Archive | April, 2012

Abortion Rights and the Alberta Election

30 Apr

A guest post from  Jane Cawthorne.

My home province of Alberta, Canada just had an election in which the right wing party that has held power for 41 years (yes, you read that correctly) was challenged by an even further right party who were widely expected to win. The far right were stopped in no small part by controversy they created over abortion and other social and human rights issues.

The new Wildrose party ran on a message of change. Change was something Albertans wanted. After more than four decades in power, the reigning Progressive Conservative party had more than enough baggage weighing it down. The Wildrose were ahead in the polls even on election day.

So what happened? The power of bloggers, independent media and social media cannot be underestimated in this election. I am happy to be one of the bloggers who played a part in revealing the agenda of this party. As I always do, I asked each of the parties to answer a few abortion related questions, all of which were clearly pro-choice. Usually in Canada, no one says anything surprising, so abortion doesn’t become an issue. Tampering with abortion rights is widely understood to be political suicide in Canada. In fact, even I was a little bored with the questions I was asking. But what happened next shows we can never become complacent.

The Wildrose party replied that they would put “social issues like abortion” to citizen initiated referendum. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I put it out there and my sleepy little blog was suddenly getting hundreds of hits. Then the mainstream media started calling. The Wildrose couldn’t dodge the issue, in spite of the fact the holiday Easter weekend intervened. By Monday, it was still in the news cycle and the leader of the party had to repeatedly promise she would not bring abortion to referendum. What she did not promise was that she would not bring abortion funding to referendum. Then her past statements that she did not believe abortion should be publicly funded came to light, and the issue stuck to her like dog doo on a shoe. She couldn’t shake the stink of it.

At the same time, another blogger dug up some disturbing dirt on several of the Wildrose candidates, and yet another blogger who had been a Wildrose party supporter in the past got upset about their promise to implement conscience rights. Conscience rights would allow doctors to refuse to refer women for abortions, allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control or emergency contraception and allow public marriage commissioners to refuse to marry homosexual couples. In Canada, we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and these conscience rights would override Charter protections.  Questions were asked about where the line would be drawn and if human rights could be protected at all with such a policy. Gay rights and reproductive rights were front and centre.

The Wildrose party also promised to disband the Alberta Human Rights Commission. No one seemed to care about this until these other issues made it to the centre of the stage. Just when Albertans were starting to wonder about the social agenda of the Wildrose party, things got even more interesting.

One of their candidates said that homosexuals would burn in the “lake of fire.” Seriously. Another of their candidates said he had the best chance to win in his diverse riding because he was white. I’m not kidding. Then the leader herself came out as a climate change denier. The bloom was off the Wildrose, and the party was starting to be referred to as “Tea Party North.”

Yet, while all this was going on, polling still had the party in the lead and projected they would win. To the mainstream media, the biggest misstep in the Wildrose campaign had been some poor placement of graphics on the campaign bus. They hadn’t caught up with what everyone else knew; Wildrose did not represent the values of most Albertans.

What are the lessons? First, we can never be complacent about our rights. Ask the questions. Every time. Every candidate. Every election, from dog catcher to President and Prime Minister. All it takes is a group of single issue misogynists to get into power at any level and we’ve got trouble. Second, although they are getting pretty good at it, the powers that be can’t always control the narrative. We have the internet and we know how to use it. This election narrative changed. Any narrative can change. Third, we progressives have more allies and more power than we sometimes recognize, even in Alberta.


Motion 312: It’s Not NOT About Abortion!

27 Apr

Last night while on my ride home from work, I turned on my phone and began to devour the #M312 hashtag.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Canadian politics (come on! Why not?), Motion 312 is a motion introduced by Conservative MP (Member of Parliament) Stephen Woodworth, calling for a Parliamentary Committee to examine whether the Criminal Code definition of “human being” should be expanded to include fetuses. I can’t even tell you with a straight face that Woodworth is pretending this isn’t about abortion. The motion was accepted for debate, and said debate happened yesterday, in the House of Commons.

When I was fifteen and far too naive to understand it, I read a book of Sartre’s that I found on my sister’s bookshelf. Several years later, in my third year of university, I took a 20th century existentialism course because I had a crush on the professor. I got very little from either of these experiences; but riding home on the streetcar yesterday I finally realized what the “nausea” was that Sartre was talking about. I felt a lurch in my stomach that was somehow both physical and existential; I turned off my phone and stared out the window. “Is this really real?” I asked myself. 

Is it really happening that today, twenty-four years after the abortion law was struck down in this country, four years after the man for whom that Supreme Court decision was named won an Order of Canada, our elected (ha!) representatives are standing up in the House of fucking Commons, for goodness sake, and having a serious debate about – let’s face it – abortion? Is this really happening? Outside Parliament yesterday, a crowd of women dressed in handmaid costumes from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale stood and protested the gradual but inevitable regression of women’s rights in this country. “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual,” they said.

Margaret Atwood must be shaking her head. Our mothers and grandmothers must be shaking their heads.

Anyway, the debate. Once I had sufficiently recovered from my existential malaise, I tuned back into the debate – livestream from the House of Commons, and in another tab, Twitter, and in a third, Kady O’Malley’s liveblog.

Woodworth opened with fifteen minutes of speechifying, during which time he managed to fire off an impressive array of anti-choice cliches, paying particular loving attention to the “slippery slope” argument. If we can abort fetuses, who’s next! he cries, forgetting that one of the original arguments he brought forward for amending the Criminal Code was that the definition of “human being” therein was based on 400-year-old science; surely if something was “next”, it would have it would have happened by now?

Woodworth proceeded to mangle and take out of context quotes from various sources, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson (who was a member of the court presiding over the R v. Morgentaler decision). The outrage from Twitter – and the exasperation from the New Democrat MPs in the House – was palpable, even from behind the tiny screen of my smartphone. Who is this jackass, and why is he allowed an audience for his nonsense?

Predictably, when the floor was opened for other MPs to speak their piece(s?), Woodworth was eviscerated. First up was NDP MP Francoise Boivin, who correctly characterized M312 as a “full frontal attack” on women’s rights. Liberal MP Hedy Fry called out Woodworth on his attempt to introduce “back door” legislation on fetal rights (as opposed to abortion rights) – a strategy that is not new to this government (remember Bill C-484?).

One by one our MPs lined up to cut Woodworth down, and to put a cherry on top, Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor gave a strong and unwavering speech in support of a woman’s right to choose. Not even his own party could stand behind this gong show of a Motion – Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself will vote against it.

To be clear, nobody ever thought this would go anywhere, or that Woodworth would succeed in making any changes to the law, let alone changing the legal status of abortion. It is the fact that we are having this conversation that is such a slap in the face to Canadian women. It is terrifying that our rights are so fragile, we can “open the conversation” on a whim, even under a government whose leader promised he would not reopen the debate. Whoops, Harper, looks like that one got away from you!

The next debate on the motion will not happen before June, and most likely will actually occur in the fall. Don’t put away those handmaid costumes yet, ladies – you’re gonna need them, one way or the other.

For a full recap, watch the webcast on ParlVU (debate on Motion 312 started at 5pm), or read the Hansard, and for commentary check out the #M312 hashtagon Twitter.

Abortion on TV: New Girl vs Girls

26 Apr

A guest post from Sarah.

In the last week, much ink has been spilt over the new HBO comedy Girls. Many of these critiques, from questions about lack of diversity to nepotism in the casting process, are legitimate, and in the case of the former, important to keep talking about. However, Girls is unlike anything else currently airing in its frank discussion of abortion. In a pop culture landscape riddled with “schmashmortions,” hearing a group of friends talk honestly and humorously about abortion is a pretty daring act.

In its second episode that aired last Sunday night, Hannah, Marnie and Shoshanna meet at the clinic where their friend Jessa is scheduled to have an abortion. Jessa is late to the appointment (“These things never start on time,” she says to the bartender, needing a drink before she heads to the clinic), leaving Marnie, who scheduled the appointment to get angry. “You’re a really good friend,” Hannah mollifies Marnie,  “… and you’ve thrown a really lovely abortion.” Earlier in the episode, Hannah’s sorta-boyfriend Adam registers his disapproval that she’s accompanying a friend to an abortion, or at least what he perceives as her nonchalance about the abortion. Hannah’s response? “Uh, what was she supposed to do? Have a baby and then take it to her baby-sitting job?” Adam is appropriately chastened.

Towards the episode’s end, Jessa seems to suffer a miscarriage ex machina (or possibly, just gets her period, having never been pregnant). This might seem like a copout, and this being only the second episode, we don’t know enough about the character to say otherwise. Perhaps Jessa is the type of person who wouldn’t take a pregnancy test before scheduling an abortion but we don’t know the character well enough yet. But even if the ending of Jessa’s pregnancy is a copout, we still got close to thirty minutes of frank discussion of abortion. Which means Girls has given us, oh, twenty-seven more minutes of abortion talk than any other show this year, even shows that purport to be about the lives of women.

Take, for example, Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel. New Girl is actually something of a network television sibling of Girls. Both were created by screenwriting wunderkinds (Elizabeth Meriwether of New Girl, Lena Dunham of Girls) and both premiered to huge hype that highlighted their hip, young sensibilities. And on a recent episode of New Girl, a character was also forced to contemplate a possible unplanned pregnancy. The main character’s best friend CeCe thought she might be pregnant from her casual, no-strings-attached relationship with Schmidt. Obviously, I don’t expect network television shows to included honest discussions of abortion; I do expect half-hearted lip service, payed mostly via euphemisms.New Girl couldn’t even do that. In the course of the episode, before it was revealed that the character wasn’t actually pregnant, the only choices discussed were baby names, whether Schmidt would propose to a woman he’d never been on an actual date with and who’d be godfather.

No one would ever accuse New Girl of being grounded in realism; most of my criticisms of the show in general stem from its insistence on making Jess a child-like cartoon. An earlier episode centered around her inability to say the word ‘penis,’ and no functioning adult believes that unironically shouting “Hey, Sailor,” in a bar will get you laid. From what we can tell of Girls (again, only two episodes in) the show’s decision to treat adult women as, well, adults is paying dividends with stories like Jessa’s aborted abortion.

However, New Girl’s obfuscation may indicate a new normal, where not only is saying the word abortion is off the table, but even implying it is. That makes Girls, miscarriage copout and all, that much bolder. I think pro-choice audiences are allowed to have high standards when it comes to the pop culture they consume. In recent years, several TV shows have demonstrated it is possible to portray abortion in a nuanced light (Friday Night Lights and Grey’s Anatomy have both done this well). We should continue to demand stories that honestly portray the experiences of women across the spectrum of reproductive choice. But I think we should be appreciative when a show (even a flawed one) demonstrates an honesty we’d otherwise go without.

 Sarah lives in Boston and volunteers with Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund. You can follow her on twitter @SBHudson108.

Toxic Work Environments in the Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice World

25 Apr

A co-worker once told me that in her 10+ years of working in the reproductive health field, her peers in other movements validated time and again that our movement is the most fucked up. Not fucked up because we don’t have our hearts in the right place (we do) or because we don’t have science on our side (we do), but because of the way we treat each other, and the way our intra-movement politics operate.

Every so often several friends and I debate the merits of “outing” certain organizations for their legendary bullshit. Everyone knows that organization A has an executive director who’s a megalomanic. Everyone knows that two particular organizations bully other smaller organizations. Everyone knows that organization B likes to fire (almost) everyone every couple of years. Everyone knows that certain national organizations have less than cordial relationships with their local affiliates. Is there merit in pinning a name to these claims? What would happen to the person who decided to to do so? Would she be ex-communicated from the movement? Lose the ability to work or volunteer in the movement ever again?

Maybe my friends and I are just bitter (former) employees. But we also believe that our movement can and should be better than this. Is this bait for antis? Everything is bait for antis. I’m willing to bet that they have similar problems in their own organizations. In a time of unprecedented legislative attacks on reproductive health, it feels impossible to find a second to catch our breath and evaluate how we’re doing. I have to believe that making sure our organizations are functioning productively and treating their employees humanely is as important as the work we’re doing.

In an effort to be less vague, let me make it painfully obvious. Here are a few clues that the reproductive health, rights, or justice organization you work at may be a toxic work environment:

  • You’re expected to treat your members/patients/donors better than the way your boss/upper management treats you.
  • You’re afraid to confront your co-worker/your boss about something racist/classist/transphobic/etc she said for fear of losing your job.
  • You don’t get insurance coverage. The insurance coverage you get doesn’t cover pre-natal care, contraception, or abortion. You don’t get decent maternity or paternity leave. Yet these are all values your organization supposedly champions.
  • There is frequent turn over and burn-out because of low pay and high stress.
  • Your volunteers, interns, or anyone with “assistant” in their title are treated as a commodity.
  • Young people, people of color, and/or queer folks are not valued, are not expected to be leaders, and are tokenized.
  • When you give thoughtful feedback about your job or about the organization in general, no one takes you seriously.
  • Your organization primarily works with or on behalf of low-income communities, communities of color, and/or young people, yet those folks are not represented on the staff or on the board. And there are no conversations about class, race, or privilege among staff. Ever.
  • You see young people being encouraged to take on responsibilities for which they are not being paid, for the good of the organization and therefore the movement.
  • You find yourself having to mask your work conditions, including poor communication, bad management, and unclear organizational goals, while selling your organization to donors and supporters.
  • You are underpaid and are made to feel uncomfortable for any mention of that, or for requesting to be paid fairly, because times are tough/the economy is bad/you should be putting the organization’s needs before your own.
  • Your organization only cares about marginalized people in a marginalized place (hello, low-income Texan women!) when your org stands to make a buck off of promoting their rough situation.

I want to be clear that these problems don’t exist in a vacuum (certainly stigma and a small professional world both play a part), and that they don’t exist only in the reproductive health, rights, and justice world.  I think the above grievances feel particularly shitty because we expect better. We expect organizations that are fighting for basic human rights to treat their employees and volunteers like, well, human beings. No organization or movement is perfect. I certainly hope that my former co-worker is wrong and that we’re not the most fucked up. But in listening to dozens of folks who’ve done this work at the highest and lowest levels, I suspect that it’s more than just the non-profit industrial complex.

I originally ended this post with some tips for upper management folks on how to begin to correct the above issues, but let’s be real. They’re not reading this blog. Should we “out” the organizations that perpetuate these problems? Frankly, I don’t have the answer to that. So to those suffering any or all of the above conditions: You’re not alone. You’re not making it up. You deserve better. And if you need a space to vent or process any of your experiences: write about it, anonymously or with your name attached (e-mail us and we’ll even publish it here!). Find your compatriots who are going through the same thing, whether in this movement or others. Let’s figure out how to make our movement sustainable for everyone in it.

Thanks to those who helped me come up with the bulleted list. I won’t name you, in case your organizations might penalize you. You know who you are. Thank you.

The Casual Feminism of 30 Rock

23 Apr

I have had a love-hate relationship with 30 Rock almost since the show’s inception. I love it purely because it is smart and hilarious, and the Liz Lemon character is such an unabashed loser that it’s hard sometimes to remember how conventionally attractive she actually is. There are so many things about it that I like, in fact, that it took me a lot longer than it usually does to start getting annoyed with its faults.

It was an episode a couple seasons ago that did it for me; you might remember it. In the first five minutes, a man beats up and decapitates a cardboard display of Liz, and Jenna gets a book thrown at her face. Then there is a truly disgusting “joke” involving Pete raping his wife in her sleep, which gets not one, but two visual depictions. All played for laughs. Because of various elements of my privilege I was able to shrug off some of the vile sexist and transphobic “humour” of the show, but that episode really crossed a line for me.

I keep watching it, and I’m glad I do, because on Thursday night while waiting for the (in my opinion) much funnier, smarter, and warmer Parks and Recreation to start, I tuned in to 30 Rock and caught an episode that not only depicted a smart, friendly and funny little feminist child, but also involved some nuanced commentary on the American economy. But best of all was a scene in which Liz Lemon told Jack, “You are being so transvaginal right now!”.

Immediately my Twitter feed repeated the quote back to me via about six or seven different people, not all of whom are reproductive rights activists. This is the true joy of 30 Rock for me – they manage to sneak in the kind of jokes that tell you that someone is paying attention, even if it is just Tina Fey or a bunch of nerdy TV writers. Sometimes as an activist you get so wrapped up in a particular issue, you start to lose the ability to tell how much the general public actually knows about it. Is it common knowledge that these horrible transvaginal ultrasound requirements (and other ridiculous abortion restrictions) are sweeping across the US, or is this just something that abortion geeks like us pay attention to?

Not that 30 Rock making a joke about something means it is common knowledge – obviously there is an intellectual elitism that is almost essential to fully appreciating this show (another thing that bothers me about it…but also makes me feel smart when I get all the jokes). But Liz Lemon calling a controlling, patronizing, uber-privileged man “transvaginal” – it’s so, so important that she uses it in the context of calling Jack out for being intrusive – is important. It means that if this isn’t something we’re talking about, it should be. Because a lot of people are being really transvaginal right now about our wombs and lives. Liz Lemon’s got our back.

Good old days for some, miniature American flags for others

20 Apr

I have been shocked the past couple of days by the response to Susan Heath’s opinion piece New York Times entitled “No One Called Me a Slut” about her experiences getting an abortion in 1978 and how easily accessible and stigma-free it was.

She writes:

A young woman has been called a slut after testifying in favor of insurance coverage for contraceptive care…It wasn’t always like this. This is a story of how it used to be: It’s 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade. I’m 38, I have four sons — the oldest is 17, the youngest is turning 12. I’m at school, getting a B.A., and I’m loving it. I’m about two and a half months pregnant. I don’t want this child.

It’s as simple as that. It’s 1978, Susan wants an abortion, and as a well-meaning, responsible mother of four who is using birth control, she gets her abortion easily and without complication, knowing that it is ultimately the best thing for her and her future. It’s 1978, Roe v. Wade was just passed, and anti-abortion lunatics don’t exist en masse yet; she is free to make a choice to have an abortion without stigma or the threat of violence.

It’s a great story, except for one thing. The Hyde Amendment was officially enacted in 1977, prohibiting federal Medicaid dollars for abortion and making abortion inaccessible for many low-income people. Before most abortion funds were started and with few other options, in the years immediately post-Hyde, people without the means to access abortion care were dying. Rosie Jimenez, the first women believed to have been a victim of Hyde, a 27 year-old mother and student, died on October 3, 1977, and there are more stories like hers. Although there are few deaths from unsafe abortion in the United States today, we know that there are still people in desperate situations selling belongings, going hungry, and not paying bills to come up with the money for an abortion; people who contact abortion funds in the thousands every year.

My problem is not with Susan Heath. It takes strength to write about your abortion anywhere, much less in the New York Times. Her story is honest and unapologetically hers, and I admire her courage to make her story public. While her story isn’t perfect, she is telling it as she remembers it as compared to the stigmatizing, traumatizing, protestors-yelling-in-your-face abortion stories of today.

My problem is with the way that our movement (and I say movement for lack of a better word) embraced the story and accepted it as the whole truth. One respected organization tweeted it and used #thegoodolddays. Another, again, respected organization tweeted it and wrote, “Never thought we’d say this but anyone have a time machine?” The good old days? A time machine? Really? The good old days for wealthy or middle class, feminist-identifying, gender-conforming women with the means to secure an abortion, maybe. A time machine for their low-income, non-white, non-US citizen, non-gender conforming counterparts? Hell no.

I’m not saying this to call out anyone. I don’t care for attacks; they divide us. And if you really, really care who said that on Twitter then you have probably already looked it up. What I do care about is questioning ourselves, and myself included, in how we talk about our history. When we say the good old days, whose good old days do we mean? And when we choose to tell one story over another, whose history are we forgetting?

Our collective memory is crucial to the survival of our movement. If we chose one story over another than we are systematically erasing our struggles and devaluing the legacy of the most important, most neglected individuals. We cannot forget that when we talk about abortion access, we mean different things historically, geographically, socially, and individually; and when we sit down at the table to address issues of abortion access, we must take a hard look at ourselves and ask who has been left out of the conversation.

If we don’t stand together, question our intentions, and make space for marginalized voices then we will never be a collective movement for change. If we don’t call attention to forgotten narratives then we are responsible for their whitewashing and invisibility. And if we don’t remember Rosie Jimenez, who will?

Book review: MOMENTUM

19 Apr

In the introduction to MOMENTUM, Dr. Joycelyn Elders declares that “the best contraceptive in the world is a good education.” MOMENTUM provides more of an open discussion and dialogue than an entirely accurate or comprehensive sexual education, but it lays much-need groundwork for these necessary conversations, it’s enjoyable to read, and it ends with a gorgeous poem. In these senses and more, it’s the best sex-ed book they never gave you in high school.

The anthology comes out of a conference I have never attended and now very much want to, MOMENTUM, an open space that strives to “embrace all elements of sexuality” and “create a safe space where respect and a willingness, not to always agree, but to listen with an open heart and open mind” where attendees could get their sex geek on and, at the same time, feel a tremendous sense of acceptance and camaraderie.” These attitudes from the co-organizers and no co-editors, Tess Danesi (I’m referencing her words from the introduction), Dee Dennis and Inara de Luna run throughout the book as themes.

Rebecca Chalker goes beyond the “sexual revolution” to identify work in what she terms the “pleasure revolution,” the “liberation” of the clitoris and of female pleasure from the “murky swamps” of male-dominated psychoanalytic culture (Freud was not kind to our lady-parts. I read him so you wouldn’t have to.) Ned Mayhem gives a similar, completely fascinating overview of the history of sexual science, complete with an extensive works cited. Also, his name is Ned Mayhem, which is just phenomenal, and it was very cool to see someone self-identify in their bio as a queer scientist who runs a couples’ porn site. For a queer academic with a fluctuating relationship to the gender binary, this sort of gem makes the book utterly worth reading. Likewise, there is something adorable about Bill Taverner’s detailed advice – complete with exclamation points! – for those seeking work in the field of sexology. Work like this creates space for a new kind of normal, for a world on which queer scientists can “Become a Presenter!” and “Get Yourself Published!” in the field of sexology and be concerned only with the quality of their work, rather than whether the work is necessary, or welcome, as those are merely givens in the utopic space MOMENTUM creates.

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