Speaking of Women's Rights: 10/12

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Dustbin of Quackery

by Sarah Hayward

Recently, California Governor, Jerry Brown, signed landmark legislation banning licensed therapists from offering harmful “ex-gay  therapy” to minors. This is the first legislation of its kind, but already other states are proposing similar laws. The California law prevents licensed therapists from engaging in psychological “therapy” supposedly aimed at turning lesbian and gay youths straight. Governor Brown called these types of practices “nonscientific” with “no basis in science or medicine” and relegated these practices to the “dustbin of quackery.

These practices are widely viewed as ineffective and, in fact, harmful, by the majority of mental health professionals. Indeed, while the bill was authored by State Senator Ted Lieu (D), it was co-sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California, Gaylesta, the Courage Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the Mental Health America of Northern California. In addition to the bill’s sponsors, it was supported by dozens of organizations, including a number of mental health organizations, including: The California Psychological Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (California Division), the National Association of Social Workers (CA Chapter), the California Latino Psychological Association, and the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies.

Youths have blamed so-called “reparative therapy” for causing depression and for causing suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Proponents of these abusive practices were quick to file two separate lawsuits in California. The first is being brought by the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a Christian legal group. In the lawsuit, the plaintiff asserts that he was cured of his same sex attractions by “reparative therapy.” The plaintiff claims that the statute requires mental health professionals to discriminate against minors based on their sexual orientation. The second lawsuit is being brought by two teenage boys who have been undergoing “reparative therapy.” They claim that the law violates the teens’ freedom of speech and freedom of religion by denying them the chance to be cured of unwanted same-sex attraction.

Despite the pending litigation, other states are following California’s lead. A State Representative in Pennsylvania and a lawmaker in New Jersey have each introduced bills in their respective states that would ban mental health providers from offering sexual orientation “conversion therapy” for minors.

This is an important step in protecting gay and lesbian youths from these damaging practices; however, the California bill only prevents licensed therapists from offering “reparative therapy,” it does not prevent churches or other groups from doing the same.  However, the bill is a important start and it has brought national media attention to these dangerous practices that  try to teach lesbian and gay teens that there is something wrong with them.

Sarah Hayward is a third-year law student at Seattle University School of Law.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Weed and Women? Why Supporting Legalization of Marijuana Can Help Women

As any concerned mother would do, Ms. K contacted child protective services when she discovered that her partner was endangering the lives of her one and three-year-old child. Fearing abuse and unable to control the situation herself, Ms. K never suspected that she would be the one arrested when CPS and the police arrived. After all, Ms. K had no history of child neglect or abuse and had called to protect her children. Ms. K habitually used marijuana to cope with an anxiety disorder. After agreeing to a search and testing positive for marijuana in her system, her children were taken away from her. She then began her spiral into depression, more drug use, time spent in residential treatment programs, and now prison. Although Ms. K’s children are in the care of their grandmother, the state is moving to terminate her parental rights so the children can be adopted. Ms. K will permanently lose her parental rights, even though she is likely to live with her mother and children when she returns to the community. The grandmother would like to take the children to see Ms. K; however the social worker on the case will not approve the visits. All of this is said to be in the best interest of her children.

I heard this story from Ms. K just last week as I sat in the legal library of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), where as an Equal Justice Works Attorney at Legal Voice I provide know your rights information for women who are facing separation from their children due to incarceration. Unfortunately, the story underlying Ms. K’s situation is all too common: domestic violence, coping through drug use, devaluation of motherhood for alleged drug use and mental health instability.

As women’s rights advocates, we should not ignore our incarcerated sisters, the fastest growing population in prison. Due to racial inequality in our criminal justice system, a disproportionate number of these women are women of color

Inequities for these women and their children exist even before the children are born.  Many women are forced to give birth in inhumane conditions. I talk to pregnant women in prison who are forced to continue their pregnancies with poor nutrition and little or no prenatal health care services.

Like Ms. K, many women lose their kids permanently because federal law requires that the state cease to reunify families in the child welfare system and begin proceedings to terminate parental rights as soon as the child is in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. For incarcerated parents who often serve sentences for non-violent property of drug crimes that exceed 15 months, they may permanently lose their parental rights.

Like Ms. K, many of these women who face losing their parental rights are also survivors of sexual and physical abuse. Incarceration for drug offenses fails to address the issues of underlying trauma and abuse that likely contributed to their involvement with drugs. Prison may actually exacerbate these issues since sexual and physical violence against women at the hands of correctional officers is widespread. The abuse experienced in the prison has devastating consequences for women who are survivors, have high rates of depression and who are working on overcoming substance abuse and addiction.

Because of the circumstances described above, Legal Voice has joined numerous other organizations in the call for an end to our failed marijuana policies by endorsing ballot Initiative 502. For some, the reasons for a women’s rights organization’s support for legalization of marijuana may not be so clear. That is no surprise, since little attention has been paid to the effects drug policy has on our women and girls. Some disturbing facts:
  • The rate of imprisonment of women in WA increased by 84% from 1995-2005.
  • The rate at which women used drugs actually declined from 1986-1996, but the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses increased by 888%.
  • The vast majority of incarcerated women are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, other forms of sexual assault, and/or battering.  Most have been abused by multiple people.  
  • Studies show the correlation between trauma related to gender violence and subsequent drug and/or alcohol addiction in women.
  • Only 1 in 5 women in state prisons with a history of substance abuse and 1 in 8 women in federal prisons receives treatment for substance abuse.
  • Nationwide, an estimated 85% of women who are incarcerated are mothers, and more than half have children under 18.
  • The chances that an incarcerated mother will permanently lose her parental rights has doubled since 1995.

The decriminalization of marijuana can lead to fewer women being incarcerated, and therefore fewer women who are faced with the trauma and violence that prisons perpetuate. The central theme of the Reproductive Justice framework is to recognize that the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality and reproduction is an effective way of controlling individuals and communities, particularly those of color. The criminal justice system creates the perfect scenario to control women’s bodies. Controlling an individual’s body controls her life, her options and her potential.

Still not sure if I-502 is a women’s issue? Here are some answers to the common questions I hear regularly

In sum, we need real solutions that address the underlying causes of drug use in our community. It is time we look at a public health approach, instead of criminalization. Solutions such as I-502 have the potential to help mothers like Ms. K address the underlying issues of control and abuse. Just imagine: what would Ms. K’s situation have looked like if instead of arresting her for habitual drug use, she were instead provided the support necessary to protect her children and change the abusive dynamic in her home?

Lillian Hewko is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Legal Voice.  She is working to implement a project she developed to provide legal education to incarcerated mothers and implement litigation and legislative strategies to reduce the chances of family separation in Washington State.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Assisted Reproductive Technology in Primetime

by Caitlin Zittkowski

The fall season debut of NBC’s show, The New Normal, has brought a flurry of mixed reactions, ranging from stations refusing to air the show because it is “inappropriate” for a family-viewing timeslot to critics yawning when presented with stock gay male characters spouting quips about fashion. Premised on the reality that the “traditional” family unit has evolved beyond recognition from the Leave It To Beaver days, the show follows David and Bryan, a gay couple in Los Angeles, and Goldie, the woman who acts as their surrogate. They are accompanied by Shania, Goldie’s own wise-beyond-her-years daughter, and Jane, Goldie’s closed-minded grandmother.

Though some have focused more on the David and Bryan’s relationship and how it reflects on gay couples, The New Normal has also brought another set of issues into the limelight: assisted reproductive technology and, more specifically, surrogacy. While surrogacy has been on the rise in recent years, the process is often shrouded in secrecy due to privacy concerns, ethical issues, and shame on the part of some different-sex couples who perceive not being able to get pregnant without medical assistance as some kind of shortcoming. The intricacy of surrogacy issues has also posed complicated questions to feminists and members of the reproductive justice community, ranging from whether and how women acting as surrogates should be compensated, whether surrogacy contracts should be enforced, and whether and how surrogacy should be regulated to protect women’s autonomy while ensuring informed consent.

Infusing additional confusion into an already complex set of ethical issues is the fact that surrogacy’s legal landscape is fragmented and inconsistent. Some states permit surrogacy agreements, some penalize it, and some have no laws addressing the subject at all. There are also no federal laws on the books regulating surrogacy. As a result, there are often no concrete answers to legal questions facing intended parents, women acting as surrogates, and those professionals who facilitate the relationship between them.

The New Normal, perhaps unintentionally, draws attention to a few of the dilemmas surrogacy implicates. In one episode, David and Bryan try to persuade Goldie to stop eating the charbroiled burgers that she craves during her pregnancy. Though meant to be funny, this scene raises weightier questions about the right of women acting as surrogates to maintain control of their bodies. And the surrogacy service employee’s glib comparison of a woman acting as a surrogate to an “Easy-Bake Oven, except with no legal rights to the cupcake” definitely raises some eyebrows.

The first episodes of The New Normal barely skim the surface of the issues that could arise between intended parents and a woman acting as a surrogate. Hopefully as the series develops, it will spur serious conversations about the right to form and maintain families.

Caitlin Zittkowski is a law student and intern at Legal Voice. Originally from Cleveland, she is spending the next few months in Seattle, exploring the city by bike and drinking way too much coffee.