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Entries in US policy (31)


On Stigma and How to Make Safe Abortion Services Scarce in the U.S.


This week, Indiana saw several developments that could help or hurt women’s ability to access the medical care they need when they need it, especially if what they need is an abortion.

On Tuesday, a federal court fixed a time for its evaluation of the constitutionality of Indiana Senate Bill 371 (SB371). And on Wednesday, another bill—Indiana Senate Bill 292 (SB292) was debated in the Senate health committee.

SB371 seeks to limit access to abortion by stigmatizing comprehensive reproductive health clinics as “abortion clinics,” while SB292 seeks to limit access to abortion by stigmatizing medical providers as “abortion doctors.”

At heart of both SB 371 and SB 292 is the notion that clinics and medical providers who provide abortions somehow are different and therefore merit calling out.

Yet, as the very public schism between Susan B. Komen and Planned Parenthood in 2012 made clear, abortion is just one of the health services a comprehensive clinic provides. In the case of Planned Parenthood, only 3 percent of the services provided nationwide are abortions. So if one were to name Planned Parenthood clinics after the services most frequently provided, it might be the “HIV and Cancer Prevention Clinics” or, appropriately, the “Planned Pregnancy Clinics.”

Likewise, defining a doctor or midwife who is willing to perform abortions (surgical or not) as an "abortion doctor" or "abortionist" is equivalent to describing your most well-stocked local grocer as the “Gluten Free Bread Dealer.” Sure, it may be near impossible to obtain gluten-free bread in your neighborhood, and for most it won’t matter. But if you have celeriac disease, it is significant that someone is willing to take valuable shelf-space up with the one kind of bread you can eat without getting a stomach-ache.

But of course the point of Indiana’s bills is not to accurately describe what goes on in reproductive health clinics, or to dignify medical providers with descriptors that go to what they actually do. The point is to stigmatize abortions as bad, and the clinics and doctors who provide them as worse. The corollary of this thinking is that such “bad” clinics and people must be subject to more stringent government oversight. The ultimate objective is to make it very hard for anyone to provide or obtain a legal and safe abortion.

And it works. When Texas imposed more stringent rules on “abortion clinics” in 2013, at least a dozen clinics closed down. New restrictions allegedly proposed in Louisiana could take away any possibility for obtaining a legal and safe abortion in that state.  This week, Mikki Kendall recounted how Illinois laws allowing for the separation of service providers into those who do and those who don’t provide abortions almost cost her her life.

No one, however, should be under the misapprehension that making abortion less accessible will make it less prevalent. In countries where abortion is illegal, for example, women and girls who need to terminate their pregnancies still find ways to do so—usually unsafely. Researchers from the World Health Organization have called unsafe abortion “a preventable pandemic,” and estimates suggest that approximately 68,000 women per year die from complications caused by unsafe abortions. Yet abortion, when provided early in the pregnancy, is one of the safest medical procedures around, with less than 0.05 percent risk of complications needing hospital care.

In other words, it is not that abortion is an unsafe medical procedure. It is that laws limiting access to abortion—such as the laws debated in Indiana this week—make it unsafe. Instead of stigmatizing doctors who will provide abortions, we should stigmatize those who won’t.


Women Wake Up Grumpier? Look Around and You’ll See Why


This week, Duke University published a new study, which found that women wake up grumpier than men. The study’s authors attribute the additional grumpiness to women needing more sleep than men. Me? I think there is just a lot to be grumpy about lately.

First, the wage gap between men and women grew over the past year, instead of narrowing like it is supposed to. Economic downturns usually hit those who are already suffering discrimination the hardest, so it is no surprise that, when the going gets tough, women and racial minorities are the first to get cut, the last to find jobs, or the most likely to find themselves in lower-paid and less secure positions. Still, considering the fact that female-headed households in the United States are more than twice as likely to be poor than male-headed households, maybe it should also not come as a surprise if we are sour.

Secondly, women are still being discriminated against in applications for new mortgages or refinancing, at least in Chicago (and there is no reason we should think Chicago is the worst case scenario when it comes to gender discrimination). The disparity is even greater when it comes to African American loan applicants. Given that Wells Fargo agreed to pay $175 million in 2012 to settle accusations that it discriminated against non-white mortgage applicants before the economic turndown, this news is not earth-shattering. Then again, having definite proof that your mortgage broker might turn your loan application down just because you don’t have the right genitalia can make a girl grumpy.

Third, a quantitative review of women in literary arts in 2012 shows that we are depressingly under-represented in the media, both as authors under review and as writers. Whether this under-representation is because women write about topics that are not considered “serious” enough for these periodicals, or because women themselves are seen as “light,” it is sad. And sad is just another word for grumpy.

And then there is this: a new survey showing that most women in the United States say we should have dated a guy for at least a month before he sees us without makeup. Sixty percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t take their makeup off while sleeping if spending the night with a new boyfriend.

I cannot decide which part of this survey makes me the maddest. First, there is the obvious exclusion of the three to five percent of the respondents who are dating women. Then there are the questions about the true state of equality in the United States and the stereotyped visions of women needing to wear makeup to be properly clad.

But I think what really got to me is what this survey says about the rock-bottom levels of women’s self-esteem in this country. Why would so many women believe wearing makeup is essential to the future of their relationship with a man? Why would they choose to sleep with someone they do not trust enough to see them naked?

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy wearing lipstick as much as the next person, and I absolutely understand the power of putting on a mask. But that is precisely the point. Makeup is a mask. That so many women believe they have to wear one, even in bed and with their partner, is a measure of just how mad we should be.

So for Duke University to say that women wake up grumpy because we need more sleep is a bit like the typical comment about pre-menstrual syndrome. Sure, on certain days we may need more sleep or be hormonally disposed to flare up. But this does not mean there isn’t plenty to be mad about.


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.


Passing the DREAM Act Would Acknowledge the Human Rights of Migrant Children and Benefit All of Us


November 6th was a good day for human rights, at least in Maryland. Not only did the state’s voters support same-sex marriage, they also voted in favor of expanding access to higher education for all of Maryland’s students, regardless of their immigration status.

While the Maryland ballot initiative on education is great for young migrants in that state, it highlights the fact that federal action is sorely needed to protect the human rights and dignity of migrants everywhere.

There is some good news. In June this year, President Obama signed an executive order preventing the Department of Homeland Security from deporting undocumented immigrants under 30 who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, and who fulfill a number of other criteria regarding their moral standing and education.

However, while this change rightly was hailed as a positive development for hundreds of thousands of young people, it does not overcome the need for legislative action—President Obama himself called it a “stop-gap” measure. In fact, it is now more than decade since a bipartisan initiative proposing similar benefits first was introduced in the Senate under the title “Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.”

The idea behind the original bill—and the various versions of it introduced over the years—was to open the possibility for higher education and ultimately citizenship for noncitizen children of good moral character, regardless of their immigration status.

And the idea is solid. The individuals potentially covered by these bills are already a positive part of their communities, and many know no other home than the United States. They are, for all intents and purposes, Americans in everything but paperwork. Moreover, maintaining the documentary limbo many of them are in does nothing but make it more difficult for them to pay tax, improve their education, or otherwise contribute constructively to society. In other words: refusing to regularize the status of undocumented children risks turning them into the pariahs they never were.

However, since the first DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, and despite the passage of a version of the bill in the House of Representatives in 2010, no final legislation has been approved by both houses. Arguments that the bill would foster illegal immigration or potentially shield gang members do not bear out in reality. For starters, the bill explicitly seeks to exclude those with a criminal background and applies equally to documented and undocumented aliens. Also, from a pragmatic perspective, most people migrate because they can’t provide for their families at home, not because they think they can “pull one over” on their host country. The lack of DREAM Act-like legislation does not make foreign-born children magically disappear or "self-deport." Rather, it prevents them from fulfilling their potential as participants in society, thus becoming more of a burden than they otherwise would have been: a lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

But even more importantly, education is a human right. Numerous international human rights bodies have repeatedly clarified that states must protect the human rights of those living in their territory, regardless of their legal status. Certainly, states can and must independently determine their immigration and access policies, but they cannot decide whether any one individual has rights: we all do.

Up until this week, 11 states had already adopted their own versions of the DREAM Act, including California, Texas, and New York, all states with large and rapidly growing foreign-born populations. It is telling that states with large immigrant populations know that providing immigrant children with access to higher education only can be beneficial to everyone.

The ballot initiative approved in Maryland this week sends a powerful message to Congress that states are willing to provide, piecemeal, what the federal government should be providing, wholesale. It also underlines the uneven nature of legal protections for immigrants until federal law is passed, especially because immigration generally remains under federal purview. Hopefully, passing a federal DREAM Act is a priority item on the agenda of the new Congress.


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.