We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you!

Making access to abortion more difficult is a way to change the nature of women’s lives. It also unsettles the social position of women in those countries that in the sixties and seventies, after a century or so of illegality, legalized access to contraception and to abortion.

In Texas, a recent court decision authorized HB2, a bill designed to make access to abortion more humiliating and difficult, even impossible for the most vulnerable women. Last week Democracy Now broadcast from San Antonio, “the last outpost for legal abortion in Texas,” in order to focus on this new attack on women’s lives. The shows featured Jeffrey Hons, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Texas, and Lindsay Rodriguez, President of the Lilith Fund, which provides financial support to women in Texas who cannot afford an abortion.

Responding to Senator Wendy Davis’ revelation in her new campaign memoir that she had an abortion, Hons explained, “A woman should be allowed all the privacy to have this healthcare and not have to reveal it to every one and then, at the same time…it’s as though when a woman will have the courage to share a story, that it humanizes it, and it makes everyone realize that these decisions are very complicated, very personal, very difficult…”

It was also very difficult also for a young woman in Pennsylvania to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, because services were too far and too expensive. Her mother went to the Internet and found a way to help her daughter. She purchased mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) and misoprostol pills, which was what she could afford. For that `crime’, the mother was sent to jail. She had no access to suitable services and yet was denounced by the hospital, condemned by the judicial system and pilloried by the media.

In Texas and other places where abortion is formally legal, abortion has remained taboo as if it were an unspeakable last result or an impossible choice for women. Women are meant to be ashamed because [a] they have violated the privacy of the household and [b] they are women seeking reproductive health. In recent years, safety and security rhetoric has led to the re-emergence of the argument that endangering the life of the mother justifies curtailing her right to control over her body.

On September 27, 2014, Sabine Lambert addressed these issues at the “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” forum in Paris. Lambert belongs to the collective group “We had an abortion, we’re fine, thank you” (nous avons avorté, nous allons bien, merci). The group formed to create spaces to liberate women from the politics of guilt and shame regarding their decisions by exchanging stories and insights with other women. Instead of leaving abortion in the private sphere, they present abortion as a possible occurrence in women’s lives that carries no particular shame or guilt. After all a woman spends more time avoiding pregnancy than being pregnant.

In France, abortion is free, a recognized as a right, and still relatively easy to access. Nevertheless, it is often described as a traumatizing event carrying terrible consequences for the mental well being of women. In recent years, these descriptions have become more prevalent. The idea that abortion should be averted by any means has prevailed, despite the fact that abortion has always existed and contraception will never be an absolute means of reproductive control.

In France and across Europe, the notion of post-abortive syndrome has surfaced. This so-called syndrome has no scientific support. Nevertheless, a well known professor of medicine wrote in a popular medical publication that scientific studies should not be necessary to prove that a woman who had an abortion is inclined to psychological distress and extreme suffering. In Texas, a Republican delegate candidate has argued that women who have undergone abortion are prone to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Both doctor and delegate are wrong.

Women who have gone through abortions know better. According to Sabine Lambert, we need to go beyond the right to control our body and recognize that our mind is also ours. On her group’s website many women have written that they felt ashamed for not feeling negative after their abortions. Describing their experiences, which were not always easy, the women say they do not regret anything. Many say that in their mind the result of a sexual encounter was not the fetus. Sabine suggested that the image of the monstrous woman underlies the stigmatization of abortion. The woman who had an abortion and feels fine commits a double transgression. First she refuses maternity, and second she’s ok. She deviates twice from the patriarchal feminine social norm.

Sabine’s group organized to demand a woman’s right to abort with head held high. The right to abort should not be limited to begging for the crumbs of tolerance or struggling for a loosening of the noose around the neck. There is no shame or guilt for the women in Texas, Pennsylvania or France. We should demand respect for their decision, as we should recognize their struggle as political, not private.

 

(Photo credit: IVG, je vais bien, merci!)

Suicide Watch in Women’s Prison: Who Cares?

 

On Thursday, September 18, Megan Fritz hung herself. On Monday, September 22, Mary Knight did the same. Both women were incarcerated at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison when they committed suicide. Yet, as clearly indicated in nearly all of the media coverage of the incidents, neither woman was on suicide watch. Why weren’t Megan and Mary on suicide watch when they ended their lives?

One reason could be that what prisons and jails call “suicide watch” is an operating procedure disguised as a ‘prevention program’ implemented to protect facilities from liability. As the National Institute of Corrections notes, inmate suicides are financially, legally, and socially “devastating” for facilities and staff, often prompting lawsuits and negative publicity. Suicide watch is meant to care for prisons, not prisoners. Women behind bars are not ignorant– they are well aware of the negative consequences associated with suicide watch.

First, suicide watch leads to stigmatization for inmates, especially women. When women exhibit suicidal behavior or intention, they are often understood as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘manipulative.’[1] Thus, suicidal women especially risk being labeled, distrusted, and disregarded. One correctional worker admitted that, “too often we conclude that the inmate is simply attempting to manipulat[e] their environment and, therefore, such behavior should be ignored and not reinforced through intervention.” One instructor of the Suicide Prevention training for correctional employees in Washington, D.C. taught his students that most suicide attempts are simply ways to “seek attention or misbehave.”

Pervasive attitudes like these lead to the poor treatment of inmates and impede care for those who need it.

In Northern Ireland, for example, female inmates at the Mourne House Unit and Maghaberry Prison reported[2] that it was normal for prison staff to bully suicidal women and those who self harmed. Correctional officers were known to taunt and laugh at women on suicide watch, blowing smoke in their faces and calling them names. When one woman felt she was in crisis, she called to ask for help, but the guard replied: “stop ringing the bell and shut the fuck up.” Another woman tried to hang herself twice in one day, yet inmates overheard a senior officer telling a subordinate officer, “don’t be looking in at her. Don’t even look at her. Fuck her.” Suicidal women are shamed, ignored, and persecuted when they express their feelings and needs.

Furthermore, when inmates admit to suicidal ideation or exhibit suicidal behavior like self-harm, they are often subject to harsher punishments as part of standard suicide prevention precautions. Those on suicide watch usually lose basic amenities like showers, bedding, phone calls, and family visits. They can be denied jobs and early release. Often, they are stripped of their clothing and are either left naked or are forced to wear “degrading and humiliating” paper safety smocks. National correctional standards require that they be housed in “suicide-resistant” cells; oftentimes, this means they are sent to solitary confinement or lockdown where they are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation. In one county jail, suicidal inmates are confined in what they call “squirrel cages”: a 3x3x7 foot box fashioned out of chain-link fencing. Commonly, they are trapped there for more than 24 hours. Other correctional facilities utilize closed-circuit televisions to film suicidal inmates around the clock. Currently, the US Department of Justice is funding the evaluation of a device that “keep[s] track of inmates’ movements and vital signs using Doppler radar.” Being on suicide watch means losing what little freedom and autonomy inmates have. All of these ‘precautions,’ coupled with inappropriate responses from correctional staff, deter those in need from accessing mental health services, instead working as technologies of surveillance and control to further punish them.

Why didn’t Megan and Mary admit to feeling suicidal in York County Prison? Would you?

[1] Jaworski, Katrina. 2010. “The Gender-ing of Suicide.” Australian Feminist Studies 25(63):47-61.

[2] Scranton, Phil and Moore, Linda. 2005. “Degradation, Harm, and Survival in a Women’s Prison.” Social Policy & Society 5(1):67–78.

(Photo Credit: York County, PA, Government)

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution

On October 9, Michelle Tierney, 48, died. On October 1, Latandra Ellington, 48, died. On August 22, Regina A. Cooper, 50, died. On April 30, Affricka G. Jean, 30, died. All four women were inmates at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, and they are not the tip of an iceberg. They are just another part of the special hell Florida runs for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. And they did not “die”. They were killed.

Both Affricka Jean and Regina Cooper died under suspicious circumstances, and both of their deaths are under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General. They are classified as “active death investigations.” Despite that, neither death raised much of a fuss in Florida or elsewhere, except among the usual suspects. Otherwise, it was just another season in hell, and women’s bodies continued to pile up.

Then Latandra Ellington died … or was killed. Ellington had written her aunt a letter in which she said a sergeant, known as Sergeant Q, had threatened to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog”. A few days later, Ellington was `discovered’ dead in a confinement cell.

Other inmates have written letters, anonymously, in which they describe, in detail, guards’ sexual exploitation, violence, and torture of inmates. They describe a culture of pure sadism, in which women are beaten for sport, and then intimidated into silence. At some level, none of this is surprising. It’s the story of Alabama’s special hell for women, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, translated to Florida.

The twist at Lowell is that recent evidence suggests that Latandra Ellington’s death, or murder, was part of a power struggle … between two factions of corrections officers. Lowell Correctional Institution is being ripped apart by a gang war between gangs of guards.

Ellington’s autopsy shows blunt force trauma to her abdomen, consistent with having been beaten.

Michelle Tierney, who died last week, was killed slowly. Tierney was scheduled to be transferred to another prison on October 30, in preparation for her release from prison in January. She was so close to getting out. By all accounts, Tierney was a model inmate, a friend to all, a mentor, and a teacher of basic to advanced reading and writing. So, what happened?

For most of her fourteen years in prison, Tierney had been in good health. Recently she started complaining about leg pains. According to a friend of Tierney’s, she said she was suffering from so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk and was always crying. She went to the infirmary day and night, and, day and night, was turned away with a “diagnosis” of arthritis, get used to it.

When Michelle Tierney was finally taken to the hospital, her feet were blue, she had cysts all over her body, she was in septic shock, she had a fever and suffered from pneumonia.

That’s how it is in hell. Your choices are a quick tortured death or a slow tortured death, both accompanied by terror, horror and indignity. None of this is new. None of the violence, terror, horror or indignity against these women is new. Maybe, just maybe now, at last, someone, like the Department of Justice, will do something. What they won’t do is bring back the women who have been systematically murdered in the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida.

 

(Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections)

From Texas to Paris, women fight for their lives

From Texas to Pennsylvania to France, women’s rights have to be re affirmed. Moreover, the engagement implies defending an idea of society that goes beyond the right to abortion or women’s right to control their bodies.

In September, in Paris’ City Hall, the forum “Feminist Struggles and Reflections to Advance Society” summed up the current need to switch to the offensive. The Deputy Mayor of Paris opened the forum recalling that feminist struggles always upset the men and women who want to go further in social regression at times of economic crisis. Maya Surduts, President of the National Coordination of Associations for the Right to Abortion and Contraception, concurred, “We are at a turning point. The status of women is being called into question in this society.”

Maternity and the right to decide are under attack as is as the conception of women as full citizens, in France and in the United States.

In the United States, two recent cases of mistreatment of women show that an individualistic, utilitarian, patriarchal, neoliberal idea of society normalizes cruelty.

A woman in rural Pennsylvania has been sentenced from 9 to 18 months in jail for providing, through an online vendor, RU 486 to her 19-year-old daughter, who wanted to end an unwanted pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic is 75 miles away. The woman was reported to the authorities by the local hospital where they went when her daughter had stronger stomach cramps. The details of the story show the intricate manipulations of events that led to the charge that sent this woman to jail. A state senator commentating on the case accused her of endangering the welfare of a child. It is not clear which child he is referring to. In this judgment, the fact that a fetus is not an unborn child fades away along with the acknowledgment that her daughter is a person and not a womb made to carry children.

She was also charged with “offering medical consultation about abortion without a license”. The daughter did not have health insurance, and the mother and the family seemed to have limited resources. The reality is that the mother had no information about abortion and, working in this vacuum of respect for rights to help her daughter, used the Internet to cut costs. The judge ruled, “This was somebody taking life and law into their own hands”. In fact, this situation is created by a system that plays with women’s lives without any respect for the latter. It works by creating a halo of shame and guilt around the woman, a halo that obscures the shame that the state has for not fulfilling its responsibilities.

Meanwhile in Texas last week, a court decision authorized HB2 to go into effect. This bill imposes restrictions on abortion centers, demanding them to meet the standards of hospital surgery departments. There is no medical reason for that requirement. Nevertheless, it forced 13 clinics to close immediately.

Constraints imposed on women who decide to have an abortion are also medically unnecessary. Now, a woman must arrange four visits to the clinic with the same doctor in a very rigorous timing. She must undergo an unnecessary and invasive vaginal probe ultrasound. Then she has to listen to the description of the development of a fetus, completing her physical torture with a psychological one.

With this measure, women from the western part of Texas will have to travel up to 500 miles round trip to an abortion clinic in San Antonio, the last area where the eight remaining clinics are located. The situation’s worse for the large population of people who live in the Rio Grande Valley without documentation or who have work permits that allow very limited travel. Meanwhile, immigrant women will have to go through immigration check points to reach an abortion clinic, basically depriving immigrant women from this area of their rights.

From the United States to Europe, new measures and laws add devastating constraints on women. In Europe, austerity measures stripped women of their way of life, work, and access to public services, most notably in Greece.

Although in France abortion is free of charge and guaranteed by law, a certain rationale of profitability combined with austerity measures has made access to abortion centers and hospitals trickier. Forced restructuration has closed many locations where women had access to reproductive services. While the Pennsylvania and Texas cases would be inconceivable in France for now, Maya sees the attacks on labor laws and on public services as the point of entry to make women the first to be harmed and exploited. She emphasized that immigrant women are always in the forefront. She added that these situations are unacceptable and that it is time to retake the initiative to defend the rights that protect the majority of the population.

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.

Migrant and immigrant women workers want democracy, too!

Can migrant and immigrant workers demand democracy, and if they do, who will listen? This question arises, again, out of the news coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which has demonstrated an ambivalence, if not an anxiety, about where immigrant domestic workers fit in, or not, in the Umbrella Revolution. At heart, the problem is that many find it difficult to understand that migrant and immigrant women workers, domestic workers, “helpers” want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are Filipina and Indonesian. They are famously underworked, overpaid, and often suffer the full gamut of abuse. They are also organized, into various national-ethnic associations as well as into pan-Asian domestic workers’ associations, most notably the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body. Typically, the “news” about these women is [1] a story of abuse, [2] a story of seeking higher wages, [3] a story of getting slightly higher wages, and then the cycle begins again.

Abuse and wages pretty much cover the “domestic worker” front. And that’s why the Occupy Hong Kong protests have caused a ripple in the surface of the common sense. Where are the maids in Occupy Hong Kong? Where are domestic workers in the struggle for democracy?

Everywhere: “On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.”

Domestic workers, like 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, understand that political as well as economic wealth and well being in Hong Kong depend on the labor of migrant women workers: “We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history. It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

Domestic workers were at the demonstrations, openly, proudly and happily, as their photos show. Likewise, domestic workers formally supported the protesters: “The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), is one with the people of Hong Kong in condemning the brutal response of the Hong Kong government, through its Police Force, to the protest – predominantly youth and students – calling for full universal suffrage in choosing the city’s Chief Executive … The movement for universal suffrage has been gaining steam for the past years and is further being propelled by the government’s lack of effective response to the problems besetting many of the Hong Kong people. Cuts in social service, disregard of the condition of workers, and the prioritization of the government of the interests of businesses, especially in times of crisis have contributed greatly to the desire of the HK people to have a more direct say in the election of the Chief Executive …The right of the people to assemble and protest is being wantonly violated; and activists for democratic rights cannot stand by and watch … We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people’s rights … We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people’s rights and democracy.”

Migrant and immigrant women workers want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Convergence, tous et toutes ensemble, resistons, all together we can resist

La Maternite des Lilas

On September 23d, an important demonstration was organized in front of the Minister of Health in Paris. The demonstration was organized by the movement Convergences of the hospitals fighting against Hosterity (Convergences des hopitaux en lutte contre l’Hosterity), which gathers together personnel from public hospitals associated with numerous associations defending women’s reproductive rights. They coined the term hosterity to indicate the strong correlation between the disassembling of the public hospital and the austerity measures that have shattered public services throughout Europe.

The neoliberal grip on the European population through the implementation of austerity measures has opened the way to uncontrollable privatization of hospitals and health care services. In Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, France and beyond, public hospitals are sold to private firms or health care systems. In particular, the French health care service, once praised for its efficiency and quality, has been the target of a series of neoliberal restructurations.

In 2012, the Chairman of the European Bank, Mario Draghi stated that the European Social Model was gone. What he meant was that under the aegis of neoliberal ideologues the rhetoric of needed reforms was going to force a drastic change for the public and its services. The immediate target has been the reproductive health sector, followed by other health care services.

The story of the maternity hospital of les Lilas epitomizes the gendered techniques employed to disassemble a solidarity system and the need for an active and political convergence of resisting forces. And so the Convergence movement was created.

On September 23d the women of the maternity hospital arrived with their now famous banderole that says, “La maternité des Lilas vivra”. The Maternity hospital of Les Lilas will live. The determination of its personnel is remarkable. They know first hand the accounting manipulations that have strangled their department and have denounced this attack on public health care. Giving birth is free of charge by national law, and so the way to attack this principle was to create administrative constraints and force many local maternity departments to close down and send women to maternity “factories” with fewer and fewer midwives and ob-gyn.

I talked with head of the department Marie Laure Brival and the midwives and the nurses, and the members of the supporting collective. In 2009, said Marie Laure Brisal, the budget for the necessary renovations was agreed on by the experts and signed by the Minister of Health. Then, under the same government, the restructuration of the health administration created the conditions through this new health plan for a retroactive review of this budget. The goal was to create big health structures in which ob-gyn departments had to be rearranged in factory-like structures with fewer personnel, and more deliveries and other reproductive services. In France, maternity hospitals take care of delivering babies as well as contraception and abortion services since both are what women need.

The maternity hospital les Lilas is located in a populous suburb of Paris and provides personal non-threatening service to women. The dedication of the staff to the comfort of women has been a model for many.

“Our fight has been going on for the past four years and has taken a national dimension, we receive support from everywhere. They even come from beyond the French borders from all over Europe” said Marie Laure, adding, “They fought with obstinacy and elegance.” When candidate to the presidency of France, Francois Hollande gave his support to the fight and promised that Les Lilas would remain open. “Unfortunately,” said Maris Laure Brival, “Political statements do not last long.”

The midwives told me that they were exhausted. Besides providing an excellent and peaceful environment, they have to organize and continue the actions in every way possible. I talked with women who have been patients there and all explained that it was a memorable experience.

Having just won a battle with the guarantee that they will not be absorbed by a bigger structure, they still have to obtain the complete funds to continue to put women first in a maternity hospital.

The bureaucratic structure Regional Health Authority have been operating since April 1 2010, Although they were presented as a necessary tool to enhance the health care system efficiency, their real function was to rationalize in a financial/accounting manner the delivery of care, in other words reduce social expenditures.

The American for-profit health care system is becoming the norm. The most universal systems are being transformed with the usual neoliberal tools that have the capacity of turning social responsibility into a violent arithmetic of profitability and deficits reduction. With this logic, the rhetoric of competitive enterprise and dehumanized factory production is applied to places of care.

In this context the struggle of the maternity hospital des Lilas is emblematic of the fight of women against the impoverishment of their lives with an overall continuously contested reproductive rights and health. Women are enormously affected by austerity measures or hosterity. First, they fill the ranks of poor workers, an expanding category. Women are overwhelmingly employed in care facilities, 49.8% of the public sector employment in France. In addition, when public care services are curtailed, women become unpaid care providers with all the consequences that implies. Finally, the restructuration of the reproductive health structures that are being pushed with this Hosterity represents an enormous set back for the entire health care system.

Last week, the demonstrators reaffirmed that health and social protection are not for sale. The convergence is broad. Other movements were represented from the struggle against austerity measures in Greece to the Spanish struggle for reproductive and health rights. Solidarities are being formed against the fragmentation of the civil society that characterizes the neoliberal order with its rhetoric of competition. Marie Laure Brival took the microphone and ended her speech with Tous ensemble resistons (all together we can resist) and the crowd repeated it several times. We are not competing we are cooperating against the neoliberal order!

Reproductive Choice and Prison as Punishment: A Tale of Two States

Out West in California, incarcerated women are sterilized without their consent. Over in the Northeast in Pennsylvania, a mother was incarcerated for helping her daughter end an unwanted pregnancy. While these two stories may seem unrelated, at their intersection are important issues of freedom, choice, and women’s bodies.

As described in Women In and Beyond the Global last week, many women prisoners in California have been stripped of their reproductive freedom. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that California prisons had been illegally sterilizing female inmates either through coercion or without informed consent, using procedures such as tubal ligations. While it is encouraging that in light of this horrific finding the governor signed a bill prohibiting forced sterilization, the fact remains that these women will never again be able to choose to become pregnant. That choice was already made for them by prison authorities.

Across the country, authorities sent a woman to prison for supporting her daughter’s reproductive choice. Jennifer Ann Whalen’s 16-year-old daughter was pregnant, but she didn’t want to be. When they looked up their options, the mother and daughter found that they didn’t have many. From where they lived in rural Pennsylvania, the closest abortion clinic was 75 miles away. According to state law, Whalen’s daughter was required to receive counseling at the clinic and then wait 24 hours before returning for an abortion. Furthermore, without health insurance, the procedure would cost more than $300. They were unable to make the trip because they couldn’t afford the cost, the fact that their only car was shared with Whalen’s husband who was unaware of the pregnancy, and because Whalen couldn’t miss multiple days of work. Without any other options, they decided to induce a miscarriage themselves. So Whalen ordered abortion pills online and her daughter took them. She had no serious complications or side effects, but they worried when she experienced stomach pains and bleeding. They went to the hospital, where Whalen was arrested, and ultimately charged with a felony for performing an abortion without a medical license. Whalen will serve 12-18 months in prison. If her daughter had access to a safe, legal, and affordable abortion, Whalen would not be behind bars today.

Some women are punished by prison and consequently denied reproductive choices; others are denied reproductive choices and consequently punished by prison. Both of these scenarios illuminate the various ways that women in America are denied the freedom to control their own bodies and, ultimately, their own lives.

A time of challenge and opportunity for U.S. domestic workers

The past few months have been marked by both progress and setbacks for domestic workers in the United States, especially those who provide in-home care to seniors, people with disabilities and others in need. The developments have made it increasingly evident both that there is much work to do to generate the policy and cultural changes U.S. domestic workers need and deserve – and that now is the time to make it happen.

Home care is one of the United States’ fastest-growing and lowest-paying industries. More than 90 percent of U.S. home care workers are women, more than half are people of color, nearly a quarter are foreign born, and more than half rely on public assistance. The vast majority are also paid through public funds, primarily from Medicare and Medicaid. When combined with misguided views of women’s work and caregiving, these factors have long made the workforce especially susceptible to cutbacks and exploitation.

A major recent setback happened this June when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that 26,000 Illinois home care workers are only “partial” public employees because they provide in-home care for private clients through a publicly funded state home care program. As a result, according to the ruling, these workers are no longer entitled to the same labor protections and union representation as other workers, specifically those who provide care outside of a private home.

The decision brings to light notions of both the home and the workplace that are routinely used to justify the devaluing of women’s labor: The home is not a workplace and, therefore, even basic labor protections do not apply to it or those who work within it. This is the same flawed rationale that resulted in home care workers being classified as “companions” and denied minimum wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1974. That classification isn’t supposed to change until next year.

Another setback came a few weeks ago. In what should have been a monumental victory for working families, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s second statewide paid sick days law, which will guarantee an additional 6.5 million workers the right to earn paid sick time. But, just before the bill passed, the governor negotiated an amendment to exclude one critical group from its protections: 400,000 workers who provide in-home care through the state’s publicly funded home care program.

Governor Brown’s actions may not surprise some. The first two times the state’s domestic workers’ bill of rights came across his desk, he vetoed it. He eventually signed the law – the nation’s third – in 2013. He also previously sought hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s home care program. This time, the governor cited cost as the reason to exclude home care workers from the new paid sick days law. Viability of that concern aside, there is simply no excuse for making cuts or special exceptions at the expense of the workers who can least afford it, and whose health and well-being have such a widespread impact.

So why did the governor of one of the more progressive states in the country do it? Because he can. Home care workers are still positioned as easy targets in the United States, and it is not unusual in the nation’s history (or globally) for women’s work to be undervalued and excluded from even the most basic protections. That is part of what makes the most recent potential setback so disappointing.

In 2013, in a major victory for domestic workers, the Obama administration announced official changes to the classification of home care workers under the FLSA that would extend minimum wage and overtime pay protections to two million home care workers. It also gave employers and states at least 15 months – until January 1, 2015 – to prepare. Now, some state and private home care industry officials are lobbying for more time. If they are successful, it will mean that the needs of home care workers will come last, yet again.

The good news is that workers, unions and advocates are pushing back, and there are reasons for U.S. domestic workers to be hopeful. Despite the Harris ruling, the union of home care workers most impacted by the decision says 10,000 workers have signed up. Just two months after the decision, thousands of Minnesota home care workers voted to unionize. And Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ of $625,000 to support organizing and policy advocacy efforts.

So, at a time like this, when there is a tremendous amount of great work happening to elevate and address the needs of U.S. domestic workers, the challenges and opportunities made clear in the last few months are a reminder that workers, advocates and organizers must remain vigilant. The United States cannot afford to take steps backward and further ingrain archaic and inexcusable understandings of domestic labor and women’s work, especially with such great progress on the horizon.

What do you mean, sterilized without consent?

Last week, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill reads, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seems pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer.

And yet, this law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history.

The quick story is that the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, last year, that the California prison system had coerced women prisoners into 4sterilization. Lawmakers, and in particular the California Women’s Legislative Caucus, called for an investigation. A State audit showed that between 2005 and 2013, 144 tubal ligations were performed on women prisoners. At least 25% of these had no evidence whatsoever of informed consent. Most of the others were dicey. 88 of the women were Latina or Black, and 6 were “other”. All of the women, one hundred percent, had been jailed at least once.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson wrote the bill. She worked with Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the prisoners rights group Justice Now. They worked with former prisoners, such as Kelli Dillon, who could confirm the allegations and, more importantly, put a human face on the story. When the bill was presented, it passed unanimously, thanks to the great work of great investigative reporters, community organizers, legislators, and current and former women prisoners.

The law’s back-story raises many concerns. Between 1909 and 1964, California had compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people of color, the poor, the disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and prisoners. About 20,000 men and women were sterilized without any pretense of consent. Forced sterilization laws were officially banned, by the California legislature, in 1979.

Prison doctors and administrators found loopholes in the ban, and they were back in business, and the only possible witnesses are `unreliable’. After all, they’re repeat offenders, many with low levels of formal education and many with “too many children.” And they’re women, mostly women of color.

In Maryland, when State Delegate Mary L. Washington discovered that women prisoners were being shackled in childbirth, she replied, “Wait. What do you mean, shackled?” When she learned that shackled meant shackled, she launched what she figured was a no-brainer, a ban on shackling women prisoners in childbirth. It took two years of lots of brain and brawn to get that no-brainer passed.

These crimes by the State succeed because the population at large has been persuaded, for decades, that these women are the problem, and it’s best to leave the problem to the experts, prison doctors and prison guards. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world of what-do-you-mean.

In California, members of Justice Now are organizing an education campaign for current women prisoners and another for former prisoners. We all need that education. What do you mean, sterilized without consent? What do you mean, shackled?

 

(Photo credit: CDCR via Common Dreams)