20 April 2011

Abortion: A Woman's Human Right

Much recent legislature, both at the state and federal level, has aimed at curtailing abortion procedures in a variety of ways. The 2011 budget passed two weeks ago at the eleventh hour, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown, contained a rider that prevented any funds from going to abortion services in Washington, DC. Although this rider passed almost unnoticed, women's rights groups are adding this to the lists of affronts to women's reproductive freedoms.

Many states have passed bills criminalizing abortions past 20-22 weeks, citing some research that 20 weeks is the point at which fetuses can feel pain. Oklahoma's Mary Fallin is likely to sign a bill, along with governors in Alabama, Iowa, and Indiana;  Kansas has already passed one, and Nebraska's has already been on the books for a year. Although these have gone largely unchallenged, much medical research actually suggests that although fetuses respond to stimuli, to say they actually experience the sensation of pain is questionable at best. Abortion rights groups' responses have been sluggish at best, mainly because these late-term abortions are such a small fraction of the number of abortions actually performed. For example, in Kansas, had the late-term abortion ban passed prior to 2007, it would have only stopped 343 of the 10803 total abortions performed. Although this trend may not seem to have a profound impact, the reality is that sensitizing a complex issue like neurological response in a fetus, making it seem as though a fetus can feel and respond to pain in the same way that a fully-born infant can, muddles the issue and makes it more problematic for any woman to obtain an abortion.

Other legislation is directly challenging abortion as a criminal procedure. House Republicans briefly pressed a measure that would require a woman to prove that a miscarriage occurred naturally, with no human interference, if her medical care was paid for by federal money. Additionally, they were seeking to redefine rape, under which condition an abortion can be obtained, by inserting language that limited abortions to cases of "forcible" rape, ignoring issues of date rape, incest, or abuse due to mental incapacitation. Although these were shut down in the budget compromise, the fact that such language could even enter a Congressional debate shows the power that conservative Republicans have gained in the House and the extent to which they can block progressive legislation.

The debate about funding for Planned Parenthood is an ideological debate disguised with fiscally conservative talking points. Senator Jon Kyl famously misstated that "abortion is over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does," which was quickly challenged with other statistics showing that only 3% of Planned Parenthood's provided services are abortions. Factual accuracy notwithstanding, Kyl's lying and evasion points to a disturbing trend of demonizing other women's health services like Planned Parenthood, creating a false picture of what women really are trying to achieve when they seek health services.

Although many conservatives paint abortion as an irresponsible and selfish choice, and in occasional cases it may be done with a certain self-serving motivation, the morality of a legitimate, safe medical procedure is not for the legislature to decide. The Court decision Roe v. Wade still stands, with the Hyde Amendment attached to keep federal tax dollars from funding abortion since 1976. However, conservatives still scream about tax dollars paying for procedures against which they are morally opposed.

My argument is this: in an American democracy, you don't get to choose. I didn't support war in Iraq or Afghanistan; I don't support the inhuman treatment of Private Manning; I don't support the House's decision to uphold the DOMA despite overwhelming support for repeal. I voted for a candidate that I felt represented my wishes; when my candidate's efforts fail, I don't get to stop participating in a democracy that requires some input from every citizen. Moral or ethical objections to abortion aside, taxpayers don't get to dictate where every cent of our money goes. Much of it disappears in nontransparent governmental transactions that benefit the least deserving, but that doesn't mean we get to stop paying taxes and funding vital public services like schools, road maintenance, and security. If they want to frame it in terms of fiscal responsibility, legislators should be pointing out the fact that only a small fraction of medical procedures are abortions and that funding for them amounts to a fraction of a cent per dollar. If they want to argue the ethical responsibilities, they need to have these conversations with individual women who seek their counsel, providing both objective medical facts and truths as well as their moral or religious objections. But to mix the ideology surrounding human life in legislation that affects thousands of women across the country is a dangerous thing, and we should not allow the morality of the few to curtail the choices of a vital and powerful half of the human race.

Edit: an excellent opinion post by Gail Collins regarding the lack of rational argument in the abortion debate.

24 February 2011

A Feminist-y Rant, or "Melody, you've created a monster!"

A recent spate of legislation, much of it directed by Republicans, has targeted women in a variety of ways. Described by many progressive bloggers and editorialists as a “war on women”, this trend disturbingly seeks to curtail the rights of women in various ways. Best of the Blogs poster Red State Progressive, reposting from MoveOn.org, lays out ten of the “attacks” on women and their rights that have happened in recent days. I have summarized a few them here.

1.     1.  Attempting to redefine “rape.” Under the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, only women who are victims of “forcible rape” would be able to seek abortions. After considerable protest, HR3’s main author, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), promised to remove the language from the bill, but as of Feb. 9, the Huffington post reports that it is still present. Now another amendment has been included that would allow a hospital to refuse an abortion to a women even if the pregnancy costs her life. Itshould be noted here that the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already forbids the use of federal funding to pay for abortion services. It applies only to funds allocated by the DHS in their annual budget.
2.       2. A Georgian lawmaker, Rep. Bobby Franklin, wants to change the language of state criminal codes so that people who report rapes, sexual violence, stalking, and domestic violence are referred to as “accusers” rather than “victims.” However, other non-gendered crimes such as burglary or assault still refer to victims as such. This further stigmatizes victims of sexual crimes, making it more unlikely that the perpetrators will ever face a charge.
3.       3. South Dakota Republicans proposed a bill that would make the murder of an abortion-providing doctor a “justifiable homicide,” further criminalizing both women who seek abortions and those who provide them.
4.       4. A bill in front of the Georgia House of Representatives would require women who miscarry, at any stage in pregnancy, to undergo an investigation to ensure that there was “no human involvement whatsoever.” Physicians would be required to examine a woman who suffered a miscarriage within 72 hours and present their findings to the police.
5.      5.  In Maryland, legislators voted to end funding for the Head Start program, which provides early childhood care and education for children of low-income mothers. The reasoning behind this measure came from voices like that of Commissioners Paul Smith, whose wife stayed at home “at significant sacrifice,” to raise their kids, and Kirby Delauter, whose educated, able wife gave up a career to stay at home for 18 years and be a mother. What these gentlemen suggest is that women should be at home raising kids, not working, and thus early childhood care for their offspring is unnecessary.
6.       6. The most recent House budget proposal contained an amendment that removed all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, one of the biggest providers of birth control and gynecological services to women who cannot seek it in another medical facility. While House Republicans are thrilled that no more women can seek abortions at Planned Parenthood, people around the country are protesting the loss of other essential services, such as free birth control, condoms, gynecological exams, STI screening, pregnancy tests, prenatal health care and information, pap smears, mammograms, and counseling about sexuality, safe sexual practices, and sexual negotiations.

Taken separately, legislation such as this is almost laughably doomed to failure. The House budget bill will almost certainly fail in the Democratic Senate; facing outcries from various segments of the population, including the Black and Latino communities, the legislators (mostly men) responsible for these have promised to change or remove the more objectionable parts of their provisions. However, taken together, these point to a disturbing trend: in recent years, as the US faces a recession, high employment, and an aging population soon to hit retirement age, women’s rights have been increasingly coming under fire.
The motivations behind this trend are not clear at this point. Certainly the rise in the populist and nativist Tea Party, with their strong conservative beliefs and Christian allegiances, has contributed much angry rhetoric to the ongoing feminist debate. Indeed, House Republicans were unpleasantly surprised when their freshmen colleagues, many of whom were elected in 2010 on Tea Party platforms, held firm and demanded even stronger budget cuts than incumbent and historical Representatives liked. But it is also possible that these attacks on women’s abilities stem from less political and more sociological motivations.
As the competition for existing jobs becomes ever fiercer, men and women find themselves at odds, seeking the same jobs where once they were separated by social gender-based barriers. Is it possible that the desire to keep women limited to childbearing and –rearing, homemaking, “barefoot and pregnant,” as it were, stems from some fear of losing workplace prominence?
Before the recession hit, we saw many articles about how women were overtaking men in colleges. Liberal arts colleges became infamous for having high girl-boy ratios, and since scholastic success was increasing more rapidly among girls than among boys, many feared that equal opportunity policies, rather than increasing equality among the sexes, was instead contributing to the gap between. Like race-based equal opportunity practices, gender-based EO was viewed with suspicion by many. Now, with a recession driving thousands out of work and with Republican-supported tax breaks widening the gap between rich and poor, middle- and lower-class men are seeking to gain back some of their power over their own futures – by controlling the futures of their female counterparts.
Abortion has long been a contentious subject in American politics. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, already makes it difficult for low-income women to obtain an abortion, and many states place heavy restrictions on abortion providers that, for practical purposes, many women cannot obtain them. Even in places where abortions are legal, women who seek them at clinics such as Planned Parenthood face protesters, slurs, and even violence at the entrance to an abortion-providing building. Abortions must often be preceded with sonic ultrasounds, detailed descriptions of the fetus, false information about the purported breast cancer-abortion link (which was proven false), counseling against depression or other psychological disorders, or prayer. The morning-after pill (Plan B), which serves as emergency birth control if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, is restricted in many states and can only be obtained with parental permission for women younger than 17.  The use of birth control has also been challenged, with many schools refusing to teach sexual education classes that involve condoms or other contraceptives, opting instead for abstinence-only education that still results in high numbers of teenage pregnancies and STI cases. Women who go through with pregnancy face social stigmatization and, thanks to new budget cuts, a dearth of affordable resources, food, and childcare.
  The implication of this legislation, and the attitudes behind it, is troubling. “Celebrity” moms and politicians assert that the answer is to get married, stay home, and raise healthy, happy children. Conservatives, backed by religion, say that the easiest way to avoid unwanted pregnancy is to not have sex, and the easiest way to not have sex is to not be a slut.  But popular images continue to assert that a woman’s worth lies in her value to a man, namely, her sexuality; women struggle to be both sexually chaste and sexually exciting, according to the demands of culture and society. The implication is that women are incapable of making their own decisions, so they must be made for us: when to have sex (only after marriage, or when a man wants it), how to have sex (with men only; with protection, unless he doesn’t want to), what to do in the event of a pregnancy (have the baby because it’s your fault, you slut). What not to wear (miniskirts or revealing tops or tight dresses). What not to do (go to bars, walk alone, get drunk). It seems as though men want to exert so much control: directly, in the form of legislation, and indirectly, through fear, intimidation, and shame. How does this contribute to our growing economical problems? Does legislation like this really help us solve our deficit problem, our soaring debt, our corrupt corporations and industry?
  My argument is that it does not. House Republicans came into office in 2010 promising a solution to the unemployment crisis, vowing to cut government spending and get our country back on its (conservative, Christian) track. But once they got there, the focus changed to the curtailing of rights for which women have been fighting for years. Faced with the true difficulty of balancing a budget, frustrated by the complexity of the issues facing us with an aging population and increasing rates of globalization, threatened by the influx of people and ideas that challenge nativist sentiment, Republicans have decided to exert control where they think they can: over women and their sexual and reproductive rights. And Democrats, still stymied on whether or not to back Obama’s progressive-by-comparison new policies, have been silent on these issues. Women have become a powerful political platform since Sarah Palin’s rise to fame in the 2008 campaigns, and Tea Party darlings like Michelle Bachmann and Christine O’Donnell have put a deceptively female face on these anti-woman issues.  We must not forget that real feminism does not purport to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies, and that real American spirit does not only come from white, wealthy men. Think about what you hear on the radio or see on TV. Seek out contradictory evidence. Challenge. Question. Decide for yourself what you believe and what you’re going to do. Remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and that almost nothing good comes without someone else’s expense. Hiding from the problem of inequality doesn’t solve it: we, as a society, need to face these problems, challenge these abuses of legislative power, and accept ourselves as women, for better or for worse.

24 January 2011

My thoughts on Tiger Mothers, tigers in general

Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  has understandably raised a lot of criticism with her portrayal of Chinese-style parenting and her defense of tough love mothering. The mother of two daughters, now aged 18 and 15, Chua was a very strict parent who severely limited her daughters' free time and who had very high expectations for her kids. Among the things she mentions are some things that seem awfully close to abuse: threatening to destroy toys and stuffed animals, rejecting hand-drawn cards, forcing her two daughters to practice their instruments for hours a day, and demanding nothing less than top performance in every subject but drama and physical activity. This, understandably, has earned a lot of criticism, especially from the "western" parents she seems to denounce in the excerpts published on the Web as too permissive. Many mothers especially feel that Chua's parenting style is not only undesirable but downright abusive; however, there are a fair number of reviewers and bloggers that have responded with their own stories of "Tiger Mothers" and success.

Not having read the book yet, I can't really present a truly informed opinion. However, what I've gleaned from the reviews, interviews, blogs, and other responses to Chua's book, a lot of the debate about her parenting ignores the context in which certain actions took place as well as the cultural context that teaches about discipline in an entirely different manner. Many Asian-American students, especially those with parents who grew up in Asian cultural contexts, find their parents expectations almost suffocatingly high and the restrictions intolerable. And compared to many American peers, the life of an Asian student seems almost humorously restricted. The High Expectations Asian Father meme is a central example of this trend - in fact, Chua has herself spawned her own meme (the picture is a stock image, of course).

Humor aside, there are some important things to consider when evaluating a Tiger Mother. One is the effect of such upbringing on psychological development. Many psychologists believe that children need internal approval of their actions in order to mature; approval that is contingent upon factors like grades or competition can cause self esteem problems, claims Madeline Levine in the San Francisco Chronical.  Others point out that fear-based parenting is not as foreign to Americans as we'd like to think, as is provokingly acknowledged by Psychology Today. Note that many of the measures of self-esteem and psychological and psychosocial development that both articles treat as dogmatic are based upon Western ideas, specifically individualism and a rejection of the belief in filial piety and debt. Although by a Western model, Chua's parenting might seem to produce deficient children, I feel strongly that her kids are not deficient: her oldest daughter is a classical pianist who performed in Carnegie Hall before age 15 and is now attending an Ivy League University, and her younger daughter, who attends a prestigious program at Juilliard School of Music.

I also believe that the cultural context of achievement in China and other Asian countries is worth mentioning. Asian schools are highly competitive, with academic tracking occurring very early in the educational heirarchy and with test scores determining entrance into elite high schools. The admirable work ethic of Asian students, many of whom attend school before the sun rises and don't come home until dark - and only then to study, results in students that outperform American kids in math, science, and English. And Chua's kids are demonstrably successful. Her oldest, Sophia, has published an open letter to her mother that describes her experiences and tongue-in-cheek thanks her for pushing her to succeed despite herself. Compared with many American parents, Asian families often set high expectations for their kids and are critical when those expectations aren't met, but in many cases those expectations and pressures create kids with strong motivation for success and a drive for competition.

Although my mother wasn't a Tiger Mother, she was often very strict with me and my sister. She was demanding when it came to our grades and restricted our activities with friends. For example, we were rarely allowed to play with friends if we had homework, we practiced piano and other instruments and competed in local competitions, and had our report cards scrutinized. Compared to many of my friends, I wasn't allowed to do much, and I was often resentful of her demands and the pressure that I felt. However, as an (almost) adult, I look back and realize that my mother created a successful, strong individual. She pushed us to succeed in school; she also spent untold hours with us learning to read, poring over the same picture books until we had memorized them. She demanded that we practice and master piano; she also paid for lessons all through our schooling, drove us there and back and to every recital, every competition, purchased literally hundreds of music books. She was exacting in her requirements for tardiness, cleanliness, and behaviour; she also put up with the whining, crying, and resistance to all the many activities she helped us achieve. She criticized my weight, my diet, my physical activity, and the clothes I wore; she also spent our whole lives trying to teach us about healthy choices when we were constantly demanding junk food, sleeping instead of playing, and (in my case, anyway) shopping for inappropriate clothes that mostly didn't fit. Without her pressures, her demands, her criticism, and her brand of tough love, I know I wouldn't be the strong, successful, independent woman I am, and I know my sister wouldn't have made it through the demands of high school. I have to agree with the Chua family: if you don't have to work for it, it's not worth having, and this applies to success, achievement, and, in some cases, love.

04 January 2011

Immigration Debates: What and Why?

As more and more immigrants enter the United States, legally and illegally, and create lives and communities and families, the debate over their citizenship status rages in courtrooms and on the political grandstand. Arizona's recent immigration law, signed in April, makes residing in Arizona without citizenship or immigration documents a crime and granting police the power to detain and question suspect undocumented immigrants. This law has drawn harsh criticism from a variety of sources and has been challenged as unconstitutional because it supplants federal law - not to mention the fact that it opens the door to unfair profiling, police harassment, and outright racism.

The DREAM Act, which would have granted citizenship to immigrants who meet certain requirements, failed to pass in December. Under the Act, children who entered the country before age 16, demonstrated "good character" (no jail time, no suspensions, satisfactory school performance, etc), and went to college or served in the military would be granted conditional legal status. Roundly denounced as "amnesty," its failure to pass was both a heavy blow to its supporters and President Obama but was widely hailed as a victory by the Republican party.

Others are challenging "ethnic studies" classes in public schools. Arizona, again at the forefront, threatens to withdraw funding from schools that teach "ethnic studies" classes on the basis that they encourage treason and ethnic identity that supersedes American identity. Additionally, teachers with heavy accents are no longer allowed to teach English classes, and bilingual teachers who taught in both Spanish and English are now only allowed to teach in English. It is worth noting that Arizona, like many other states, encouraged bilingual education in the 1990s as the Latino/Hispanic population of the US surged. Proponents of the legislation maintain that it is simply a measure to ensure that schools don't encourage ethnic exceptionalism; opponents are fighting it on First Amendment grounds.

Some of the recent rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigration now surrounds issues that should have women rallying in support. The birthright clause, a part of the 14th Amendment  which grants citizenship to a child born on US soil, is now being challenged by Arizonian lawmakers. They scathingly criticize women  who cross the border to give birth in the United States, dropping "anchor babies" that give them a tenuous foothold. Contrary to popular belief, "anchor babies" do not make their parents automatic citizens; parents can still be deported and often are. Once they reach age 21, children born in the US can sponsor their parents for citizenship. Many want to remove the birthright clause and deport children born in the United States along with their parents. However, many women cross the border legally, with visas and permits, to take advantage of better medical care in the US or to be with family when their child is born.

Some patterns that emerge throughout these debates are some implicit fears about identity, citizenship, Americanity, and even human rights. According to Arizona, ethnic identity can and does supersede American identity, despite the fact that many people exist with a "hypenated American" status quite comfortably. I do not feel that my Asian heritage makes me less of an American citizen; I have lived here all my life, spoken American English, studied in American schools and paid American taxes. However, also according to Arizona, I could be arrested and detained for failing to carry my citizenship papers with me at all times - regardless of the fact that they were issued in my infancy and are no longer relevant to my political status. Americanity is fluid and has been since the creation of this country. We are no longer a frightened group of Anglos huddled together on a rock on the East Coast, fighting for survival against a natural world infinitely more powerful than anything we can imagine. We are intimately and inextricably tied to other cultures, histories, religions, and beliefs, and to ignore that fact in the name of "patriotism" is dangerous.

The "anchor baby" attack is interesting in a dangerous way because it targets specifically the women who carry these babies. In a way, those who want to remove the birthright clause are denying women the security of a safe childbirth, criminalizing pregnancy and the act of giving birth and reducing it to a scheme for citizenship and the presumed handouts that come with it. Why will people not understand that more American citizens mean more taxpayers and thus more income? Why do they see these desperate, frightened men and women and children as a threat to their livelihoods? And why don't they acknowledge the fact that people come to this country illegally in search of work that is readily available in American homes, farms, factories, and fields?

People have always sought to define and redefine American identity. It is no longer limited to white, upper-class males; now we include women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and poor people. Has America suffered as a result? I believe not. What has suffered is the idea that Americans are somehow mystically superior to the rest of the world and that only one group of people can make meaningful contributions to a healthy, developing society. We cannot forget this, and thus descend into the kind of fear and ignorance that characterized witch hunts, Jim Crow laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese internment camps. Human rights don't stop at the border, and Arizona cannot be the loudest voice for American intolerance when so many others are willing to open their hearts and minds where they are not.

03 January 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year! 

Penguin's list of New Year's resolutions:

1. try not to curse at other drivers on the road
2. be nicer to manbear
3. exercise more often
4. eat more healthy foods
5. plan more trips with friends and family
6. take more long baths, read more silly romance novels, and generally do more relaxing things for myself
7. do some community service
8. remember every day how lucky i am and how wonderful is my life!


happy new year everybody!

Dear "jeggings,"

Please go away. Forever.