Speaking of Women's Rights: 08/10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On The Long, Long Road, A Notable Milestone

They call today “Women’s Equality Day,” because 90 years ago on August 26th the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became effective, and women in this country were granted the right to vote. And while I proudly shout “Huzzah!” (as Susan B. Anthony or Emmeline Pankhurst might have done), that jubilation is somewhat muted by the knowledge that we have not come as far as those pioneering women expected we would by now, and by the fact that so much remains to do.

But first, some celebratory background: This video notes that although the U.S. as a nation did not grant women the right to vote until 1920 (women’s war work and increasing education and independence having pushed things toward success), several states, including Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), Oregon (1912), Alaska (1913) and Montana (1914) extended the franchise to women before the 19th Amendment passed. Not that it was easy: in Washington alone, there were efforts from the very beginning of the Territory in 1854, and several passed, only to be rescinded the next time the legislature met. (Couldn’t make up your minds, eh, gentlemen?)

Even as the national effort in the United States was building, as shown in this fun edu-cartoon (though I'm going to assume the robot is female, just because) women were getting the vote in other countries: New Zealand in 1893, Australia (partially) in 1902, various European countries in the first two decades of the 20th century. Don’t get too excited, though: there are still at least six places in which women do not have the right; extra credit if you guess the one NOT in the Middle East or the Asian continent.

Progress, indeed. But being able to vote does not denote equality. In fact, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that we are a long way from true equality. That’s even more apparent when you start looking for responses to the anniversary of suffrage or the perceived (let alone actual) state of equality. Let me get this straight: yes, I’ve heard before that women want to stay home and care for their children, so pay inequity is their own fault, but that wanting equity is greedy and Scrooge-like? Come on, U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- get real!

The seeming retreat nationally on women’s right to control their own reproduction is another sign we have work to do. (Didn’t we do that before? Oh, right: some fun never ends.)

What’s more, close analysis of the opposition to gay marriage reveals deeply embedded gender stereotyping and the desire to restrict not only women’s decision-making, but their roles in society. Ultimately, those opposing marriage between people of the same sex are hawking their view of what a ‘normal’, desirable relationship is, and believe me, it doesn’t include full female independence and autonomy. Rather, that world view relies on inequality and power imbalance. And that’s just not the way the world is anymore. But that too will change. As Judge Vaughn Walker said in his thorough, well-reasoned, fully-supported ruling: Marriage under law is a union of equals.

Still, notwithstanding the remaining challenges, we can pause today, pay tribute to those women (and some brave men) who fought, first for the abolition of slavery, and then for women’s suffrage, and who triumphed on this day in 1920. Thank you, Susan, Elizabeth, Lucretia, Belva, Emmeline, Christabel, Alice, Emily . . . I hope you are resting in peace.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mommy issues

A continuation of my occasional exploration of topics related to egg donation, surrogacy and assisted reproductive technology…

A writer recently shared a story about his and his partner’s decision to raise a child. As a gay couple, they chose paid surrogacy as their path to parenthood. He writes about “shopping” for a surrogate, even comparing the process to online dating. (I’ve written before about how donors are chosen and compensated.)

The part of this story that stood out to me, though, was an assertion about the relationship between the child, the donor/surrogate, and the two dads:

We’d been instructed by our surrogacy agency not to use the “m-word.” “This child will have two fathers,” the staff member scolded. “He or she will have an egg donor and a surrogate, but no mother!”

Untrue, right? Every human baby comes from genetic material from a man and a woman. No exceptions. Every child has a genetic mother.

That’s too literal a reading of the surrogacy agency staffer’s quote, though. She’s claiming that since the two dads intend and plan to raise the baby as their own, it doesn’t matter much whose genetic material is involved or what are the circumstances of the pregnancy.

Julie Shapiro summarizes the flip side of this opinion.

It seems to me that a woman who is pregnant has an ongoing relationship with the soon-to-be child that is clearly parent-like. All the needs of the developing fetus are met, 24/7, for nine months. Thus, when a woman gives birth, she is a mother of that child. And so yes, every child must have a mother.

Ultimately, the couple in the story finds an egg donor closer than they ever imagined: the partner’s sister offers to give the couple her eggs. She undergoes the donation process. Another women acting as a surrogate gives birth to twins, which the writer and his partner are now raising.

The twins are the product of two men (the couple’s mutual desire to have kids; the writer’s genetic material) and two women (one a sister/aunt/egg donor, the other a genetically unrelated surrogate).

Who is the mother? Is there a mother? I think the answer lies in definitions of motherhood – genetic vs. social.

I’m inclined to side with the agency staffer and say that the twins in the story have no mother. They would never have been conceived if not for the egg donor – but she didn’t give birth to them. And they would not have been born if not for the surrogate – but the couple might have chosen another woman to give birth to the child, so her involvement seems arbitrary in a way.

But if I frame the question another way, I’m tempted toward a different answer: Because it takes a woman’s genetic material to create any child, the twins do have a genetic mother. So, what is the role of the genetic mother in the lives of these twins?

The sister/aunt/egg donor in this story is happily involved in the lives of the babies – she will get to see them grow up, even if not as their (social) mother. And that seems like a satisfying arrangement for all involved. There’s no need to deny her status as the kids’ genetic mother - she’s part of the family.

It’s unclear if, how and when the twins - still infants - will learn the story of their birth. It also seems to me that the folks in this story were fantastically lucky to have negotiated such a happy agreement, but it is one one that contains threads that people entering into egg donation and surrogacy situations might wish to strive for: mutual respect, consent, and benefits for everyone involved.

Photo credit

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ride the wave: Here Comes Equality!

Last month’s Massachusetts case that found DOMA to be unconstitutional, and Judge Walker’s more recent, beautifully authored Prop 8 decision have brought about a lot of discussion on the current footing of marriage equality. There are those who think it’s not the right time for a legal challenge. It’s true that it will almost certainly end up in the hands of the Supreme Court, where a majority of support for the issue is anything but certain. There are those who rushed to the courthouse after Judge Walker’s ruling was announced, thinking that the road to equality had reached its conclusion, at least in the state of California. There are those who appreciate the statement that Judge Walker made, regardless of where the case goes from here. And then there’s Chloe who, after tolerating the recitation of my favorite parts of the Prop 8 decision, said simply “yeah, but wasn’t all that stuff obvious already?” (or something to that effect)

Richard Socarides, President Clinton’s senior adviser on gay rights, opines that both the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions “… provide President Barack Obama, a constitutional law scholar, with an important opportunity to shift his views on same-sex marriage.” “He can do so,” he continues, “by reminding people that respect for the constitution, the rule of law and the courts are the principles upon which this country was founded.” Though no one’s quite sure where the case will go from here, isn’t it possible that these rulings will have some sort of sway with politicians, as well as the general populace?

In fact, it seems to me that these legal wins are only adding strength to the string of events that have been creating a shift in the tide of public opinion. Take the Miss America Pageant (no, I’m not being ironic). The newly crowned Miss New York is running on a pro-marriage-equality platform, the very first beauty pageant contestant to do so. Claire Buffie, who is also an executive member of New York's PFLAG chapter, explained in an MSNBC interview, that ”through the Miss America organization I have an opportunity to speak about the equality and respect that we all deserve as Americans, and through (the organization) I can have a loud voice on this topic.”

Add to that Mexico City’s recent court decision finding gay marriage to be constitutional, and the passage of marriage equality in Argentina, Iceland, and Portugal, and perhaps we have the beginnings of a worldwide equality wave, that will eventually swoop up all in its path?

In the meantime, I thought this idea from my friend Eric was particularly clever: “We should campaign to have a well respected Dictionary replace the word "marriage" with a definition more in line with this conversation. Simply replace any gender references with "human." Let's just have MARRIAGE. no _____ Marriage, just MARRIAGE.”

mar•riage n
1a. the state of being united to a person. of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.

Operation Merriam-Webster: Commence

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Truth About Consequences

Everyone acknowledges that abortion is a hot-button issue, a critical battleground in the “culture wars”, a subject that causes ordinarily rational people to get exceedingly worked up. Yet amid all the rhetoric about the sanctity of human life and the autonomy of the woman, we spend precious little time taking the question to its logical extension: if abortion is illegal, then what happens?

We know what happens in Mexico: women go to prison. For up to 30 years, in the state of Guanajato. The authorities in that state dispute the claim, saying that while 166 women have been ‘investigated’ for the crime of having an abortion, the outcomes of those investigations have varied. Oh, okay: that’s different. I guess.

What about in the United States? Well, occasionally legislation is introduced to address the question. Sometimes wrath falls on the physicians for providing abortions (Florida), and sometimes it descends on women, as in the bill in Utah that makes it a crime to commit an act that results in the death of an unborn child outside the parameters of legal abortion (which by the way could include punishment for a miscarriage or negligence while pregnant). And of course there is the nun who was excommunicated for permitting an abortion when the woman's life was in danger, though that isn't a question of secular criminal law.

But the question of punishment turns out to be the black hole in the abortion debate. There is plenty of sound-bite posturing about the topic in general, but when it gets right down to it, try asking an anti-choice person what he believes should be the punishment for it, and you’ll get faster tap-dancing than Savion Glover on a good day. If you don’t believe me, check out this clip from an apparently neutral reporter who asked anti-abortion protesters in Illinois their opinion. Not only did most of them not have an opinion, they copped to never really having thought about it. The same goes for some politicians running on a pro-life platform.

It’s a critical question, and kudos go to America, The National Catholic Weekly, which examined the question way back in 2005, in an article that pointed out the difference between the moral position opposing abortion and the political policies that follow from the moral position. If abortion should be illegal altogether, what should be the consequences? If it were illegal except in the case of rape or incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger, how do you distinguish the punishment in those cases from when the exceptions are absent?

We can’t expect intellectual or policy integrity on every issue (perhaps not on any issue, but let’s ignore that for the moment). But I wonder if the conversation could be shifted if we aimed for the heart of this debate. Don’t just tell me you oppose abortion: tell me what you think should happen to me -- or your sister, your neighbor, your teacher or your daughter -- if one of us has one.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two sides to the health care reform coin

At this point, it’s not too surprising to hear news about reproductive rights being compromised in the context of health care reform. Even so, it came as an unpleasant shock last month when the Obama administration effectively banned abortion coverage for pools of high risk patients with pre-existing conditions. The women affected by this ban have already experienced serious medical issues, which means they are more likely to have high risk pregnancies. Their new insurance won’t cover abortion care for these patients; furthermore, they’ll be forbidden to purchase abortion coverage with their own money.

This week’s news brought a counterpoint. Thirty million women will benefit from health care reform over the course of the next decade, according to a study released by a private foundation.

The health care reform law we’ve got right now is imperfect, given that it compromises women’s reproductive rights. But on the other hand, according to the study:

Up to 15 million women who now are uninsured could gain subsidized coverage under the law. In addition, 14.5 million insured women will benefit from provisions that improve coverage or reduce premiums.

By increasing insurance coverage, covering women who had no insurance before, and reducing health care costs, the new law – however flawed – will improve healthcare access, and therefore life in general, for millions of women.

As we’ve discussed on Speaking of Women’s Rights before, the health care reform debate has been contentious, frustrating, and at times, kind of silly. But news like this is a reminder to have hope. Health care is a basic human right, and a piece of legislation that improves the lives of thirty million women is a good starting point on the long path toward equal rights for everyone.