couples who disagree on termination, teens and their parents, as well as a young pregnant woman with Down’s Syndrome who didn’t quite understand the situation.  The dialogue is often predictable and melodramatic, but the writers let characters express both sides of the issue. In the end, though, it’s clear that they use the show as a platform to illustrate why the right to safe, legal abortions, without judgment is so important.

For premier night, however, it was Private Practice’s sister show Grey’s Anatomy, also created by Shonda Rhimes, that dealt with abortion.  When we left our characters last season, Dr. Christina Yang, a hard-edged surgeon in her fifth year of residency, found out she was accidentally pregnant.  She and her husband Owen, also a surgeon, argued bitterly because he wanted a child and she did not.  When we picked up this season, the two were living apart and not speaking. Though she still intended to have an abortion, she had not done so yet.

What I thought was so bold about this story line was that there were no extenuating circumstances. There was no suggestion that there was anything wrong with the fetus.  There was no suggestion of any medical reason she could not or should not carry to term. Moreover, she is well educated, employed, and in a (relatively) stable relationship. She clearly has the resources to raise a child.  Her only reason behind this decision was that she does not want to be a mother.

And the writers did good job, in my opinion, making the argument that every baby should be a wanted baby.  In one scene Christina’s best friend, Meredith, says this to Owen: Read the rest of this entry →

Rough Summer in the City: Recent Rape Cases and the NYC Rape Shield Law

12:16 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sarah Elspeth Patterson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This week, the public humiliation of Nafissatou Diallo that has been the “DSK Rape Case” has come to a close, as all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been dropped. This motion marks the end to a case that has amounted to little more than a character assassination of a rape complainant who has endured a litany of shame-driven media accusations, including but by no means limited to the Post’s declaration that she “wasn’t just a girl working a hotel – she was a working girl.” This unsubstantiated claim of her sex worker status, in addition to problematic framings of her race, immigrant status and background, has been used in the media to reinforce the idea that she is not a credible witness and therefore unworthy of having her rape charges validated in a court of law.

It’s been a rough summer for rape cases going through the DA’s office in New York City, with no lack of victim-blaming happening all around. It’s been mere months since two NYC police officers were acquitted of raping a women in her East Village apartment after a call for their assistance at the same location. Since the victim was drunk, though, it wasn’t difficult to see how she would become the one on trial. In fact, there was enough victim-blaming to acquit two men who were caught entering the woman’s apartment on outside surveillance tapes not once, not twice, but three times. Enough victim-blaming to acquit a man who admitted to lying in bed with the victim while she was wearing only a bra and passed out drunk. Enough victim-blaming to have one of the officers, Officer Moreno, publicly declare post-acquittal that the results of the case “were a lesson and a win.” A lesson and a win, indeed.

How rape cases can play out in our criminal justice system, as seen this summer in NYC alone, is a lesson to every person that is socially vulnerable to the effects of a rape culture, and that’s a whole lot of people. If you have been raped, it does matter how you got there. It matters what your race is, what your immigration status is and how you’ve made a living. It matters a lot. For some rape victims, just being able to report the crime without shaming scrutiny is not a possibility. In the case of sex workers, for instance, sometimes the mere admission that they are sex workers leads to open refusal to document a rape. As one member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project explained:

I was taken very seriously until it came out that I was involved in sex work, that this man was going to get me work, and that I showed him my body. At that point, the cops started acting as though I had been dishonest for not revealing this sooner and started basically interrogating me. It was incredibly upsetting. One of the police officers actually said to me, “What makes it okay Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, but not Thursday?” I was not arrested, but I feared arrest, having heard of cops doing that. I was relieved just to leave the precinct, and needless to say nothing came of my complaint. And I was reminded of the treatment I had received when I discovered that he was later arrested in California as a sex offender. Presumably he raped someone with a little more social cachet.

Sadly, it is not just the acts of a few that affect how the system treats rape complainants. There are also policies in place that directly affect how a sex worker is treated in the eyes of the court in regard to sexual assault cases. For instance, in the New York City Rape Shield Law, a criminal procedure code that provides that “evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct shall not be admissible” in a rape case, there is a noted exception to the code. New York is one state that permits the victim’s status as a convicted prostitute to be admitted into evidence if the conviction occurred within three years of the sexual offense. In the past, this practice has been defended on the grounds that such information speaks to the credibility of the rape complainant “as a witness” and somehow suggests that the complainant, being a sex worker, may have consented. In many ways, this practice being upheld represents how prostitution (and indeed, sex work in general) is still considered an immoral act and treated in the eyes of the law as representative of a person’s defective character.

In the aftermath of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn dismissal and the recent acquittal of two police officers accused of rape, both cases which had a great deal to do with vilifying the complainant rather than the defendant, we must recognize that the rights of rape victims are tied up directly with how we frame rape victims in general, both in the media and in public policy. We must also be cognizant of the notion that there is a hierarchy of victimhood and that issues of race, class and status go into making up that hierarchy. Laws like NYC’s Rape Shield Law uphold the notion that our courts are the arbiters of sexual morality. Likewise, a court system whose decisions are in any way shaped by a rape victim being a sex worker (whether a valid claim or not) cannot be held to treat any complainant with a reasonable level of dignity. All in all, it’s a real wonder how any of us could withstand the scrutiny of such a system of judgment.