No Matter How Awful the Question…

I’ve been dreading talking about this, because it’s horrible, and we’ve had enough horrible lately. But it’s also really important.

There’s a case going on right now against an illegal abortion provider in the Philadelphia area, Kermit Gosnell. The clinic he operated has come to be commonly referred to as a ‘house of horrors’ – decrepit, unsanitary, and inhumane – where he performed, among other things, third-trimester abortions that amounted to infanticide. (I’ve chosen to leave out the more graphic details. If you want to know them, Google his name, and click with care.)

Anti-choicers have seized on the case as evidence of the inherent evil of abortion. Pro-choicers argue that Gosnell represents the modern face of pre-Roe back-alley abortion. The one thing everyone agrees on is a desire to eliminate practices like Gosnell’s – but how? Much of what he did, including third-trimester abortion, is already illegal in Pennsylvania, but that didn’t stop him or his patients. So in modern America, what drives women to seek out dangerous, illegal abortion services? 

First, lack of access. As of 2008, 87% of counties in Pennsylvania had no legal abortion provider. 48% of women lived in those counties. Per the Guttmacher Institute, Pennsylvania ranks in the lower-middle range for things like ‘state efforts to help women avoid unintended pregnancy’ and ‘availability of publicly supported family planning services.’ So while these services may be legal, they are not available in any real way to the women who need them.

Second, lack of money. Abortion rates have been dropping for years – except among the poor. In 2000, women below the poverty line accounted for 27% of all abortions performed in the US. In 2008, it was 42%. These women rely on public health care, like Medicaid – which is barred from covering abortion because of the Hyde Amendment. They don’t have disposable income, and cannot afford to pay $470 (the average cost of an abortion, before travel and lost wages.) Gosnell charged significantly less for first-and second-trimester abortions than legal clinics, making him the only option for many women – even those with geographic access to other services.

Simply put, clinics like Gosnell’s exist because women lack the resources to avoid unwanted pregnancy (comprehensive sex education and open access to contraception) and lack real access to safe, legal, early abortion. No matter how horrible the question, that combination was, is, and will continue to be the only answer.

Where’s Ron Paul when we Need Him?

Hi Vagina News lovelies!

You may have noticed a complete absence of coverage on this page of crazy state abortion bills. That’s not because there haven’t been any recently… Quite the opposite. In the first 3 months of 2013, 14 states have proposed bills that restrict abortion before viability – bills in 10 states would ban abortion almost entirely. And we’re not talking about 1-bill-per-state – the total is more than 300 bills aimed at restricting access to abortion.

So why haven’t I been talking about it? Because I think the story would be better told by some Libertarian website obsessed with big government wasting taxpayer dollars, because that’s what this is really about. Confused?  

Here’s the thing. The people sponsoring these bills don’t actually expect them to take affect. The bills are unConstitutional and they know it. They’re counting on it. It’s all part of a strategy by the anti-reproductive-rights movement to get one of these bills in front of the Supreme Court in the hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade (before Scalia finally chokes on his own tongue and Obama gets to appoint another Justice.) And hey, don’t take my word for it, look at the links below, or Google ‘pro life strategy overturn roe’. It’s not a big secret.

Which brings me to the Libertarians. It is INCREDIBLY expensive to try to get a case to the Supreme Court. Alaska recently paid The Center for Reproductive Rights $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars to compensate them for fees related to that state’s recent failed attempt – and they didn’t get anywhere close to the top. North Dakota recently approved a $400k budget increase for the attorney general in preparation for legal challenges, which will barely scratch the surface. In many of these states, legislators have come out and said they don’t care how much these battles cost taxpayers, it’s about the principle.

So while I’m interested in how this strategy progress, and hugely hopeful that Scalia will swallow his own tongue sooner than later, I’m not spending a lot of energy freaking out over these bills. When all is said and done, I think they’re all going to turn out to be a great big pile of massively expensive bad ideas. I just hope progressive candidates in those states remember to mention that in the next election.

Hollaback at Street Harassment

Today’s Vagina News is about an experiment. Somebody trying to do something about something most people think you can’t do anything about – Street Harassment.

We’ve talked about it before… It’s one of those open secrets, in that it’s happened to every woman countless times, and it happens in public, yet many men are totally oblivious to it – even to inadvertently participating in it. (Those are not absolutes. Not all women define harassment the same way, not all harassment victims are women, and there are plenty of men who are aware of it and doing their part to stop it. The point is to recognize the feelings of those who ARE negatively affected by it, and to make more people aware of the issue, and the need and opportunity for anti-harassment advocacy.)

So someone (I can’t find a name) started something called ‘Hollaback!’ There’s a website, an app, and FB/Twitter/Tumblr. profiles all devoted to sharing stories, photos, and videos of street harassment. The idea is that by sharing these things, we take away some of the feelings of victimization, isolation, and shame that street harassment can engender; It also denies harassers the anonymity and privacy they rely on to avoid being held accountable for their behavior; And it helps identify harassment ‘hotspots’, where a bit of concentrated effort might make a meaningful difference. (Like, if you show your friends a spot on the map where you and lots of others have been harassed, you might all be more attuned to it next time you’re there, and more inclined to speak up against it.)

Will it make a real difference? I have no idea. But I had no idea whether Vagina News would matter to anyone when I started it, and it turns out it does. So here’s hopin’!

Pretty and Politics Don’t Mix

Interesting and important Vagina News today, of an academic nature. 

You may have heard that President Obama has been criticized for saying this about California Attorney General Kamala Harris:

“She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough… She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general… It’s true! C’mon.”

He has since called her to apologize, she accepted and expressed her support. (Interesting how little attention has been paid to HER feelings about the whole thing.) To be honest, and this is admittedly influenced by my general support for Obama, it didn’t bother me much. It was a joke tacked on to compliments about her professional excellence, and a far cry from minimizing her as a professional based on her looks. But then I learned this…

A recent study shows that media coverage of a female politician’s appearance – whether positive, negative, or neutral – has a negative impact on her ‘electability’; “That includes “the horserace, her favorability, her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits, and how likely voters are to vote for her.”” So your gut feeling is right – mentioning a female politician’s looks is, consciously or not, an effective way to marginalize her professionally. I doubt that’s what Obama was going for – Kamala Harris is a California Democrat – but we’ve all heard others do it for precisely that purpose.

The good news is that there is a way for a female candidate to undo the damage – call it out. The study shows that when the candidate or an outside organization made a statement along the lines of, “My appearance is not news and does not deserve to be covered. Rarely do they cover men in this fashion and by doing so they depict women as less serious and having less to offer voters,” the candidate’s numbers recovered and even improved.

Thank god. I didn’t want to have to be pissed about this all day.

Women on the Road

Today’s Vagina News is a little different. It’s an (excellent) essay rather than an article, and while it touches on things we talk about all the time, it’s framed in an unusual context… Female Road Stories. (Big thanks to Krystal for sharing it with me.)

What’s a road story? It’s a quest. Author Vanessa Vaselka mentions several, fictional and non – the stories of Huck Finn, Frodo Baggins, Jack Kerouac. You can probably think of dozens more, and most of the ones that come to mind are probably about males. It doesn’t take too much effort to come up with some that are about females – Thelma and Louise, Joan of Arc, Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, Atalanta. But then, try to think of some that are about women in a non-imaginary world who don’t befall some terrible fate at the hands of men. That’s a stumper.

I love traveling, especially road tripping. I’ve driven up and down both US coasts, back and forth and back again across the country, and done a fair amount of exploring in the middle. I’ve gone to Canada, Europe, England and Scotland, Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa. Every place I’ve gone, I’ve been acutely aware of (and explicitly warned about) being perceived differently because I’m female. At once more and less visible, more and less valuable. Certainly more of a target, more at risk of ending up in a place or situation in which I would become one of those girls no one ever hears from again. Some of that is based in reality, and some of it is because when it comes to stories of women on the road, those are the only ones we hear.

I have long been bothered (ok, infuriated) by the role women play in stories of adventure. Author Vanessa Vaselka says it beautifully; “The woman on the road then ceases to be human… and instead becomes a barometer, a tool by which the onlooker’s (or reader’s) humanity can be measured or determined. She is an object fetishized by their compassion… and the onlooker can choose to save her, choose to watch, or choose to ignore her as her fate plays out; these choices become the heart of the drama.” The story is not about the woman, it’s about who the onlooker is by way of how s/he reacts to what happens to the woman. I hate it I hate it I hate it.

It may seem like a small thing, gender inequality in road stories, but it ends up being about so much more. This essay is long, it wanders around a lot, and there are many quotable bits… but the part that strikes me most is that we need female road stories that are not about the risk of rape and death, so women of all ages can see the possibility of a quest for themselves. So that they can imagine a world in which they – we – can “go out the door just to see what’s out there.”