Saturday, May 20, 2006

And now for something completely different...

Another guest blogger reporting in with a post that isn't political unless you're involved in disability rights issues and take this sort of thing personally. My name is Kay Olson, though I often go by Blue Lily online, and I've cross-posted this entry at The Gimp Parade where it normally belongs. I'd planned on sharing some post-deadline Medicare Part D blues for the Audience of the Goddess, but frankly the whole drug plan is so assinine and byzantine that there are aspects I don't understand enough to write about. Hopefully next week. Until then, a little pop culture critique:

Just over a year ago, I wrote about Dan Brown's piece of literary genius that is The Da Vinci Code, and since the movie is opening this weekend to packed audiences now seems a worthwhile time to refer back to how both literature and Hollywood use disabled people for dramatic purposes. I haven't seen the film, but already know from the trailer that the book's damaging stereotypes remain intact.

Once again I warn: to understand disability stereotypes and simply apply the most likely one here is to make your own spoiler for the story. If that bothers you -- look away now.

There are two disabled characters in Brown's story and -- surprise! -- they are both the villains. One has polio:
The villain isn't disabled so much as "crippled." Crippled. Crippled. Did I mention he is crippled? Well, Brown does. Over and over and over as Mr. Crippled Secret Villain limps around and other characters comment on the fact that he is crippled. This is to make sure that the densest reader understands that twisted on the outside means twisted on the inside. Why is he a villain? Because he's crippled and that can drive a person to be not nice.
This need to establish a certain hinkiness to the character of Teabing not only makes it into the film, it's in the trailer. "What can an old cripple do for you?" Pretty much Ian McClellen's first lines. Also in the trailer, there's a moment where Teabing drops his crutches to lunge and grab an artifact/clue out of the air. While this can be seen as a show of how important the mystery is to Teabing, it's also iconic of the idea that disabled people might be faking their impairments and making fools of everyone. This able-bodied anxiety is part of the stereotypes too, and cleverly, Teabing gets to be like those of us who are actually disabled and living with impairments yet also subject to frequent suspicion about our true identities.

The second villain is an albino man played in the film by Paul Bettany. I mentioned the albinism in my review a year ago, but didn't give poor Silas fair attention. Luckily, Andrew Leibs at Ragged Edge provides the historical context of albinism's stereotypical treatment.
Readers will no doubt recall the stalking Silas, who executes four people in one night doing God's work. Most of the stereotypes common to books and films that exploit albinism are present: red eyes, loyalty that leads to self mutilation and an abusive past that spawns a born-again brutality and proficiency in killing.

It is impossible for one with albinism (most of us detest the dehumanizing word "albino") to read Brown's book and not feel diminished. Knowing that Silas is the only experience most people will ever have with albinism is deeply troubling. Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and thereby they assume great power.
I disagree with Leibs that Silas is the "only" albino experience that most of the nondisabled public will have, but he's dead-on about the depressingly consistent characterization. For an astounding list of how characters with albinism are portrayed, look here. Evil, they are, the pale Satans of Hollywood!

In writing this I learned that albinism creates vision problems and people with this condition are considered legally blind. Isn't it interesting though, how portrayals of evil albinos (all those I can rcall) don't include any pesky vision problems that would hinder their ability to terrorize normal people? Too bad evil albino characters aren't played by actors with albinism. Even if they had to act sighted (and presumably get the same acclaim sighted actors get for acting blind), at least they could sort of represent.

But then, disabled characters aren't meant to be acted by disabled people. That would ruin the Oscar race for all the able-bodied actors. It's no accident that Ian McClellan doesn't have any actual need for crutches and Paul Bettany has real no pigmentation issues. Not that this film is Oscar material if most reviews are accurate descriptions. But really, why take a chance?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Fathers and Family Law

The American Coalition for Fathers and Families (apologists for domestic violence, as well as advocates for "reform" of the family law system to provide "equal rights" to fathers) is stumping for a new law in North Dakota, as detailed in this article from the Grand Forks Herald (courtesy of an internet friend from ND). The law's backers are currently seeking signatures sufficient for a statewide vote on two measures seeking to change family law in the state. As I said in my previous post, I've practiced family law as a student attorney in Massachusetts for the last two years, spending 20 hours per week or more at it--and so this is something that I know something about. And given the nature of my organization's practice, which served primarily battered women, I find the ND proposals upsetting. And, also, angering.

Both measures would "require that parents go through mediation to come up with a 'family plan' where children would be split between two households." Which is, in itself, of questionable merit, since joint custody truly doesn't work for every family--and mediation is absolutely inappropriate in any divorce or custody dispute in which violence or coercion has been a hallmark of the relationship. The proposals are similar enough that I'm focusing, here, on the proposal that's more detailed (and therefore more extreme--so it's fair to note here that the American Coalition for Fathers and Families has focused its support on the less extreme proposal) which has the following provisions:

One measure, touted by Roland Riemers of Emerado, N.D., would require couples to have a prenuptial agreement before marriage, limit child support payments after divorces and eliminate penalties for parents who refuse to make them. Riemers, who has filed more than a dozen North Dakota Supreme Court appeals on his two divorces and related disputes, put in a bid for North Dakota governor in 2004.
I enjoy how the paper includes a description of Mr. Riemers' personal history with the family court system in its discussion of his proposal, making him look like a total nut driven by malice against his ex-wife. Not that I can assert that he is any such thing, of course. But while on the topic--and without, quite seriously, making any accusation against him specifically--I will note that using the courts to harass women is a common behavior of batterers. I saw this in my cases, and it's born out in the research available on this topic as well. For example, studies show that batterers are more than twice as likely as other fathers to contest custody at all.* In my cases, I saw fathers contest custody (when they clearly didn't want it, were not equipped to have a child live with them, and were not going to succeed in getting custody) fight for visitation (and then not visit, because all they really wanted was to assert the *right* to visit) and refuse to pay child support (when they were perfectly capable of paying).

Which brings me to the merits of Mr. Reimers' proposal. The first requirement--that couples have a pre-nup--sounds innocuous but may well not be. The article is somewhat unclear, but given the context of these proposals, which are meant to change how child custody is decided, I presume that the prenups contemplated would deal with child custody as well, rather than with division of the couple's assets. It is clearly outrageous to suggest that a couple should decide before marriage and before the birth of their children how they will jointly divide custody of their (imaginary) children at the time of their (imaginary, and from unknown causes) divorce. It's also outrageous to suggest that such an agreement would be enforceable. What about the woman who marries the "great guy" who turns out to abuse her? Is she bound by the agreement that she made to let her kids sleep at his 3 out of 7 nights now that she knows that, while there, they'll be exposed to his violence against his new wife? Notably, Mr. Reimers has anticipated this scenario:
The measure proposed by Riemers specifically indicates that no child should be kept from a parent based on a domestic violence protection order unless there's clear and convincing evidence that shows the parent poses a threat to the child.
This ignores, of course, vast bodies of evidence showing that domestic violence does, by definition, pose a threat to children; first, children may be actually harmed when it occurs even if they're not its target; second, they are often targeted, since one good way to hurt a woman is to hurt her children; and finally, they suffer emotionally, behaviorally, academically, as a result of exposure to domestic violence even if they aren't actually harmed. Also notably, batterers are not great parents; they tend to be uninvolved with their children's care, they tend to use their children as weapons against the other parent, and thanks to the frequency of their recidivism, there is a real risk that their continued involvement with their children will lead to the children's exposure to further violence.**

Beyond the problems with requiring parents to decide the custody of their prospective children pre-marriage, prenups deciding issues having to do with children generally are problematic. In Massachusetts, there are very strict rules for when a parental agreement regarding child support can be enforced--briefly, it has to be fair in light of Massachusetts child support law, not signed under coercion, and approved by a court. There are good reasons for these requirements--first, the lack of such guidelines is an invitation to batterers to coerce women into signing agreements regarding child support. But secondly, child support is not meant to support either spouse after a divorce (that's what division of property and alimony are all about). It's meant to support children, and so we don't allow either parent to bargain away their children's rights.

Of course, under Mr. Reimers' proposal, children wouldn't have all that many rights, since child support payments would be lowered and would be, essentially, voluntary. Having gone on this long already, I have almost nothing to say about that. It's interestingly different from the complaint you hear from many fathers, that if they do pay child support they should be entitled to visitation, to joint custody, to any one of a number of rights they feel they have (or alternatively, that if they're denied said entitlements, they shouldn't have to pay child support). I have things to say about that argument--there are plenty of reasons that we don't tie child support and visitation together. But this proposal preserves the distinction between child support and visitation, while saying that noncustodial parents should be able to just not pay--and at that point, where the argument is the raw assertion that parents shouldn't have to support their children, I don't think the argument merits my time.

A final note--I've talked here largely about fathers and mothers, because that's how these debates are typically framed (there's a reason that it's not the Coalition for Non-custodial parents and children) and because gender does play a role in these discussions, and I don't see any point in obscuring that fact. I don't want to imply, however, that these roles are fixed, that women are never abusive or that men are never great custodial parents. My father was a great custodial parent, for one thing, so I know that isn't the case.

*Peter Jaffe et al., Domestic Violence and High-Conflict Divorce: Developing a New Generation of Research for Children, in DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE LIVES OF CHILDREN 189, 193 supra note 9 (citing J. Bowermaster & D. Johnson, The Role of Domestic Violence in Family Court Child Custody Determinations: An Interdisciplinary Investigation, Presented at the Fourth International Conference on Children Exposed to Family Violence, San Diego (1998) and J. Zorza, How Abused Women Can Use the Law to Protect their Children, in ENDING THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE 147 (E. Peled ed, 1995). (Excuse the academic citation--I cited this study in a paper I wrote recently but don't have a link to it).
**See generally LUNDY BANCROFT & JAY G. SILVERMAN, THE BATTERER AS PARENT: ADDRESSING THE IMPACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON FAMILY DYNAMICS 5-7 (2002). This is a very well-researched and useful book--that is to say, it was useful to me in writing my 3L paper, and is one of few to focus on how batterers parent rather than on how battered women parent.

Guest post: Weekend warriors on the front lines

There are so, so many things wrong with Bush's plan to send 6000 National Guard troops to fortify the border. Ya know, xenophobia, racism...not to mention the utter lack of gratitude toward immigrants that do the bulk of the grunt work in the agriculture and service industries that allow the rest of us to pay prices far below what the market would charge if we actually paid a living wage for those products and services.

But all that's been said better than I can say it. The one thing that people don't seem to acknowledge about this plan is the effect on the National Guard members who will be called up to serve - and to serve in the dead of summer in the desert, if this plan gets off the ground anytime soon. Bush treats the National Guard as disposable help, as his personal hand-servants to be dispatched and recalled for further orders as he personally sees fit. The news outlets don't seem too inclined to mention the disrupted lives of Guard members unless it's to repeat tear-jerking stories of vets disabled in Iraq. And while those are compelling stories, sometimes it's the more mundane stories that make up the bulk of the impact: reduced income that was supporting a family, time out of school that sets students back a semester or two, missed promotions from being called away from work.

Every woman and man in the Guard signed up for this and knows that they will be called when they are needed for the protection of the country. And they have been called and have served - in Iraq, in New Orleans, in emergencies across the nation. But - to steal a line from Michael Moore - it is in honor of this sacrifice that the nation owes it to them to use their services judiciously, to call on them only with the utmost care, to be sure that when we do need them (especially as hurricane season and wildfire season are upon us again) these women and men can bring the energy and dedication needed to perform under the direst circumstances, such as on the Gulf Coast last summer. With so much of the Guard deployed to Iraq and an ever-increasing number of vets who have now come home from a year or more in the Middle East, sending 6000 of them into the desert for a few months is an unnecessary strain on an already stressed system - and a call to sacrifice that abuses the promises that the National Guard members have made to our nation.

For that reason on top of the myriad reasons why fortifying the border is poor excuse for diplomatic and domestic policy, the Guard should not be called up for Bush's pet project. If we use these resources too many times, they will not be there when they are really needed.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Guest Post: Crisis, Period

I have often wondered what the world would look like if women's bodies were considered Normal, just like that, with a capital N. You know, the way men's bodies are treated by everyone, especially the medical establishment. I don't know what that would be like, but I know for sure that such a world would not allow for the kind of health crisis facing the women of Zimbabwe - the lack of access to adequate, affordable, and sanitary menstrual protection.

As Ellie Levenson writes in Periods: the final frontier, the supply of disposable pads and tampons dramatically decreased when production of these items moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Disposables are outrageously expensive. There is a a lack of materials for cloth pads. And knowledge about traditional methods of dealing with menstruation has been lost over time. At best, this effectively prohibits girls and women from participating in their normal activities when they are menstruating. At worst, using newspapers or other unsatisfactory substitutes results more vaginal infections, which in turn increases women's risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. (Note: The next link contains a glib and graphic descrition of a sexual assault. Please click with caution.) The Sunday Times reported that the life expectancy of Zimbabwean women is expected to decrease from an already abyssmal 34 to "as low as 20." Women who had the temerity to protest were beaten, imprisoned, and sexually assaulted.

The Dignity.Period! campaign was established by Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) to raise money to purchase and distribute pads and tampons to the women who need them.

When you consider the situation for refugees all over the world, it gets even worse. Among the many other issues (rape, prostitution, and invisibility of women to aid agencies are among the most significant) that Ruth Marshall covers in her 1995 article,Refugees, feminine plural, she has some damning words from aid workers:
"I went once on a high-powered inter-agency mission - five men and me - to former Yugoslavia," confides [Marie] Lobo, [UNHCR's Senior Social Services Officer]. "And we went around and asked if there were any problems, and everyone said no. And I said 'Wait, let me talk to the women'. And the issues came up. No sanitary towels. No proper, private bathing space to wash. Gynecological problems. No underwear. These were things they had never said. Talking about underwear to a man - of course, they'd never said it. So we insisted that sanitary towels be put in family packs, along with underwear and other personal items. I kept insisting - 'This is routine, they have to have it.' Our male colleagues made a fuss. 'Imagine opening up a family pack and finding sanitary towels!' they said. As if it were something horrifying, something outrageous - not something completely normal."

Family packs in Yugoslavia do now contain sanitary towels. But many staffers are far from satisfied with the gains made to date. "If you raise the question of sanitary towels, you get little embarrassed giggles and they trivialize the whole issue," [Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women, Ann] Howarth-Wiles says.
(Bolds mine.) And so we have two complimentary crises - the shortage itself and its affect on the health and well-being of women, and the difficulty of getting anyone to pay attention to the problem. I suppose that is to be expected, since it not only affects women, and marginalized women, at that, but solving the crisis in Zimbabwe requires actually thinking and talking about the dreaded menstrual period. Can't you just feel the shock and horror? (Incidentally, why don't all family packs everywhere contain sanitary products? Oh that's might have to look at them, and we can't have that, now, can we?)

On a more positive note, though, the group blog This is Zimbabwe has a good entry on this topic, and another one that includes some suggestions for how to help.

I can only hope that one day, the whole idea of such a crisis will seem far-fetched. And not because of taboos that prevent us from discussing it, but because women's bodies will actually treated with human dignity, period.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Vacation Posting

Should be banned by the health care authorities of this country. The next two posts were written by me while on vacation and while my mother was impatiently tapping her shoe to get me going. Which is a long way of saying that I had not read the original report but only the Washington Post article take on it when I wrote those posts.

And I have to eat some of my words because the report is not that bad. It stresses the health of the women as well and not just the potential health of their future potential fetuses, and it also emphasizes the importance of planning pregnancies. But the quote from the Washington Post article which initially made me so angry, this one:

New federal guidelines ask all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as pre-pregnant, regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant anytime soon.

Among other things, this means all women between first menstrual period and menopause should take folic acid supplements, refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight and keep chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes under control.

While most of these recommendations are well known to women who are pregnant or seeking to get pregnant, experts say it's important that women follow this advice throughout their reproductive lives, because about half of pregnancies are unplanned and so much damage can be done to a fetus between conception and the time the pregnancy is confirmed.

is still a fair summary of what the report says.

A little background for my anger. In the early 1990s a very similar report appeared and the language of that recommendation was almost exactly like the above quote. This meant that I assumed the current report to match the tone of the earlier one. It doesn't, not quite, but it isn't complete light and loveliness, either.

As I already noted the report does address the health of the fertile women themselves but the term "preconception care" is a most unfortunate one, especially for those women who are in their late forties and looking towards menopause rather than any more pregnancies, and while almost all the detailed proposals in the report are about situations where women may quite reasonably become pregnant the overall argument is that preconception care should apply to all women in their fertile years, including those who never plan to be pregnant, those who are not partnered and those who have finished their childbearing. Or rather, the existence of such groups of women among the fertile age group is mostly ignored in the report. It also ignores preconception planning for men but perhaps that is something that will appear in a separate recommendation around Father's Day.

And I'm still unhappy with the idea that all fertile women should live as if they might become pregnant tomorrow, even if they have no plans to have children any time soon. Consider alcohol. Drinking some red wine can be good for your heart but bad for an embryo. Should all women abstain from alcohol consumption, even at some risk to their own health? Or take a more serious question: What happens when a medical treatment a fertile-age woman needs might also harm a potential fetus? Is the recommendation that the woman should suffer without the treatment, even if she has no plans of becoming pregnant? These are not idle questions.

Most "preconception care" health advice contributes to the health of both the woman and any future baby she might have. But what happens when this is not the case? How seriously are we to interpret the idea of pre-pregnancy, in other words?

Then put all this into the context of the recent assaults on abortion rights and the likely future contraception wars, already brewing in the pro-life groups. It's hard not to feel that potentially always pregnant is the only possible state for most women in the dystopian future, and seeing this viewpoint in a medical report, well, it does things to my emotional buttons.

That's all.

More On The Next Post

I am so angry at this particular topic that I may not have been as clear as I wanted to be and I didn't get all the arguments into that one post. So here are a few more things:

Consider the following societal problem: We have too many car accident deaths because of drunk driving. What should we do about this? Whose behavior should we affect?

If we applied the same logic as in the recommendations which label all fertile women pre-pregnant we would regard all people who drink as potential drunk drivers, and the only solution would be to advise nobody to drink. After all, when people get drunk they may grab the wheel of the car without having planned to do so and then they may turn the key and start the car and hit a pedestrian who then dies. Clearly, we can't let the drinkers decide for themselves not to drive, because driving may be unplanned. By extension of the same argument, drinking at any time might result in a situation where unplanned drunk driving might happen.

If we wish to reduce traffic fatalities only one recommendation is valid: Nobody should drink. Ever. It might be helpful to view every person as potentially drunk-driving when we sell this recommendation to the citizens of the United States.

How do you like it? The level of intervention here is about the same as in the recommendation about women's behavior in the actual government proposal. I'm sure that it would be opposed as far too wide-reaching. Nothing appears too wide-reaching when it comes to women and fertility, though.

My traffic proposal would also be resisted on the grounds that we can't just recommend no drinking for all sorts of people who are totally innocent of any drunk driving. But note that this argument doesn't seem to apply to women. Women are assumed to be pre-pregnant, whatever they themselves say or whatever precautions they may be taking.

Some might also argue that my traffic proposal has high costs in terms of causing millions of light drinkers unhappiness from abstaining from a few glasses of wine a week for very little benefit. Suppose that the actual group of people who are likely to drive drunk is a lot smaller than the general group of all drinkers, and suppose that we could find some way of identifying that group and of affecting its behavior directly. Wouldn't that be a lot more effective as a social policy?

The answer is yes, but clearly when the same argument is applied to women the answer is no. It doesn't seem to matter how much unhappiness we would cause millions of women if they all obeyed the pre-pregnancy rules, even if most of this unhappiness turned out to be totally wasted in the sense that the woman does not get pregnant after all. And it doesn't seem to matter that the proposal doesn't really address the true reasons for high infant mortality rates, just as my proposal probably would do very little in combating drunk driving, especially as it's just a recommendation. The true reasons are in the lack of proper antenatal care in this country and in poverty and its corollaries.

Someone pointed out that the government recommendations are just that, recommendations, and that women can simply ignore them. True. But what these government recommendations tell us, clear as a bell, is that this government does not respect women as full human beings and does not treat women as full human beings or as human beings of independent worth.

The Care And Maintenance of the Aquarium

The Washington Post honors the recently passed Mother's Day by a most interesting article on the health of the newborn:

New federal guidelines ask all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as pre-pregnant, regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant anytime soon.

Among other things, this means all women between first menstrual period and menopause should take folic acid supplements, refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight and keep chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes under control.

While most of these recommendations are well known to women who are pregnant or seeking to get pregnant, experts say it's important that women follow this advice throughout their reproductive lives, because about half of pregnancies are unplanned and so much damage can be done to a fetus between conception and the time the pregnancy is confirmed.

Are you prepared for this, ladies between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five? You are now in the state of pre-pregnancy! Like a lovely empty aquarium, which needs to be kept ready for any goldfish someone might slip into it. It is not really your own health that concerns your physician, no. It's the potential health of any potential fetus that somehow might appear in your uterus. You must keep your uterus healthy. You should maintain a healthy weight not because it's good for your heart but because it's good for some future imaginary fetus. And these instructions apply to every single woman theoretically able to get pregnant, including nuns. It. Does. Not. Matter. If. The. Woman. Does. Not. Plan. To. Have. Children. Any. Time. Soon. Or. Even. Ever. Because women can't decide for themselves, you know. And because potential future children are much more important than already existing women. And because women exist for the purpose to breed children, just as aquaria exist for the goldfish.

So, my dear aquaria, remember these easy steps: Your boyfriends and husbands and other potential inseminators can do whatever they please: smoke, drink, take up hazardous jobs. But you are the precious aquarium in which their goldfish will one day swim and as nobody knows exactly when they will slip the fish in you better be always prepared. Like a new kind of girl scout.

Or like the women in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Those women also were urged to eat healthy foods, to exercize and to refrain from smoking and drinking, because they were handmaids: women intended for the breeding of babies. Atwood's book is about a dystopia. It's a little frightening that we have something slightly similar in a government recommendation today, with the difference that our program is still voluntary. For how long it will stay that way remains to be seen.

The reactions in the lefty blogosphere have largely been like mine: shock and fear. Later on I will spell out very clearly why I felt both shock and fear, but some of the reasons have been better stated elsewhere. The Broadsheet, for example, comments on the real reasons for the high infant mortality rates in the United States and how the recommendations of this report largely ignore those: poverty and no access to the health care system:

But that's because we have a sick and failing healthcare system that leaves millions of disadvantaged Americans without anything resembling the care they require. Almost 17 million women lack health insurance.

Pretending that we're going to solve this problem by instituting guidelines that treat women as baby incubators is not the solution. All it does is reinforce an attitude that problems women have with reproduction are the only ones worth worrying about. How about federal recommendations about using birth control to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases? How about federal guidelines that require doctors to talk to women about the dangers smoking, poor nutrition, unprotected sex, drug use, lack of exercise, and heavy drinking can pose for them, and not just their precious potential cargo?

Dressing up this "pre-conception care" crap -- which is supposed to be administered by every doctor a woman sees, from her G.P. to her gynecologist, perhaps even her podiatrist -- as "a reproductive health plan" to help women shut out of the healthcare system doesn't track.

Even the report itself notes that women who already cannot afford to see a doctor -- the ones whose pregnancies are compromised by poor or nonexistent prenatal care -- aren't likely to be able to get their "pre-pregnancy care" either, since obstacles to this "include getting insurance companies to pay for visits."

No, mostly this sounds like an Orwellian language trick played by the healthcare authorities, letting you know why your health as a woman really matters.

And Stunt Woman in the comments section of this Eschaton post on the same topic concisely states the unfairness of these recommendations by rephrazing them to apply to men:

New federal guidelines ask all males capable of ejaculation to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as active studs, regardless of whether they plan to impregnate a female or donate sperm in the near future.

Among other things, this means all men after their first ejaculation should refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight, keep chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes under control, avoid known mutagens such as caffeine, and keep their scrotum from extremes of temperature.

Ejaculating men are also urged to avoid participating in sports with fast moving projectiles or other objects which might injure their testicles and cause their sperm to mutate.

When it's put this way the horror of the proposal becomes considerably clearer. Men are never asked to consider themselves as the potential purveyors of healthy goldfish for women's aquaria. Even though medical evidence shows that sperm quality can be affected by workplace exposure to toxins and by smoking and drinking.

Not all commenters on the government recommendations view them with my reactions. Some men think the ideas are good ones, possibly because they are not asked to modify forty years of their own lives for the sake of two or three pregnancies during those four decades. I also got the impression that most of those who viewed the proposal favorably assumed that "preconception care" applies to only those few months when a couple tries to get pregnant. That's not what the government recommendations state. All women are assumed to be either pre-pregnant or pregnant from menarche to menopause. Aquaria, in other words.

I find these recommendations frightening. They really taste like the Handmaid's Tale to me, they taste like scorn to women as human beings, they taste like contempt towards women's ability to plan their own lives. Women have been made into tools for the purpose of giving birth to babies, and now women are to live their lives as tools. That the goal of the recommendations is a laudable one doesn't change any of this. Human beings are not to be regarded as mere tools, not even for the purpose of saving other human beings.

And consider the tradeoffs that the government has decided to find worthwhile: To have all fertile women on their toes all the time, for the sake of future and currently nonexisting fetuses, but to say nothing about the things that fertile men should do. To seriously recommend that a woman keeps herself superfit for pregnancy from the age of fifteen to the age of fifty-five. To recommend that she stays away from lead paint and cat feces and jobs that can be hazardous for developing fetuses, and not just when she is planning to become pregnant and during pregnancy, but every single month of those forty years! What this means, for example, is that no fertile women should have cats as pets, and soon it might mean that no fertile women can work in certain industries. And every woman should buy folic acid supplements for forty years (add up how much that costs), because it has been shown that it's impossible to get the necessary amount of folic acid for the prevention of birth defects from a good diet alone. Then add the mercury in fish and it might well be a bad idea for any fertile woman to eat fish. Forget about drinking, even if a glass of red wine might be good for your heart. Alcohol is not advised for pregnant women and now all women are potentially pregnant.

The assumption these recommendations make is that no woman can control her own fertility, even if she takes oral contraceptives, even if she is unpartnered, even if she is a nun in a convent. And why does the government assume this? Because roughly one half of all pregnancies are unplanned. This does NOT mean that every woman has a fifty percent chance of unplanned pregnancies, but it's easier for the government to ignore that. Once women are viewed as aquaria a lot of steps become easy.

Is it really necessary to regard us as fish tanks? Suppose that we make a very radical assumption: that physicians should care for women for the sake of their own health. What might happen if we took this unprecedented step? Can I make a guess? The women would also be healthy for any future pregnancies! But I keep forgetting that it makes no sense to talk about the health of aquaria, only of the fish in them, and the only cause of ill health in those goldfish is naturally the aquarium.

How many million fertile women are there in this country? Estimate the cost of providing all the necessary behavior modifications so that each of them becomes a pristine aquarium. That would be a very large amount of money. What if we spent the same amount of money in a different way: By buying health insurance coverage for poor women who currently have none and by starting antenatal clinics in poor areas.

Which do you think would save more infant lives? I'd be willing to bet the latter does, because the U.S. infant mortality rate is high largely because of the high mortality rate in poor and largely black areas. Why not focus the resources first to the neediest areas, by making sure that the women who are planning to get pregnant or who are currently pregnant have access to good care? Why are we doing the exact reverse, by redefining pregnancy as something all women are almost falling into? Consider that the average woman has somewhere around two children during those forty years, and it is fairly clear that for the vast majority of those forty years she is not pre-pregnant and it's really quite inane to treat her that way: like an aquarium.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Domestic Violence Now

When I was trying to decide what to write about for Echidne during this week, I happened to stumble across this short article, from the Boston Globe. There is very little in the article that isn’t essentially good news. It details how Massachusetts legislators are talking about passing tougher domestic violence laws, in response to a new report:

A report released Friday by the Legislature's Public Safety Committee called on officials to find better ways to assess how potentially dangerous an abuser might be and to create a statewide notification system for victims if abusers are released from custody.

These would both be good things—actually, I was a little bit shocked to realize that the state isn’t already notifying battered women when their abusers are released from custody.

Nonetheless, the article left me vaguely irked. And on reflection, the source of my irritation is the same as that of my surprise at the nature of the suggested changes. That is, I’m so frustrated that this is still where we are. We’re still passing laws intended to keep women from being killed. (Or, Massachusetts is. As the article notes, Massachusetts already has relatively strong laws in this area, since it’s recognized the basic concept that not killing women = good.) Even the quote in the article from an activist against domestic violence rubbed me the wrong way:
Mary Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., an anti-domestic violence group, called the proposals "an important first step."
"Victims of domestic violence continue to be murdered," she said. "More than 10 children lost mothers in the past month. Where is the outrage?"
When she says “an important first step,” it still sounds to me like, “an important first step to helping women to stay alive.” She’s still focused—as are the proposals detailed in the article—on how we restrain batterers from committing acts of violence. When we talk about what happens after the violence, I don’t know.

I will be graduating from law school this June. For the past two years, I’ve spent 20 hours per week (more or less, and often much more) doing what is essentially pro bono work as a student attorney. While the organization that I worked with has several focus areas, I primarily handled family law cases for victims of domestic violence. I saw first-hand the aftereffects of violence—poverty, depression, trauma, and lengthy and intrusive court battles over everything possible—child support, custody, visitation—all used quite deliberately by batterers in order to make sure that their victims can’t move on. There are resources available for victims of domestic violence. There are social workers available through various hospitals in my area, for example. And Massachusetts has made huge (and relatively unique) reforms to the way that its Department of Social Services interacts with battered women when investigating accusations of child abuse or neglect (necessary since child abuse and woman abuse often occur in the same households and are perpetrated by, or arise indirectly from the actions of, the same men). There is the welfare system, complete with the nightmarish restrictions that the Clinton administration gave poor people when signing off on Welfare Reform in 1996 (interesting fact: also in 1996, Congress restricted Legal Services funding—which has historically been the backbone of poverty law litigation—so that, among other things, organizations receiving that funding couldn’t challenge the Welfare Reform rules). There are domestic violence shelters, which may begin to address the pressing need for housing that many women will experience on leaving their abusers—but shelters inevitably have time limits and limitations on available space and may not allow a woman’s male children over a certain age to stay there. It all amounts to something a lot better than nothing, but it doesn’t amount to enough, and we don’t talk about that often enough. Instead we talk about the 10 women who have been killed in the past month and because the immediacy of those deaths is so pressing we don’t talk about the many more women who are homeless, who are traumatized and depressed, who are fighting in court to keep their children and for the resources to support them.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Guest Post: Shooting Dogs

With Darfur back in the news these days, it seems like a good time to revisit the lessons of another similar situation not so long ago. So last week I sat down to watch the aptly-named movie Shooting Dogs, which recounts the early days of the massacre (the genocide that dare not speak its name) in Rwanda, when nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in what might be the fastest ethnic purge ever to rage across a nation.

Shot by a largely Rwandan crew (many of whom were survivors of the incidents recounted in the film), the story is seen through the eyes of a British missionary and a wide-eyed college grad who is volunteering as an English teacher before the heady days when a coup brought down the president's plane, setting off the reign of bloodshed that lasted from April 19 to July of the same year. The next two hours loosely follows the events at the Ecole Technique Officielle, a school that was coincidentally housing a UN contingent of peace monitors and became a refugee camp for 2500 Tutsis seeking shelter from the massacres. The visuals are stunning and leave no room to avoid the reality of what murder by machete means - if you close your eyes, you still hear the thwack of blade hitting flesh, and the way screams go silent when a particularly important artery is severed. This movie should be shown in every high school classroom and college freshman political science class; it should be required watching for any foreigner who has any opinion at all on geopolitics in Africa.

But. (There is always a "but," isn't there?) Something is missing from the film, something that might be called context, something that might be called truth, something that might be called a reality check.

The focus on two white characters over a cast of a couple thousand Rwandans can be forgiven. After all, if this movie is meant to tell an untold story, it might as well aim to draw in the European/North American demographic - it's not like Rwandans need genocide explained to them. And it might be forgiven that Hugh Dancy's character - the young British teacher - seems to have nothing to add to the film besides the unerring ability to look handsomely devastated in his five o'clock shadow and his unlikely clean clothes even days into the crisis.

But there are some problems that a little harder to forgive. Chief among those is the glaring absence of context for the massacres - that the historic Hutu/Tutsi tension was fatally exacerbated by the European colonial powers that used divide-and-conquer tactics to control the populace at large. That the missionary presence - so exalted in this film - has never been a panacea for locals in any imperial port of call. That while wild-eyed machete-wielding Africans were making headlines, weapons firms out of the UK and several other nations were quietly shipping arms to the Hutu militias. That the massacres were not a populist uprising gone out of control, but a planned ethnic cleansing carefully orchestrated from the upper echelons of the Hutu-dominated government.

And most of all, that the depiction of heroic deeds on the part of the European characters are at best a work of fiction, and at worst a sorry attempt to claim some redemption in a situation where the UN and every one of its member states failed miserably to intervene when the consequence of inaction were brutally and unavoidably apparent.

The danger of this decontextualization is not so much that an inaccurate history might be passed into the pantheon of Hollywood half-truths, pasted up next to Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda on the roster of valiant deeds during tough times. The danger is that without any larger backdrop, the massacres look like exactly what your garden-variety racist would like to see: crazy Africans hacking to death other Africans. An internal problem. An impolite cultural flaw. A momentary lapse that reveals a fundamental incivility among, well, those people. Without the context of the decades of imperial rule, the machinations of a political system that was gunning for racial annihilation, and those pesky arms shipments from Europe, Shooting Dogs makes the Rwandan genocide look like just another uncivil moment in the proverbial heart of darkness that western nations love to ascribe to Africa and Africans.

If there is one redeeming moment, it is a startlingly honest dialogue between the young school teacher and a BBC reporter who has come to gather cinematic evidence of the murders. The reporter, a white woman, tells the school teacher how she can continue to witness such brutality in conflict after bloody conflict and still keep going. He replies with the inevitable cliche that she has just become numb to the violence.

No, she replies, It's worse than that.

In Bosnia, she says, every elderly woman could have been my grandmother.

Here, she says, they're just dead Africans.

And in four words, she captures the sentiment that drove the UN and the world into total inaction when action was needed most: they're just dead Africans. In times of war, times of pestilence, times of famine: they're just dead Africans. In Rwanda, in Somalia, and now in Darfur. They're just dead Africans.

The Little Drummerboy

The new role David Brooks has taken in his most recent columns is drumming for the return to something that almost sounds like fascism:

Psychologists joke that two sorts of people need therapy: those who need to be loosened up and those who need to be tightened up. Now, in the political world, we're moving from what you might call loose conservatism to tight conservatism. We're seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority. Many of George Bush's problems come from the fact that he's awkwardly straddling the transition point between the two.

In the 1970's and 80's, conservatives felt the primary threat was the overweening nanny state. Ronald Reagan tried to loosen the structures that restricted individual initiative and led to national sclerosis. He and Margaret Thatcher deregulated, privatized, cut tax rates in order to liberate entrepreneurs. The dominant formula was simple: less government equals more freedom. "Government is the problem," Reagan declared, expressing the organizing conservative principle of the day.

Times change. Now the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder. The biggest threats come not from nanny states but from failed states and rogue states. There is less popular fear of bureaucrats possessing too much control than of ungoverned forces surging out of control: immigration, the federal debt, Iraqi sectarianism, Islamic radicalism, Chinese mercantilism, domestic rage and polarization.


The chief challenge these days is to restore legitimate centers of authority.


A political age built around authority rather than freedom will elevate different sorts of disputes, of which the N.S.A. flap is only a precursor. Elections will revolve around the question: Who can best maintain order — in the home, neighborhood, culture and around the globe?

For a hundred years we debated the economic reach of the state, but that debate's basically done. The next one will be over where the state should erect guardrails in a mobile and fragmented world.

Reading all this made my hair stand up, then start moving around in snakelike circles. Does Brooks know what his babbling means? Or is he just trying to be contrarian?

In either case, what the words actually mean is frightening. Note that the first paragraph above lists all sorts of thing as being "out of control", including domestic polarization and rage. Brooks's authoritarian recommendation implies that the government should forcibly end the expression of this polarization and rage. The only way I can imagine that happening is by some form of censure and punishment of those who dare to express an angry opinion. Is Brooks truly advocating this?

Or think about what he is saying in that cute little sentence:

Who can best maintain order — in the home, neighborhood, culture and around the globe?

Do I smell the advocating of male dominance at home and wingnut dominance abroad? Some sort of theocracy, perhaps? Or fascism, really.

What an odd post. If it is a response to the NSA spying scandal it seems to say that this scandal wasn't enough, that what we need is more surveillance, more control, less freedom. Maybe a database on everyone's political opinions, and re-education camps for liberals. Little cameras in the bedrooms, and so on.

You know, I think that David Brooks needs to take a deep breath and then seek the services of one of those psychological professionals he mentions at the beginning of his column. A dominatrix, preferably.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


I'm going to be on vacation from Monday for ten days. During that time I will post some but not as much as usually. On the other hand, there will be several wonderful guest bloggers taking up the slack: Blue lily, Skylanda, thistleflower and hybrid have all graciously accepted my plea of help. My heartfelt thanks to all of them and sorry about not being able to pay. Chocolate will be sent, though.

The snake goddess gives her own explanation for the lull in posting in the next post.

The Intervention Or News From The Divine Front

We caught Nemesis! If you remember she's been walking the earth, howling like the wind, moaning in a vacant way. Her revenge talents have been draining for centuries and she has been invisible for quite a while now. Understandable, really, as who prays to the goddess of revenge (and prayers are needed to puff us up), but Nemesis is strongly needed right now. So Ares and Aphrodite and a couple of demi-gods and such got together and devised a Cunning Trap and caught Nemesis. They are holding her in a walkup in the Bronx, keeping her alive with nectar and some taped prayers, but the situation is getting unbearable.

Hence the intervention. The plan is to bring Nemesis here (in a suitcase) and to revive her. We divines are all going to get together (with some nectar and carousing on the side) to stay with her and to pray to her and to feed her with mice. She will get color in her cheeks and light in her eyes! After she first gets some cheeks and eyes, of course. In short, we are going to bring Nemesis to life.

She is desperately needed in the present political situation. No-one is as skilled in giving people their true deserts as she is, no-one is as cruelly rational and objective and logical and kind in her cruelty as Nemesis. The Democratic party needs her to teach them how it's done, the people of the United States, of Afghanistan and of Iraq need her. Anyone at all sane needs her, and the sad thing is that she's totally insane right now. But we are going to fix that with this intervention. I got the idea from a psychology book, though I added a few goddessy twists to it, and the snakes plan to give her a few beauty baths with venom and a nice scale massage.

It's going to work, I'm sure. But it means that I won't be posting regularly for the next week or so and that you should also pray to Nemesis. Pretend to like her. It shouldn't be too hard in this culture.

Our democracy may well depend on Nemesis. And she in a suitcase!

Happy Mother's Day!

This would be a good year to think about Julia Ward Howe's initial proclamation for a Mother's Day:

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...

Democratic Politics 101

This might be too advanced for a 100-level college course, actually, but let's try anyway. The lesson is this: It's a bad thing to win in politics, because by losing you really win. You can still be the one who criticizes and then next time around you will win for sure. Of course the same analysis might then be applied to explain why winning is never a good thing.

I'm not making this up:

DEMOCRATS are all but breaking out the Champagne. Republicans are divided and disheartened; President Bush's poll numbers seem to be in free fall. Many Democrats are talking not only about victory in November but about what they will do once Congress is in their hands.

Such talk may well be premature. Election Day is six months away, and the party has lost many a winning hand. But here is a slightly heretical question, being asked only partly in jest right now: Is it really in the best interest of the Democratic Party to win control of the House and Senate in November? Might the party's long-term fortunes actually be helped by falling short?

As strange as it might seem, there are moments when losing is winning in politics. Even as Democrats are doing everything they can to win, and believe that victory is critical for future battles over real issues, some of the party's leading figures are also speculating that November could represent one of those moments.

From this perspective, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world politically to watch the Republicans struggle through the last two years of the Bush presidency. There's the prospect of continued conflict in Iraq, high gas prices, corruption investigations, Republican infighting and a gridlocked Congress. Democrats would have a better chance of winning the presidency in 2008, by this reasoning, and for the future they enhance their stature at a time when Republicans are faltering.

Welcome to the parallel reality, the one in which nothing matters but the well-being of our elected political representatives, the one in which the numbers of people dying or suffering because of a particular policy are nothing but ciphers on the scorecards.

Though to be fair to the Democratic politicians mentioned in the article, they appear to be largely former politicians, and even so some of them (like Bill Clinton) disagree with the premise. Could this article be one of those where a story begged to be written and the writer then went in search of arguments for the story?

New Words

Evildoers. The axis of evil. Harm's way.

These are all terms that were quite rare before the Bush administration came into power. Now hardly a day goes past that I don't read or hear at least one of these three. And they are all loaded with weird stuff.

The first two are most obvious in the religious connotations, the absoluteness of good and evil and the firmness of the moral condemnation. What used to be called criminals in the news is now sometimes called evildoers, and that's George Bush's legacy for us.

The axis of evil is also part of his legacy, including the complications that little term has caused us. I suspect that the speechwriter tried a connection to the Axis of WWII as well as to the idea of the opposition as pure evil.

But harm's way is in some ways the worst of these terms as it looks so innocent. It's usually employed in the context of soldiers being sent to Iraq, to be in "harm's way", as if the harm was somehow independent of them being sent there, as if the harm wasn't intentionally created and as if the soldiers aren't going to be active participants in at least some harm to someone. "Harm's way" sounds something like being exposed to bird flu, something that the Bush administration can't really actively combat. Because it's to their advantage that we believe this?

These terms aren't really wrong, but they are right in an odd way, a way that makes us ignore certain solutions to the problems and to accept other solutions too easily.