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Entries in democracy (6)


Why Is El Salvador Letting A Woman Die?


This past month, the world has been watching a 22-year-old pregnant woman in El Salvador die, little by little. I want to say it is like watching an accident happen in slow motion, but this situation is no accident. El Salvador’s government is deliberately denying lifesaving treatment to the woman, for no reason other than that she is pregnant.

At first I couldn’t understand why.

I am not trying to be naive. I know that abortion is criminalized in all circumstances in El Salvador, and that the government therefore can hide behind the law to justify denying Beatriz (a pseudonym) medical treatment. I also know that El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic country, and that church officials are very active in the country’s political life, in particular on this issue.

But this same constellation of facts has not prevented select women in similar situations from getting access to the services they need in other countries in the region. Over the years, I have interviewed a small handful of women in Latin America who needed abortions to protect their health and lives. In most cases, after an initial negotiation with the public health ministry or prosecutor, the intervention went through on the dual condition that it got registered as “appendicitis” in the woman’s medical record, and that the women didn’t tell anyone about it. It didn’t much matter if abortion was legal or illegal in the countries where each case happened—the main motivation for allowing the intervention for the prosecutors and other public officials involved was to avoid negative publicity.

Because it doesn’t look good for El Salvador’s government officials. Sure, they are following the law. But they are also watching a woman die. And for what? The fetus Beatriz is carrying does not have a forebrain, and is likely to survive only scant hours after birth, if that. Human rights officials from the United Nations have publicly called out the situation as counter to El Salvador’s international obligations, and international media are portraying the government as “not moving a finger.”

The only reasonable explanation for the public stand-off is that Beatriz and other resource-poor women are politically expendable, and that crossing the Catholic Church is seen as worse than being hung out in the press as inhumane.

It wouldn’t be the first time poor women pay with their health and lives for politics. In Nicaragua, a mere ten days before the 2006 presidential election, the parliament voted to eliminate the possibility for legal abortion when a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy. Members of the Sandinista party were reportedly told to vote for the change, with the promise that it would be “fixed” after their candidate had won the election. And during the Pope’s 2007 visit to Brazil, then-President Lula publicly announced his opposition to abortion.

Let us be clear: the Catholic Church, and any other religious group or civil society organization, has the right to try and influence policies and further its agenda within the limits of the law. But governments owe everyone the same rights, regardless of faith, sex, family status, or ability to pay for votes or medical treatment. In the recent ruling, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights stated that governments cannot implement laws in a manner that reflects only one particular religion, as this would infringe on the rights of those who do not share that faith.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to the laws that criminalize abortion, even where the pregnant woman’s health or life is compromised. Not all visions of Catholicism require a woman to die for the sake of her pregnancy. And even if they did, it is Beatriz’s faith, wishes, and life the law must uphold.

I don’t understand what El Salvador’s government has to gain from watching this young woman die a preventable death. And I don’t understand how we can continue to allow this to happen.


How Do You Prove That Discrimination No Longer Exists?


This week, the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which reauthorizes funding for the fight against domestic violence in the United States. The bill passed after a prolonged partisan fight over specific protections for Native-American women and lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. Also this week, the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the need for the promotion of equal voting rights, and, in particular, the continued need for oversight of equal rights in states that historically have discriminated against African Americans.

Each story elicited a pundit storm of outrage over the partisan divide on discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Many politicians and justices quoted in the press perpetuated the notion that liberals care about discrimination while conservatives do not.

But that would be an oversimplification.

At the heart of the discussion about the need for both VAWA and the Voting Rights Act is a fundamental disagreement about what governments should do about discrimination, and, even more so, what they shouldn’t do.

That difference of opinion is what led Justice Antonin Scalia to refer to the Voting Rights Act—a law that was conceived of as a tool to overcome racial entitlement among whites—as perpetuating a sense of racial entitlement among non-whites. By portraying people of color as receiving, or rather demanding, special treatment, Scalia converted the legal protection of equal rights into a situation of enforced discrimination.

It is also why some Republicans cited “inclusiveness” as the reason they supported explicit benefits for generally underserved populations in VAWA, while other Republicans claimed to vote against these benefits for the very same reason. While the former acknowledge that some women need to be explicitly named in order to be visible to policymakers and service providers, the latter promote the notion that by treating everyone the same, we will somehow magically be equal.

Simply put, the difference is not so much whether someone cares about discrimination but rather if they choose to see the full range of its reach. With some notable exceptions, most people across the political spectrum recognize flagrant forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The real divide is on how much we believe can and should be done to overcome historical disadvantage and internalized prejudice. Should the government allow quotas in universities to promote race and gender equality? Should states actively promote a diverse workforce?

International human rights standards are clear that affirmative action can only be legitimate while it serves a purpose; when a situation of historical disadvantage has been overcome—that is, when those who were meant to benefit from affirmative action genuinely are equal—the special measures must go.

The question, of course, is how to determine the exact moment when everyone truly has equal opportunities. This is a question that necessarily will have different answers for different people. Recent studies suggest that discrimination is still a reality for many of the subgroups that benefit the most from both the new incarnation of VAWA and the Voting Rights Act: Blacks, Latinos, working women, and Native Americans. Still, the American public just reelected a Black president, and the minority leader of the House of Representatives is a woman. In other words, systemic inequalities persist even though some people manage to escape their consequences. In this situation, perhaps the best test of whether temporary special measures are still warranted is conversational. When we stop talking about how strange it is that President Obama and Representative Pelosi got to where they are, there will be equal opportunity for all.

Of course, the courts cannot use conversation as a legal test to determine when to mandate an end to temporary special measures. Conversation can, however, be a rule of thumb for the rest of us until such time where it is no longer remarkable to find African Americans or women in positions of power.

In the meantime, the onus should be on the government, including members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, to prove when affirmative action has run its course, both when it comes to the prevention of domestic violence and voting rights.


The Death Penalty, Life Imprisonment, and Other Punitive Measures: What's the Point?


If you ask children what the purpose of a punishment is, most will say “to learn your lesson.” This is why life imprisonment and the death penalty don’t make much sense to them. Yet in the United States alone, 140,000 people are currently serving life sentences, and 41,000 of them have no chance of ever getting released. Meanwhile, more than 3,200 people were on death row by the end of 2011, also in the United States. 

Recently, a 10-year-old child from my daughter’s class asked me this pertinent question: “What’s the point of learning your lesson if you never get a chance to show that you did?” The answer is simple: not much. Unfortunately, rehabilitation (the adult word for “learning a lesson”) is often not at the heart of criminal justice reform. In fact, the harshness of a punishment is frequently not determined by the possibility of recidivism, but rather by public opinion.

Take, for example, sex offenders in the United States. Long sentences and additional punitive measures such as sex registries and zoning laws are often imposed with the explicit goal of preventing further crime after news reports of particularly heinous acts, notably those involving children or that end in death. Yet the majority of former sex offenders do not re-offend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders. Meanwhile, most sexual abuse against children goes unreported. Further, about 30 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a relative of the child, and another 60 percent by someone the child knows well. 

In other words: the imposition of harsher punishment does little to generate the lesson-learning and change we need to prevent abuse in the first place. But punitive measures meted out through criminal laws and restrictive policies often have other objectives than rehabilitation, the two most prominent being deterrence and control.

Deterrence is perhaps the most frequently mentioned reason to strengthen sentencing laws. This Sunday, India’s president approved new sexual assault provisions, including for the first time the possibility of death sentences for rape cases in which the victim dies. The Indian government’s sudden and accelerated interest in sexual violence was fueled by the public uproar after five men viciously raped a young woman, Joyti Singh, on December 16, 2012. Singh later died as a result of the rape. The new ordinance has been criticized by Indian women’s groups for side-stepping several very real issues, such as for example marital rape, which is rife in India (and many other places too). 

Equally to the point, not very many of the rapes that do occur in India (or elsewhere) are reported, let alone investigated, and prosecuted. An infinitely small proportion of rapes committed end with convictions and actual sentences imposed. The resulting impunity means that perpetrators have little incentive to look at or think about the potential consequences of their acts in terms of jail time. 

Social control through stigma is another objective for longer sentencing. The length of the punishment assigned by the law signals the weight of our disapproval of that act. This is the reason we are offended by laws that mete out stronger sentences for stealing a cow or growing pot than for rape: we expect the law to be proportional and “fair.” And control through stigma certainly has a role in rehabilitation and lesson-learning. Studies show that people are less likely to engage in behaviour they believe is wrong than in behaviour they know to be illegal but don’t think of as morally wrong. 

But stigma cuts many ways. When we criminalize an act, the stigma attaches both to the act and to the person doing it—or even to persons associated with the act. The stronger the stigma, the more likely the person will be vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. It is, for example, virtually impossible for a convicted felon to find a job after jail, yet studies are clear that getting a job is key to preventing recidivism.

Obviously, the relationship between morality, the law, and criminal behaviour is complex and has been subject to study for decades. But at the most basic level, whenever we as a society agree to impose sanctions and punitive measures, we should be asking ourselves the question of a 10-year-old: what’s the point? In many cases, we’ll find that even if there was an original point, it doesn’t bear out in practice.


In America, Our Inalienable Right to Vote is in Jeopardy


The right to vote is an illusion for me: I have been allowed to vote only once in my more than two decades as an emancipated adult. But while I have never been completely at peace with this disenfranchisement, it is the consequence of my personal choice to migrate early and often: my home country, Denmark, extends only limited democratic rights for citizens living abroad.

It is, however, not a choice for the millions of U.S. citizens who will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming presidential election, either because they have been convicted of a felony, or because they are excluded from voting through voting roll purges, strict voter ID laws, or existing or new restrictions on when and how eligible citizens are allowed to vote.

These restrictions on who is allowed to vote and how are based on two erroneous assumptions.

The first and most easily dismissed assumption is that voter fraud is rampant in the United States, requiring stricter regulations on new voter registration, voter ID requirements, and limits on voting hours. This notion is so obviously false that it has been debunked numerous times by independent watchdog organizations and in the mainstream media. Latest figures show that about one in 16,000 registered voters might have a problem, though some issues are neither intentional nor malicious but rather the result of people moving, changing their signature, or misspelling the name of the city in which they live.

Unfortunately, widespread voter fraud is a notion that has traction with those who already believe the United States consists of the deserving and the undeserving. In this way, some commentators conflate welfare recipients, urban residents, and individuals likely to engage in voter fraud. More damningly, non-governmental groups ostensibly working to verify voter registers across the country have seemingly been targeting counties with predominantly minority populations, or low-income communities, using methods that have been discredited by government agencies, such as the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.  Just this weekend, the New York Times reported that some are so focused on proving fraud that they fabricate the proof. As a result, hundreds of legitimate voters have been purged from registers.

These efforts are usually partisan. The ongoing case in Ohio, in which the state government is seeking to strike down early voting in selected districts and for selected populations, has the possibility of preventing more registered Democrats than Republicans from accessing polls on non-work days.

The second assumption behind the exclusion of voters in the United States is that voting is a privilege and not a human right. International human rights treaties define the equal right and opportunity to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections as key to democracy, peace, and human dignity. And while the United States is historically reluctant to sign on to international human rights obligations, the U.S. Senate accepted the ongoing obligation to implement the right to vote as defined in international law in 1992.

To be sure, some will say that the millions of convicted felons who are excluded from voting for life have brought it upon themselves and do not deserve to participate in democracy. No amount of data showing the disproportionate (and perhaps intentional) impact of this policy on communities of color will convince this group that those convicted of crimes should not be excluded from voting. The notion that voting as a human right means there can be no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving will also not have any impact: people who believe that those convicted of felonies should lose all rights for life do not believe in human rights at all.

So far, politicians have assumed they have support for voter ID laws because some three-quarters of the U.S. population poll in favor of these laws. However, the same polls show an almost equal concern among the population that legitimate voters will be excluded from the polls in November. The difference between these two concerns is that the latter is real and the former is largely fabricated, as is the worry that those convicted of felonies are undeserving of the right to vote.

More to the point, ensuring the right to vote should not be based on polling data. The U.S. government—including both the executive and the legislative branches—has the obligation to ensure that the right to vote is more than an illusion for all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, home, or history of conflict with the law.


Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland: A Warning to Women


Last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that states cannot be sued for denying workers sick leave. An employee of the Maryland state courts, Daniel Coleman, had sued for monetary damages after he was fired for requesting time off to take care of his health.

States generally cannot be sued for damages, but one exception is in cases that involve unconstitutional treatment, including discrimination. While the case decided on Tuesday therefore was framed in terms of state sovereignty, the Court’s very understanding of discrimination was at stake.

The majority opinion handing down last Tuesday should be a warning to women: the Supreme Court most definitely does not have our backs.

Here’s how.

US federal law protects the right to sick and family leave (unpaid leave either to take care of yourself or of a family member such as a spouse, an elderly parent or a newborn child) through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In 2003, in the context of family leave-related discrimination against a state employee of Nevada, William Hibbs, the Supreme Court detailed the congressional intention behind the FMLA as predominantly a desire to overcome gender-based discrimination. Indeed, the 2003 ruling was very clear: “The FMLA aims to protect the right to be free from gender-based discrimination in the workplace.”

At the time, the Court held that employees of the state of Nevada were entitled to seek monetary damages for infringements of the family leave part of the FMLA. The Court felt that absent such due process guarantee, government officials would somehow lose their constitutional right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex. The final opinion was narrowly focused on the family leave provisions of the law because those were the provisions at stake in the case at hand, but prior to last week’s case, it seemed reasonable to apply the court’s conclusions in the 2003 case to the FMLA as a whole.

Last week’s ruling limits that precedent by concluding that the U.S. Congress didn’t have gender-based discrimination in mind when it enacted the sick leave protections of the FMLA.

The court’s analysis is based on technical considerations of what evidence Congress had before it when it enacted the FMLA—“Congress made no findings, and received no specific testimony” that women might face discrimination for taking more sick leave than men.

But the result is a decision that essentially says that sick leave—taking care of oneself—is fundamentally different from family leave—taking care of someone else—in that it does not depend on gender differences or stereotypes. This is an erroneous conclusion.

Had the Court argued that men and women take equal amounts of long-term sick leave—which is true—the majority opinion in last week’s Coleman case would at least only have been a selective reading of the facts, not a retrograde interpretation of discrimination laws. However, the Court argued that even though the denial of sick leave might have a disproportionate impact on women, denying anyone the protection of such leave still does not constitute discrimination. Such a conclusion flies in the face of international human rights law and even US legal definitions of disparate impact as discrimination.

It is ironic that this sentence was handed down the same week new research on health insurance was published, showing that women still pay more than men for the same health plan. Private insurers justify the price differential by reference to the fact that, all other things being equal, women need more medical care than men, notably due to our ability to bear children and recommended routine health visits related to our reproductive organs.

Of course, PAP smears and prenatal check-ups do not automatically translate into time off or sick leave, though as most of us know, they generally do. The Court majority opinion glosses over this fact by noting that most states have other protections that allow women time off to take care of their health. Again the Court majority inexplicably insists that the denial of a right that disproportionately affects women qua women is not discrimination, all the while reaffirming the fact that the differential impact is real.

None of the three female justices of the Supreme Court held with the majority. Justices Ginsberg, Kagan, and Sotomayor were joined by Justice Breyer to resoundingly disagree with the majority opinion in Tuesday’s ruling in the Coleman case. These four Justices rightly noted that “[i]t would make scant sense to provide job-protected leave for a woman to care for a newborn, but not for her recovery from delivery, a miscarriage, or the birth of a stillborn baby."

Indeed, it makes no sense as a matter of effective policy or legitimate legal analysis.

It does, however, make the same warped sense as the many recent state initiatives to simultaneously curb access to contraception, abortion, and child benefits. The message last week’s majority opinion for the Supreme Court seems to send is that women matter only as incubators and care-givers and not as equal citizens in a modern democracy.