Speaking of Women's Rights: 06/09

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Best Pride Ever!"

Thanks to all the lovely folks who marched with us in the Pride Parade on Sunday! As Legal Voice staff member David Ward said, "This was the best Pride EVER!"

Photos have been posted on Flickr. Have photos of the parade that you'd like to share? Send them to us LegalVoiceNW@gmail.com and we'll post them to our Flickr and Facebook accounts.

Special thanks to the Jet City Rollergirls for joining us too!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Benefits of Being Family

When does, and when should, the law recognize economic value we impart to our families through caregiving – whether it is for elder parents, children, spouses or partners, or others we consider family?

Often these issues turn on how one defines “family.” Recent headlines featured a case, Vernoff v. Astrue, in which the Ninth Circuit ruled that a 10-year-old girl who was conceived from a man’s frozen sperm four years after the man died was not entitled to Social Security survivor benefits. After the man had died suddenly from an allergic reaction, the widow had his sperm extracted and later used it to become impregnated. In a nutshell, the court ruled that the girl was not a dependent at the time of his death as defined by Social Security law, and there was no evidence of consent to the artificial insemination, as required by California law to establish paternity.

The unusual facts give rise to many interesting questions, such as “wow, can you really remove viable sperm from a dead man?” and “is it ethical to remove sperm without the patient’s consent?” But I also found myself asking about the policy implications – was this the correct result, from the perspective of the Social Security program and the intended purpose of survivor benefits? The girl never in fact depended on the deceased. Should she have been allowed to recover financially based merely on genetic link?

Another case currently pending before the Washington Supreme Court, Armantrout v. Carlson, raises a related question about whether parents can recover after losing a daughter who was providing caregiving services. The Armantrouts’ adult daughter died after complications arising from ankle surgery. Her services to the parents, particularly the blind mother, including driving her places and taking notes for her classes, that had economic value. The question before the court is whether such services, provided for free, constituted financial support, so that the parents were “financially dependent” on the daughter and may recover for what they claim was her wrongful death.

These same kinds of questions come up under a variety of areas of law, such as family law, when courts decide during dissolution proceedings what is an equitable property division, based on a spouse’s relative contributions to the relationship.

Should the law place an economic value on the caregiving and other family responsibilities that often come with a family relationship? When is giving care to our families something that should be compensated or accounted for economically – for example, to determine the “replacement cost” of a mother’s domestic work or even to calculate a nation’s gross domestic product? Would formal caregiving contracts between elderly parents and their adult children provide useful protections for both?

These aren’t easy questions, but we at Legal Voice do know this: we believe that families exist in different forms, whether different-sex or same-sex, inter-generational, single-parent, or child-free, and we believe all should be equally recognized and protected by the law. We’ll continue to fight to ensure that courts consider the real-life impacts, financial and otherwise, of their decisions on those families –however defined – who are involved.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Science Made (Too) Simple

We’ve all known for some time that the gleaming promise of scientific and mathematical proficiency and progress this country made to itself and its students after Sputnik launched in 1957, and that President Kennedy articulated as a challenge to ‘put a man on the moon by the end of the decade’ in 1961, has been broken. Our collective determination to raise the competency in math and science of all our students and citizens perhaps came to a brief fruition, but for more than two decades we’ve been sliding away from that dream of achievement.

No news there. But now and then I’m shocked at just how low standards have fallen. Set aside that in 2007 U.S. students ranked 23rd out of 30 in scientific proficiency among industrialized countries, and that 12th grade U.S. students rank, at best, 19th in math proficiency. Peer-reviewed studies are great, but all we need is the picture above.

Yes, my friends, this is a United States Senator with a “drawing” of an embryo, explaining his opposition to stem cell research. To be clear: Legal Voice takes no positions in partisan political races, so we don’t care that this is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, currently the front-runner to become Governor of that state. (Well, we don’t care for this purpose.) What we do care about is that he is seriously trying to persuade people of his position, and that this is his scientific visual aide.

Why in the world would any self-respecting student study hard in biology or chemistry if elected officials think they can depict scientific concepts with a scrawl that could just as easily be a 4th-grader’s game of Hangman? (No offense to 4th-graders intended.)

The level of discourse (including visual aids) about critical issues in science, bioethics and policy just can’t stay at this level if we are to have a hope of operating competently in a global economy, let alone make wise policy decisions. Can it?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pride(ish) Month at the White House

A few weeks ago the White House declared June “LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER PRIDE MONTH.” In his proclamation President Obama stated that he was “call(ing) upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.”

Fast forward to last Thursday: On June 11th the Department of Justice filed a brief in a California lawsuit that’s seeking to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act. The brief defended DOMA fiercely on a number of levels, including from a budgetary standpoint, citing “Congress's articulated interest in preserving the scarce resources of both the federal and State governments” as an argument for keeping DOMA in place. (so, are they saying that we can’t afford equality right now??) It also referenced cases where incest and marriage to children were involved and deemed LGBT individuals different from other protected minorities, giving the brief an unfocused “everything but the kitchen sink” feel. An interesting (did I say interesting? I guess I meant crappy) move for a guy who’s campaign promised to repeal DOMA upon election.

For me, the filing of this brief has taken the sails out of Obama’s LGBT Pride Month proclamation, and brought a good deal of hypocrisy to the administration’s stance on gay rights. Even so, I would still like to have respect for my President and therefore plan to follow his directive and “turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.” Starting with President Obama.

P.S. Find out what real Pride looks like...march with Legal Voice in Seattle's Pride Parade on Sunday, June 28th. We'll be joined by the Jet City Rollergirls and will have beads and buttons to throw to the crowd!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Unkindest Cuts, or the Fairest?

No one likes budget cuts. But at least this time around, with regard to college athletic programs, schools seem to be figuring out what Title IX advocates have been pointing out all along – gender equity does not mean eliminating lower profile men’s teams in favor of women’s teams.

Rather, equity in athletics means providing equal opportunity to participate in athletics, regardless of gender. And sometimes that requires hard budget decisions.

The reality is that at most schools, high profile men’s teams are not money-makers; in fact, almost half of NCAA football and basketball programs spend much more than they bring in. Moreover, within men’s sports, resources are inequitably distributed, with football and men’s basketball receiving 74% of the total men’s athletic operating budget at Division I-A institutions - at the expense (literally) of both women's teams as well as lower profile men's teams.

Seen through the harsh light of budget cuts, it only makes sense to find ways to trim the highest cost programs. This year, in Bellingham, Western Washington University’s entire football program got the ax. The University of Washington is cutting both men’s and women’s swim teams to save $1.2 million.

Less drastically, school officials, including the PAC-10 conference, are starting to identify other cost-cutting measures. For example, schools can take actions such as limit spending on pre-game hotel accommodations, eliminate certain publications (such as media guides), or reduce the size of student-athlete and support staff travel squad sizes.

Though of course in an ideal world, schools would be adding athletic opportunities for all students, rather than cutting, spreading the cuts across athletic programs makes the best budget sense. And though I'd rather be cheering for a team of fantastic athletes (such as the UW softball team, 2009 NCAA champs), we can at least be glad the discussion is moving away from the irrational vitriol of the anti-Title IX crowd.

Personal, political, social.

I blog for Legal Voice. I help maintain our Facebook page, our Flickr account, and our website. And I use social networking sites on my personal time, too. It gets confusing – personal and professional interests tend to overlap, but it still feels like there should be boundaries in between.

I guess, as part of a movement that’s always told me the personal is political, I shouldn’t expect to draw clear lines between all the ideas and modes of communication that compete for my attention. But I’m curious – how are people handling the ways that social networking sites are dividing and multiplying the conversation about women’s rights?

Example I came across this week: a post on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog where a young, pregnant woman asks for advice and the blogger turns her question over to the readers.

I see three things going on here:

1. Open conversation on hot-button social issues. The first page of comments touches on unintended pregnancy, abortion, single parenting, adoption, education…

2. New twist on traditional advice columns. The young woman wrote her very personal question to an “expert on the issues,” who shared the request with a large public audience. We could loosely apply a neologism for this phenomenon of harnessing the skills & knowledge of the masses: crowdsourcing.

3. Blog comments as public forum. The internet, to put it mildly, facilitates group discussions – there were over 25 pages of replies. But “young, single and pregnant – what now?” is a question women have grappled with for as long as we’ve had choices about when, whether and how to have kids. This is another iteration of a debate that’s been going on for decades – amplified by new technology.

What do you see going on here? Is social networking helping us break new ground in the women’s movement, or are we talking in circles?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Out & about with Legal Voice

As you can see from our Flickr stream, we had a blast at the Health Care for All march & rally last weekend.

Kicking yourself for skipping it?

NEVER FEAR! You're invited to join Legal Voice at the Seattle Pride Parade on June 28th!

Seattle Pride Parade
Sunday, June 28, 2009
11:00 a.m.
Starts: 4th Avenue & Union Street
Ends: Seattle Center
We'll have buttons and beads. Bring your family. Bring your friends. Summer doesn't last forever, you know... Please email us at info@legalvoice.org to join our crew in the parade. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I’m like, totally (virtually) there!

My mother joined Facebook this past weekend and already she’s had her first lesson in the pseudo-reality of online social networking. I remarked in a telephone conversation that I was going to buy some rum and she said “Oh, that’s right. You’re making mojitos with Chris and Jess tonight.” To which I replied “Do you realize how it is you know that?” “You told me,” was her assured response. “Nope” I said. “You read it on Facebook.”

It’s so easy to mistake the internet for reality these days: “Friendships” we carry on by a simple click of the “like” button on someone’s Facebook status, or the short and tone-absent emails we send through cyberspace all day long. With the viral nature of information these days and the emergence of Facebook “Cause” pages, it seems that progressive movements have begun to shift their focus to the internet.

There are several things that I worry about in regard to online movements:

Is it too easy for efforts to become fractured?

There are more than 11,000 members of Join The Impact’s Facebook Group “Decline 2 Sign,” which is working toward keeping a referendum off the ballot that would take away domestic partnership rights in Washington State. Several other organizations also have “Decline 2 Sign” Facebook groups, creating confusion and detracting from a united front. When creating a cause takes 5 minutes and minimal expertise, does this encourage too many people to create their own tiny movements in lieu of jumping onto the larger bandwagon?

Are we leaving people out?

Yes, a large number of our parents are on Facebook now. But how many of our grandparents are there? And what about socioeconomic factors that make online access an issue for some.

Are we breeding complacency?

People are under the illusion that they are creating change, when in fact, what they’re doing is preaching to the choir. Yes, we all have cousins, aunts, and uncles who don’t share our political beliefs. But for the most part, our friend lists are chock full of people who are just like us. At a certain point, are we just sitting around patting each other on the back for our superior social awareness?

How powerful are words on a screen?

Perhaps when we rsvp on Facebook for things like the Health Care For All rally, we have the potential to spark conversations about the need for change with friends who may not share our beliefs. But compare that with the effect on passers-by in the street, witnessing a unified body of people, chanting and holding signs in support of a cause. Which would have the greater affect on you?

Does information lead to action?

Evites, emails, blogs, networking sites…they’re all about the dissemination of information. But does that information always lead to action? We saw the best example of the online to real life connection in the Obama Campaign over the past couple of years. As Time magazine put it in a July ’07 article, the point of establishing an online base is so that later on this base can “be converted into door knockers and phone bankers.” Is it possible that we got so excited about the positive effects of online networking in the Obama campaign that we’ve forgotten about the follow-through?

My suggestion? Use the internet as an enhancement to already established methods of social activism (as your DDR pad is to your Nintendo 64). Because justice will not be won by clicking the “rsvp” box on a Facebook event invite. It will be achieved when people take to the streets, with big signs and loud voices, and demand it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mourning Dr. George Tiller, courageous women's rights activist.

Over the last several years, Legal Voice as an organization and I as an individual have helped some women terminate their pregnancies in the second or third trimester. Some of those women you might have heard about – though most are “Jane Doe” because they feared to make their names known in court filings. But some you never heard of, and never will, and that’s as it should be.

I once referred a woman to Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered yesterday in the foyer of his church. She got my name through circuitous channels, because of Legal Voice’s reproductive rights and health work. Like the other women we’ve assisted, she wanted her baby very much. But he had anencephaly – no brain, essentially – and no chance to survive. I worked with her and her husband to try to persuade her chosen hospital to permit her chosen physician to terminate the pregnancy safely. But the hospital refused, even though under Washington law this was clearly a legal abortion.

Dr. Tiller wasn’t available, so I referred her to another doctor in this country who performs abortions late in pregnancy. She and her husband had the means to travel, so they did, and they were able to see their baby before laying him to rest. At the funeral the mother said to me, “when I saw him, I realized: he wasn’t there. He just wasn’t there.”

Dr. Tiller was murdered in the foyer of his church. When you think about his medical practice, or the women he helped, does that fact matter? The client I referred to wanted her baby very much. He had no chance of survival. Does that matter? Another woman I helped had a baby with a trisomy chromosome defect – multiple organ defects, virtually no chance of survival or of consciousness. Does that matter?

Sadly, it often does matter to people unfamiliar with these situations. That’s partly because it helps all of us to have a human story when we try to understand difficult things. But it’s also because society requires justifications for the decisions women make. All decisions, actually, but especially decisions about terminating a pregnancy. If there is ‘tragedy’, then somehow that justifies her decision.

Whose tragedy? And who decides it’s tragic? And most of all – whose business is it? Why does anyone need to know about our Jane Does, or my former clients, or any of Dr. Tiller’s patients? Because we don’t trust women to make good decisions. Until that changes, the physicians, other health care providers, advocates, and most of all, the women who need safe, confidential reproductive medical care will be at risk. That, too, is a tragedy.
*photo from the vigil honoring Dr. Tiller in Seattle.