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Julian Assange Says Being Anti-Choice Represents ‘Non-Violence.’ Non-Violent for Whom?

11:12 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

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

Drawing of Julian Assange

Assange claims his anti-abortion views are “nonviolent.”

During a recent online Q&A session with Campus Reform, Julian Assange, founder of the government secret-leaking group WikiLeaks, admitted he’s a “big admirer” of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for what he called “their very principled positions.” Specifically, he praised them and their libertarian Republican brethren for, among other things, their fervent opposition to abortion rights, characterizing their position on abortion as a reflection of their commitment to non-violence.

In response to a question about his thoughts on Rand Paul, Assange heralded him as the “only hope” for U.S. electoral politics. He lauded both men for their commitment to “non-violence,” highlighting the various ways in which he sees that commitment reflected in their political stances. “So, non-violence, well, don’t go and invade a foreign country,” said Assange. “Non-violence, don’t force people at the barrel of a gun to serve in the U.S. army. Non-violence, don’t extort taxes from people to the federal government. Similarly, other aspects of non-violence in relation to abortion that they hold.”

According to Assange, opposition to abortion is grounded in a commitment to non-violence. But non-violent for whom?

According to the National Abortion Federation, there have been 6,461 reported incidents of violence against abortion providers since 1977, including eight murders and 17 attempted murders. Abortion providers and clinics have faced numerous bombings, cases of arson, butyric acid attacks, death threats, kidnappings, and more, all from opponents of abortion rights. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed while at church with his family. His convicted killer, Scott Roeder, is heralded as a “hero” in some anti-choice circles.

In 1965, eight years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, illegal abortion accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth. And today, around the globe—mostly in the developing world—at least 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions each year (roughly 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide) and many times that number suffer serious and sometimes lifelong health consequences.

It is impossible to quantify how many people in the United States avoid accessing safe and legal abortion care because of fear of harassment and intimidation, but with 5,165 abortion clinics reporting some form of disruption or harassment in 2011 alone, it’s safe to assume that it plays at least a small role; people often avoid accessing the basic reproductive health care to which they have a constitutional right because of virulent hostility from abortion opponents.

What’s that about anti-abortion views being non-violent again?

In a political climate so openly hostile and threatening to abortion rights, one in which states have enacted 43 abortion restrictions in the first six months of 2013 alone, where 37 of the 42 abortion clinics in Texas will be forced to close because of an omnibus anti-abortion bill, where serious legal threats to Roe v. Wade abound every day, women’s lives are literally at risk.

So why are men like Assange essentially telling women to get over the abortion issue and praise Ron and Rand Paul anyway? It’s simple: privilege.

While these white, cisgender men may be able to pick and choose which political positions they like from the Pauls, marginalized groups do not have that luxury. They are essentially asking women and people of color to praise politicians who disdain and combat their very existence. This is not petty partisanship; it is a fundamental lack of respect for who we are as people. A simple look at their political records proves this.

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At ‘Realize the Dream’ March, Women Speak at Last

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

 

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

At a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, Myrlie Evers-Williams finally completed a mission assigned to her by tragedy a half-century ago. Then, little more than a month after her husband, Medgar Evers, president of the NAACP’s Mississippi chapter, was slain in his driveway as his children watched, the young widow was the only woman scheduled to speak at the podium from which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his best-remembered line: “I have a dream.”

But Myrlie Evers, as she was known then, missed her turn at the microphone, stuck in traffic on her way from the airport. (Daisy Bates, who strategized the integration of Little Rock High School, was drafted to Evers’ slot, and spoke all of 142 words.)

At Saturday’s commemoration, Evers-Williams not only had her turn, but also had some female company. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addressed the crowd, which numbered in the tens of thousands, as did Sybrina Fulton, who gave a tribute to her slain son, Trayvon Martin; National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill; and Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Rev. Bernice King, president of the King Center and daughter of the late civil rights leader, offered a closing prayer. Other women, too, were given turns at the mic at the event, titled ”Realize the Dream,” and keynoted by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III.

“Stand your ground,” Evers-Williams said, invoking the name of the notorious laws on the books in 16 states that allow the use of a lethal weapon against anyone the weapon-holder feels threatened by. “We can think of standing your ground in the negative,” she continued, “but I ask you today to flip that coin and give ‘stand your ground’ a positive ring for all who stand for justice and equality, and stand firm on the ground that we have already made, and be sure that nothing is going to be taken away from us.”

Among the gains won through protests and pressure of civil rights activists was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the heart of which was struck down in June by the Supreme Court.

Marching Toward Inclusion

When, after the rally, the time came to march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, men and women marched together, unlike the original march 50 years ago, in which men and women marched along separate routes.

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Anti-Rape Bill Could Create Wedge Between Different Anti-Feminist Factions

8:35 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Former Republican Senate Candidate Todd Akin

As Todd Akin and the country at large learned during the 2012 elections, pregnancies resulting from rape are very real and sadly all too common. If there was one silver lining in the entire debacle and “debate” over Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, it was that it helped expose a previously under-reported problem: 31 states allow rapists to sue for custody or visitation of children conceived by rape. It might initially seem like it wouldn’t be much of a problem—most of us probably ask ourselves why rapists would bother to want these children at all—but the fact of the matter is that rapists rape because they like to hurt and control women. How better to make your victim’s life a living hell than going after her through her children? Nothing says “I have power over you” like forcing yourself into someone’s life through their children. Now a bipartisan group of congressmen are trying to close up this loophole in custody laws, with the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, which creates financial incentives for states that bar rapists from suing their victims for custody.

Shauna Prewitt, a woman who chose to give birth after her rape resulted in pregnancy, was with the congressmen when they announced the bill. Prewitt filed charges against her rapist after she gave birth, and he retaliated by suing her for custody. There aren’t any numbers out there to assess how common it is for rapists to abuse the family court system in this way, but there are thousands of women who choose to raise children conceived by rape every year, and we know that rapists are often dogged in their sadism, making suing their victims a tantalizing opportunity for many of them. Wife batterers are notorious in legal circles for their eagerness to abuse the family court system to continue the pattern of hurting and controlling their victim, so it makes sense that rapists—who have a lot in common with and are often batterers themselves—would be attracted to the same strategy. And if they get visitation rights or custody? Now they have tons of access to manipulate and hurt their victim for 18 more years.

Needless to say, it’s probably not the greatest idea to let these men, who think it’s okay to force sex on unwilling women, raise children, especially if there are alternatives—like the mother—available.

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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.

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Despite a Failed Nomination, Robert Bork’s Legacy Lives On at the Supreme Court

6:56 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

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

Robert Bork

Robert Bork (Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons)

There are few personalities in the legal profession that are divisive as Robert Bork. And, while his name has not often come up this election cycle, his legacy with the Supreme Court and possibility that his vision will shape its future deserves to be discussed.

Bork, who currently serves as the chairman of Mitt Romney’s Justice Advisory Committee, built a career on divisive partisan politics, beginning in 1973 when, as solicitor general, he fired Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to facilitate Richard Nixon’s attempted coverup of the Watergate scandal. In 1987, then – president Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork’s nomination went down in flames as the Senate rejected him by a vote of 58 to 42, the largest margin in American history.

Bork’s candidacy was largely rejected because of his strong opposition to civil rights and women’s reproductive freedoms. Bork flat – out rejects the idea of a constitutional right to privacy, believes both Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade were wrongly decided and thinks there is no such thing as gender discrimination under the law. While those views are what tanked his nomination, they’ve managed to find a place in the jurisprudence of the high court still, proving the tenacity of the Bork legacy.

Bork’s failed Supreme Court nomination paved the way for Anthony Kennedy’s confirmation. At the time Kennedy was considered a moderate to Bork’s extreme-right positions, but civil rights advocates have come to understand that was not the case. Perhaps no single Supreme Court justice has had the effect of effectively undoing the protections granted women through the Griswold and Roe decisions as Kennedy. In many ways, it didn’t matter that Bork’s nomination failed to be confirmed by the Senate because the very act of airing his extremist views managed to move the pendulum far enough to the right to pave the way for Anthony Kennedy’s ascendance to the high court and later Clarence Thomas.

In fact, without Bork’s nomination justices like Thomas and Samuel Alito would hardly be possible. After all it was as an appellate court judge that Alito embraced the idea of spousal consent as failing to create an undue burden on a woman’s right to chose in a decision the Supreme Court would later largely affirm in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

To that end, Bork’s legacy on the Court is very much alive today, and should Romney succeed in his quest for the presidency, that legacy will be cemented in future Supreme Court nominations. As it stands the Court is at best a mere one vote away from a majority that would overturn Roe together, if it is not there already. If Robert Bork has his way, the gains made by women and racial and political minorities will be undone within this decade.

Open Letter to Rachel Maddow: Stop Calling Opposition to Rape and Incest Abortion Exceptions “Extreme”

7:48 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Over the last year Rachel Maddow has been one of the few news reporters to cover the efforts of anti-choice politicians to limit access to safe abortion care through draconian state laws. Her outrage is appreciated, but I find myself increasingly concerned about her focus on the Republicans politicians who oppose abortion “even” in cases of rape and incest—a position she deems “extreme.”  Her language seems to suggest that the desire to deny abortions to the vast majority of women with unwanted pregnancies is “mainstream” and only these few outliers are “extreme.” This perspective reinforces the idea that some abortions are more justified than others, that people should innately have more sympathy for women who did not voluntary participate in the sex act that resulted in the pregnancy. Politicians do not get to a better rating simply because they believe that abortions are justified if women are victims. Mr. Romney is extreme on this issue whether or not he accepts the rape and incest exceptions.

From a fundamental human rights perspective denying abortion for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest is just as problematic as denying abortions to women who can’t afford another child, are in unstable relationships, do not want to be a parent, or want to pursue other life opportunities. The reason a woman decides to have an abortion should be irrelevant to society’s recognition that restricting her decision is unacceptable.

In many ways people opposed to abortion in all cases have a more consistent, and I would say, honest position. For them, either a blastocyst, embryo, or fetus has a right to life, no matter how it was conceived, or a woman doesn’t have the right to terminate a pregnancy, no matter the circumstances. In contrast, the politicians who believe it is within their domain to decide which of women’s reasons for abortion are legitimate, lack a moral core and are using abortion simply as a political tool to mobilize a conservative base while trying not to appear too “extreme.” Unfortunately, it is extreme to oppose the right of any woman to make decisions about the direction of her life, no matter the circumstances under which she finds herself pregnant.

Continue reading…

Using Special Powers, Brazil’s President Passes Law Requiring Compulsory Registration of All Pregnant Women

8:17 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

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

In the dead of night on December 27, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff enacted legislation that will require all pregnancies to be registered with the government. Provisionary Measure 557 (PM 557) created the National System of Registration, Vigilance and Monitoring Women’s Care during Pregnancy and Post Childbirth for the Prevention of Maternal Mortality (National Registration System).

She used a provisionary measure—intended only for urgent matters—that allows the president to pass a law without congressional approval. Congress only gets to debate and approve the law once it has been enacted. Rousseff claims that PM 557 will address Brazil’s high rates of maternal mortality by ensuring better access, coverage and quality of maternal health care, notably for high-risk pregnancies. Both public and private health providers must report all pregnancies—providing women’s names—with the National Registration System so the state can then track these pregnancies, from prenatal to postpartum care, presumably to evaluate and monitor health care provided.

How does simply monitoring pregnancies reduce maternal mortality? There is no guarantee that care will be available to all pregnant women and no investment in improving health services included in the legislation.

And what’s the benefit to women? PM 557 does authorize the federal government to provide financial support up to R$50.00 (roughly US$27) for registered pregnant women for their transportation to health facilities for pre-natal and delivery care. However, to receive the stipend women must comply with specific conditions set by the state related to pre-natal care. Let’s face it, that paltry sum may not even cover the roundtrip for one appointment depending on where a woman lives.

In fact, PM 557 does not guarantee access to health exams, timely diagnosis, providers trained in obstetric emergency care, or immediate transfers to better facilities. So while the legislation guarantees R$50.00 for transportation, it will not even ensure a pregnant woman will find a vacant bed when she is ready to give birth. And worse yet, it won’t minimize her risk of death during the process.

The biggest problem with maternal mortality in Brazil is not access to health-care services but rather the quality of health care in public health facilities. The majority of preventable maternal deaths actually take place in public hospitals, disproportionately affecting poor women, women who live in rural areas, youth and minorities.
Last but certainly not least, MP 557 violates all women’s right to privacy by creating compulsory registration to control and monitor her reproductive life. In fact, it places the rights of the fetus over the woman, effectively denying her reproductive autonomy. A woman will now be legally “obligated” to have all the children she conceives and she will be monitored by the State for this purpose.

It’s unclear why Rousseff sought to enact this legislation so quickly and with so little opportunity for debate or public opinion. What is clear though is that women’s real interests and health needs are not the focus here—just their uteruses.

Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish: Proposed Funding Cuts for Response to Violence Against Women

1:27 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Marianne Møllman 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, Senators Leahy and Crapo introduced a bill to reauthorize and amend the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law first enacted in 1994.

This is mostly good news. The VAWA mandates federal funding for victim assistance and transitional housing, strengthens provisions to penalize offenders, and requires states to provide a certain level of services with a view to preventing violence from occurring in the first place.

The bad news is that the proposed bill substantively slashes the funding for the implementation of the bill, reducing the authorized funds by more than $144 million (almost 20 percent) of 2005 levels over 5 years.

To be sure, the federal government has to save quite a lot more than $144 million to overcome its spending deficit, and Senator Leahy justified the cuts by reference to heightened efficiency through the consolidation of services.  But if it is indeed possible to consolidate services and do more with less, would it not have been appropriate to ask, first, if the current funding levels adequately cover current needs?

To start with, it is clear that violence against women in the United States has not gone away these past 20 years.  The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 25 percent of women in the United States experience domestic violence some time in their lives, and that adult women experience over 5 million instances of violent assault annually.

Adolescents—even young adolescents—are also affected.  Over 70 percent of our 7th and 8th graders report they are “dating,” and in a 2009 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control about 10 percent of students overall reported being physically hurt by someone they were dating.

In addition, the economic downturn has substantially affected women’s ability to leave abusive relationships. In the best of times, women who want to leave an abusive partner worry about finding employment and housing, especially if they also need to provide for children.  During economic crises, these concerns increase dramatically and are exacerbated by the fact that governmental and non-governmental service providers usually face funding crises of their own and may have had to cut services. 

In 2008, the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that, on one day alone, almost 9000 requests for services went unmet because of lack of resources.  In 2009, that number had increased by 300.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, set up by VAWA, reported that calls to the hotline increased by over 19 percent in the 12 months after the September 2008 market crash.

The director of the government’s Office on Violence Against Women testified before the Senate Committee of the Judiciary in May 2010 that, between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, one shelter alone reported a 44 percent increase in persons sheltered, a 74 percent increase in crisis response, and a 124 percent increase in calls requesting shelter

But most pointedly, domestic violence costs society a lot more than the $144 million the introduced bill would save by downsizing responses to it.  Those 5 million assaults on women annually resulted in nearly 2 million injuries, of which more than half a million required medical attention, the Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2003.  Victims of domestic violence lost nearly 8 million work days and 5.6 million days of productivity due to violence.

In all, assaults on women cost almost $6 billion every year. Because these estimates are based on rates of violence before the current economic crisis, the true cost may well be higher today

In other words: the bill proposes to cut $144 million over 5 years from services that seek to remedy a problem which, even with the current government involvement, will cost society about $30 billion over that same period.

Some might say that estimates about the cost of intimate-partner violence are notoriously unpredictable, that the federal government truly is broke, or that the proposed cuts really do reflect a consolidation of services that will result in more efficient use of funds. But even if they were right, that would not take away from the fact that domestic violence is a continuing, costly, and consistently underserved problem.

Cutting federal funds for dealing with it is not only bad news, it is a bad idea.

Widely-Supported California Bill to End Shackling of Pregnant Women in Prison Faces Possible Veto

8:56 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Shackles photo: publik15 on flickr

Shackles photo: publik15 on flickr

Written by Tamaya Garcia 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 is cross-posted with permission from Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice.

Over the past two years, I have worked alongside an amazing group of women to pass a common-sense bill for California moms. Assembly Bill 568 (Skinner) would limit the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant women to the least restrictive restraints possible.

Translation: It would end the use of belly chains, leg irons, ankle restraints and other barbaric shackling devices that are used on pregnant women in jails and prisons across our state. Yes, shackles reminiscent of slavery are still being used on pregnant women as far long as 8 ½ months.

Medical professionals agree that it’s time for a change. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) was so moved by this issue that they became co-sponsors of the bill. ACOG opposes the use of any restraints on pregnant women because it increases the risk of falling and leaving the pregnant woman, whose balance is already compromised, unable to break those falls. Read the rest of this entry →

Conservative Columnist Supports Family Planning as “Pro-Life”

11:08 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.

It’s not often that I agree with Michael Gerson, the conservative former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush, advocate for abstinence-only policies in U.S. global AIDS programs, and columnist for the Washington Post. 

Today, however, I am in near-full agreement with him on a piece he published in today’s Post.

Gerson just returned from a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo sponsored by CARE during which he and others saw firsthand the struggles of women who live in societies in which they have little control of whether, when and whom they marry, and whether, when and how many children they bear.  In these settings, women bear more children than they want and can afford to raise, infant and child mortality rates are high, and complications of both pregnancy and unsafe abortion are the leading cause of deaths among women ages 15 to 49.  Medical care is largely inaccessible.

Reproductive and sexual health and rights advocates have always argued that ensuring that women have unfettered access to family planning information and counseling and consistent contraceptive supplies is a “pro-life” strategy, because voluntary family planning dramatically improves the quality of life and survival rates of both children and their mothers, and by extension, families and societies.

But the anti-choice movement in the United has moved from opposing abortion per se to opposing all forms of birth control, an agenda it was always suspected to have in the first place.  As such, this movement, led largely by male religious leaders, Congressmen or virulently anti-choice male activists opposes support for family planning services and birth control methods both at home and abroad.

Having a “card-carrying” conservative evangelical columnist support family planning as a “pro-life” intervention not only speaks to reality, it is what I hope to be a welcome first step in pushing back against anti-choice positions that cost far more lives–those of women and children–than they ever “save.”

Visiting the village of Bweremana, Gerson writes:

[T]he correlation between the number of children and the absence of some of their mothers becomes clear. Kanyere Sabasaba, 35, has had 10 children, eight of whom have survived. Her last delivery did not go well. “I delivered the baby without any problem, but I was bleeding much,” she told me. The case was too complex for the local health center, so Kanyere had to pay for her transport to another medical facility. After the surgery, the doctor performed a tubal ligation. “If I give birth again, I could die,” she said. “The last child is the one who could really kill me.”

As Gerson rightly notes, for women in this part of Congo, the complications of childbirth are as dangerous as the militias in the countryside.

One woman I met had given birth to 13 children, only six of whom survived. Women sometimes deliver in the fields while working. Medical help can be a few days’ journey away. Each birth raises the odds of a hemorrhage, infection or rupture. Those odds increase dramatically when births come early in life, or late in life, or in rapid succession. In Congo, almost one in five deaths of women during childbearing years is due to maternal causes.

And, he notes, “While both the pill and condoms are generally available in larger cities such as Goma, access is limited in rural districts. Determining the pace of reproduction is often a male prerogative instead of a shared decision. Sexual violence can be as close for a woman as gathering fuel in the woods.”

These are all absolutely true and I appreciate and admire Gerson for acknowledging these realities.

The women of Bweremana, continues Gerson “are attempting to diffuse and minimize their risk. In a program organized by Heal Africa, about 6,000 contribute the equivalent of 20 cents each Sunday to a common fund. When it is their time to give birth, the fund becomes a loan to pay transportation and hospital fees. The women tend a common vegetable garden to help with income and nutrition. And the group encourages family planning.”

But even this is not enough.  It is estimated that 215 million women worldwide want and need access to basic family planning and supplies but do not currently have it.  These women bear more children than they want or can support.  As a result, they also watch more infants and children die, suffer poor health themselves, and are far less likely to achieve their own educational and economic goals.  That is why investments by nations in their own health care systems, including basic reproductive and sexual health care, and international donors in those same systems, are so critical.

But, as Gerson notes:

The very words “family planning” light up the limbic centers of American politics. From a distance, it seems like a culture war showdown. Close up, in places such as Bweremana, family planning is undeniably pro-life. When births are spaced more than 24 months apart, both mothers and children are dramatically more likely to survive. Family planning results not only in fewer births, but in fewer at-risk births, including those early and late in a woman’s fertility. When contraceptive prevalence is low, about 70 percent of all births involve serious risk. When prevalence is high, the figure is 35 percent.

The United States was once the global leader in funding family planning worldwide.  But U.S. funding of international family planning programs has remained essentially flat for the last 10 years, and is hamstrung by an increasing number of medically-unnecessary and ideologically-driven restrictions that end up reducing, rather than expanding access to this urgently-needed health intervention.

Gerson argues that support for family planning and contraceptive supplies shouldn’t be the ideological lightening rod it has become because:

“[e]ven in the most stringent Catholic teaching, the prevention of conception is not the moral equivalent of ending a life. And conservative Protestants have little standing to object to contraception, given the fact that they make liberal use of it. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, more than 90 percent of American evangelicals believe that hormonal and barrier methods of contraception are morally acceptable for adults. Children are gifts from God, but this does not require the collection of as many gifts as biologically possible.

In fact, more than 80 percent of the U.S. public writ large strongly supports women’s rights to determine the number and spacing of children they have.

So far we strongly agree: It’s a strategy that saves lives, it makes economic sense, and because this is about public health, it should be free from ideology.  If you don’t like contraception, don’t use it. But don’t use religion or ideology to deny it to others, especially when the overwhelming majority of women of all religious persuasions in fact use birth control.

Where I diverge with from Gerson in regard to these issues is on abortion. 

Gerson points to “[s]ome liberal advocates” who think these are intrinsically related.  In regard to self-determination, human rights, and public health, the linkage between a woman’s ability to prevent pregnancy and her ability to safely and legally terminate an unintended and untenable pregnancy are intrinsically linked and women know this. It only becomes ideological when religion and politics intervenes in these basic rights and tries to undermine them.

It is true, as he notes, that “support for contraception does not imply or require support for abortion.”  You can, personally, be a supporter of contraception but decide you would not choose abortion were you to become pregnant, which obviously men can’t.  Where we’ve become lost, however is in politicizing abortion care in much the same way as family planning services and ignoring, for ideological convenience, the same public health and medical evidence on safe abortion services that supports access to family planning.  Safe abortion care makes sense because it saves women’s lives, and ultimately the lives of their current and future children borne through wanted pregnancies.

Notwithstanding religious and ideological beliefs, access to safe abortion is also a well-recognized critical public health intervention.  Moreover, without it, ultimately women can not truly be in charge of their reproductive destinies–and hence can not truly exercise self-determination. Access to safe abortion services is a necessary back up to any unintended and untenable pregnancy, from any cause, including contraceptive failure, interrupted access to contraceptives, and pregnancies resulting from intimate partner violence and rape, rape as a tool of war, stranger rape, or incest.  Access to contraception can dramatically reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and hence the need for abortion, but it can never completely eliminate abortion. So the need for access to safe abortion care is a fact-based medical and public health position, not an ideological one. And by suggesting it is an ideological position, we continue to miss the point.

What Gerson doesn’t clarify is that for the purpose of U.S. policy, contraception and abortion are already kept separate.  U.S. international family planning assistance goes solely to family planning information and supplies; it does not support access to safe abortion care.  Under the Helms Amendment, funding for abortion care is only allowable in cases of rape, incest or the health and life of the mother.  In reality, because of politics, U.S. funding is rarely if ever used even for these “allowable” conditions.  The issue of abortion would come into play if we were talking about repealing the Helms Amendment, an effort I wholeheartedly support, but which has nothing to do with current discussions around the scope of U.S. international funding for family planning, unless you are a Congressperson trying to deflect attention from the fact that you don’t want to support family planning and want to ignore the evidence that it saves the lives of women and their children.

So when we talk about ideological fights around family planning, it really comes down to a majority male GOP Congressional leadership that vociferously opposes access to basic services that would enable women to choose the number and spacing of children they want by using basic family planning services.  Abortion is a red herring here, because it is not in the equation.  Gerson himself would have been more forceful if he had clarified that, and he also would have been more honest if in this piece he had reversed his own earlier position supporting the prohibition of integration of family planning into U.S. global AIDS programs, a position adopted by the Bush Administration and, unfortunately, continued by the Obama Administration that dramatically diminishes access to contraceptive supplies to HIV-positive women who desire not to have any more children.

So I agree with Gerson that family planning is pro-life, as all people who are pro-choice and by definition therefore “pro-life” understand those concepts.  I also agree with Gerson that “women in Congo have enough home-grown problems without importing irrelevant, Western controversies.”  And finally, I completely agree that access to contraceptives do not solve every problem and that women in Bweremana want access to voluntary family planning for the same reasons as women elsewhere: to avoid high-risk pregnancies, to deliver healthy children and to better care for the children they have.”  They want the same happy, healthy families we all strive to have.

This is the best understanding of why the pro-choice movement, based as it is on public health and medical evidence is indeed “pro-life,” and why U.S. support for voluntary international family planning services is one of the single most effective investments we can make.  Let’s keep the funding politics separate from abortion right now, while recognizing that on the ground, in the hut, for the woman, these two things are rarely in neat little boxes.