Why does Australia hate pregnant and abused women asylum seekers?

Nauru

Why does Australia hate pregnant women asylum seekers? August began with a report that three pregnant women asylum seekers on Nauru had applied for termination of their pregnancies and were being denied medical transfer. This denial of medical transfer is typical on Nauru. An additional 50 asylum seekers who need medical care that they cannot receive on the island have also been denied medical transfer. This week, to close August off, 100 asylum seekers currently in Australia have been informed that they are about to lose … everything. Money, housing, the works. On Monday, August 28, about 40 men and women met with immigration officials and were informed of the new regime. Among the women are pregnant women and women who had come to Australia for treatment after having been sexually assaulted on Nauru. Meanwhile, the Immigration Minister thinks that the attorneys who represent asylum seekers, and in particular those in medical distress, are “unAustralian”. UnAustralian. What is the opposite of a commonwealth? Australia.

Yasaman Bagheri is 19 years old. She is from Iran. She has been detained on Nauru since she was 15 years old, and harsh living conditions and bleak prospects for the future are causing her to lose all hope: “They don’t care about people. They are willing to sacrifice innocent people, women and children to make their political point.” Why has this girl-child, now a young woman, been held in such dire and inhumane circumstances? No doubt because she is unAustralian.

The Australian medical profession’s position on those seeking medical care is clear. They must be transferred to Australia, immediately. Australian Medical Association President, and obstetrician, Dr Michael Gannon explained, “The ethical principles are very clear. People seeking the protection of the Australian government are entitled to healthcare standards the same as Australian citizens. So, that’s a matter of ethics and that’s a matter of law … I am not an immigration expert. But I like to think I am expert in medical ethics and I’ve stated our position very clearly as to the health standard that is we would expect.” Royal Australasian College of Physicians President Dr Catherine Yelland agreed, “We are very concerned by reports that asylum seekers are being refused medical transfers to hospitals in Australia where they would be able to get the care they need. The Australian government has a responsibility to ensure people in detention have access to the same level of care in Australian hospitals. It’s abundantly clear that they can’t receive the quality healthcare they need in these facilities. Doctors’ advice in these instances must be followed. We’ve too often seen the tragic outcomes that can occur when this advice is ignored.”

Australia recently changed the process for medical transfer from Nauru to Australia, and Nauru staff claim that this change, which requires going through Nauru hospital’s overseas medical referral committee, has meant no transfers. The committee seldom meets, keeps no records, and is altogether unreliable. The one Nauru hospital is a small operation. Nauruan women with complicated pregnancies are usually sent to Australia, Fiji or Singapore. Furthermore, Nauru prohibits abortions. The new medical non-transfer policy is a catastrophe generally, and it is an explicit assault on women, on women’s bodies.

Why does Australia hate pregnant women asylum seekers? Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen offered an answer, “Australia has reduced the men, women and children on the islands to namelessness, referring to them by registration numbers. Asked their names, kids often give a number. It’s all they know. At least the digits are not tattooed.” At least the digits are not tattooed … yet.

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: Al Jazeera)

State terrorism against women: Purvi Patel and the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S.

It is now four months since an Indiana court sentenced Purvi Patel to 70 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent, based on an obsolete method called the floating lung test which determined the fetus was alive, not stillborn as Patel claimed. Despite an initial flurry of protest from various organizations internationally, such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women and Manavi, since their April and May 2015, there has been silence in the news media regarding her cruel and unjust conviction.

Looking at this case within the framework of the crumbling reproductive justice for women highlights important factors that are becoming more widespread across the U.S. Patel’s case is part of a growing history of women who have been convicted for miscarriages. With the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S., women’s intentional abortions, miscarriages and giving birth to a stillborn child increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. In Patel’s case, the Indiana law penalizes women for getting abortions outside state sanctions. So even if abortion is legal under federal law, state law found Patel guilty.

Would her sentence be different had she been a resident of New York or California, since the cutoff dates for obtaining legal abortion differ between states? This question gets murkier, when we put race and class into the heavily gendered mix. The arbitrariness of the law when applied to women is dumbfounding.

If the abortion pill can be legally obtained in the U.S., why is it illegal to obtain abortion pills by mail? It would be absurd to restrict pharmacies in other countries to mail abortion pills to the U.S. So the prosecutor in the case argued the obvious – that the fetus was a person and needed to be protected from the mother who was trying to kill it. The absurd and cruel outcome is that the case was treated like first degree murder, instead of a case of unintended pregnancy, the mother’s attempt to abort (legal in many countries, including some states in the U.S. currently), and birth of a stillborn fetus. Patel did not receive any respite from medical practitioners or the law.

Does Patel’s attempt to go to a hospital because of her bleeding that led to the doctor and law enforcement officer reporting her “illegal act” mean that pregnant women would fear getting medical help? This is exactly the outcome, says Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Doctors who are supposed to be advocates for patients are now turning against their female patients based on the law of the state, and sometimes their belief systems. Forget the Hippocratic oath!

In India, where feticide is prevalent, the judicial system is caught between legal abortion, which was partly strengthened by a population control policy, and the government’s attempt to dissuade women from aborting female fetuses. It is often difficult to say for sure if an abortion was just that, an abortion, totally legal, or a female feticide. How can the same abortion if legal be also illegal—this is the conundrum for Indian courts. As social scientists point out, we need to look at the large social system—institutions, families, and so on that promote male privilege; so we need to figure out how to change the culture instead of penalizing women.

Recently, an Indian reporter said Purvi Patel’s alleged feticide would be “normal” in India. I would argue that it is important to combat a culture that would advocate feticide; by the same token, we need to combat a culture that penalizes women for obtaining an abortion and tells her summarily that her body, and her fetus, is the property of the State. Apart from the legal determination on Purvi Patel’s case, the very fact of women not being allowed any right over their reproductive functions is outrageous. And to be eviscerated of freedom by being sent to prison, by arguing that self-induced abortion is a crime, is an egregious wrong.

 

 

 

(Photo Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock) (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)

Who remembers Purvi Patel? Where’s the outrage?

Who remembers Purvi Patel? On February 6th this year we discussed her conviction on two contradictory charges of first killing her fetus and then neglecting her baby.

Now she is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court that never believed that her baby was stillborn, that she was scared and panicked, that she did not know when she became pregnant, that she had no intention of being pregnant, that nobody talked about her as a person.

The sentence was determined by the age of the “victim” said the judge. Of course, from her point of view the victim was not Purvi Patel.

In this competition of morality over whose life is worth being protected everybody loses, but Purvi Patel’s life is destroyed. She and the genitor needed classes on reproductive health, access to contraception and abortion services. She got prison, and he remains free.

The media told her story using populist assumptions to draw attention to details that were either unproven or irrelevant. By contrast, none of them focused on the discrepancies of the evidence presented by the prosecutor during the trial. None of them questioned the pathology report that used a dubious test to determine that the baby was alive at birth. Even the determination of the age of the pregnancy was unclear. What was clear was the determination of the prosecutor to erase the voice of Purvi Patel.

As Lynn Paltrow declared, “What the Patel case demonstrates is both women who have abortion and those who experience pregnancy loss may now be subject to investigation, arrest, public trial and incarceration.”

The real tragedy is that the State never fulfilled its responsibility to provide any help to Purvi Patel. Instead it chose to destroy her life. Where’s the outrage?

 

 

(Image Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock)  (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)

Lacey Weld, Mallory Loyola and the real witch trials of Tennessee


In the last week, Tennessee became the site of the latest witch trials. On Tuesday, July 15, 27-year-old Lacey Weld was sentenced to 151 months in prison and five years of “supervised release” for manufacturing and using methamphetamine in her ninth month of pregnancy. The sentence exceeds the `traditional’ sentencing limits, because Weld was pregnant. The supplement, the gift, to Weld’s sentence is called `enhancement.’

At more or less the same time, Mallory Loyola was arrested, also in Tennessee, for narcotic use while pregnant. Under a new state law, Loyola was charged with assault, for having tested positive for methamphetamine. The fact that methamphetamine is not included in the Tennessee law didn’t matter. Mallory Loyola is under arrest.

The laws and practices that imprison pregnant women for drug abuse or other substance abuse are anti-mother, anti-poor, anti-family, anti-doctor, anti-women-of-color, anti-poor-women, and more. These laws and practices have devastating consequences, and not only on the women and their children. Everyone knows this …

And yet the laws continue to proliferate and women continue to be threatened, intimidated, harassed, and persecuted. Why? There are many reasons, one of which is that prisons need bodies, the machine needs to be fed. The war against women sleeps with the war for prison. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of women were caged and killed for their knowledge and science, and in particular for their knowledge of reproductive health methods, including methods of abortion. They were called witches, and they were tortured and killed. In the intervening millennia, much has changed, but not the basic elements of the witch trial. Find pregnant women and women who care for pregnant women, demonize and criminalize them by any means necessary, invoke the community and the nation and protection, and then torture the women until they die in a grand public spectacle.

Lacey Weld and Mallory Loyola, by their own testimony, need help, but that doesn’t matter. Prison beds are hungry, and there are many ways of throwing women behind bars.

 

(Image Credit: Smithsonianmag.com/ Bettmann/CORBIS)

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK: Punished for being a woman

Most women asylum seekers are fleeing so-called ‘non-political’ violence. Domestic violence, including within the extended family and community, ranks high. So does religious persecution of women and violence against lesbians. Women flee such violence because they know it’s wrong. When women asylum seekers are criminalized for seeking asylum, they are being punished for the knowledge they have as women. That’s a witch-hunt, and that’s what’s happening around the world today.

Last week, world leaders overwhelmingly endorsed the Every Newborn Action Plan, which calls for a global concerted effort to address infant mortality. This endorsement came on the heels of a major report, also released last week, which notes, “Every year, 2·9 million newborn babies die from largely preventable causes, and 2·6 million more are stillborn.” The report argues that every newborn counts, and, implicitly, that every mother of every newborn counts.

Would that it were true.

Around the world, women asylum seekers learn that not all maternities are equal. For example, in the United Kingdom, a recent study found asylum seekers receiving housing and subsistence support from the Home Office are regularly `dispersed’ to areas outside London. Pregnant women seeking asylum are often dispersed very late in their pregnancies or soon after delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has argued that pregnant women asylum seekers have special needs and particular vulnerabilities and need additional and particular support. The Home Office has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that finding. Women asylum seekers have reported the experience of `dispersal’ is distressing. `Dispersal’ interrupted established maternity care. It left women without social and family support. Because of the day-to-day realities of dispersal and of childbirth, many women asylum seekers gave birth alone. Midwives have reported that they do the best they can, but the `dispersal’ system disrupts everything.

A pregnant woman asylum seeker suffered flashbacks from sexual violence in her home country. She was `dispersed’ in late pregnancy. According to her midwife, “She needed some stability and care because she felt confident with the people who were looking after her and felt she could trust them. The best outcome would have been for her not to be transferred especially at that late stage.”

Since 2000, there has been a 9% increase in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom. One of the factors pumping the increase is “poorer access to healthcare, especially in some ethnic minority communities and among asylum seekers.”

The criminalization of asylum seekers is an assault on “mental, developmental and physical health,” and it is part and parcel of global mass incarceration. The criminalization of women asylum seekers inevitably means the pain, suffering and often death of women in childbirth as of their children. And who are these women? Women fleeing torture, seeking justice. Punished for fleeing, punished for remembering, punished for needing, punished for being a woman.

 

(Image Credit: freedomfromtorture.org)

Dehumanization beyond cruelty: women’s mass incarceration

When it comes to women, the shame of neoliberal policies knows no limit. In California women in prison have been sterilized as a way to save welfare money. Tennessee passed a bill making pregnant women who had drug addiction problems eligible for prison time, and thus less valuable than the fetus they carry.

Sterilization has been a weapon of conquest used against American Indian women. It has been a weapon of control over the Black body during and after slavery. Now it has become a weapon for controlling the future of indebted Latina and African and Native American women in California and in Tennessee.

In California, from 2006 to 2010, over 150 incarcerated women were sterilized without consent. Doctors say that they have not forced them and the women say that the pressure was constant and they could not escape it. Although the procedure had a cost about $147, 460, doctors said that the money was well spent and the cost was not significant compared to the money saved on welfare if these women had more children. The majority of women were Latinas and African Americans. The state has the legal authority to sterilize without consent based on a Supreme Court decision allowing “forcible sterilization” in jail (1927). In 1927, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In recent decades, welfare evolved from being a support system against the adversities of life in an industrial society to a debt that poor people of color incur. For poor women of color, their bodies are both collateral and ransom.

Once, the racialized woman’s reproductive body was a source of profit and accumulation of wealth. As Thomas Jefferson argued: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable that the best man on the farm…what she produces is in addition to the capital while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”

Today, that reproductive body has to be locked up.

For one year, Tennessee experimented with a more inclusive approach, The Safe Harbor Act. Its idea was simple: drug dependent mothers need support more than prison. The act was a step toward better care for pregnant women, arguing that they would seek help if medical confidentiality was respected. That approach was given a mere year, nowhere near enough time to reach its goal.

Last week, the Tennessee legislature overwhelmingly passed a new bill that empowers police to investigate drug-taking pregnant women. The bill was justified by the high level of Tennessee babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is treatable and does not leave any long-term damage on the child. Sending the child’s mother to jail, however, will undoubtedly have a long-term effect on the mother and the child.

The bill had bipartisan support. From both sides of the aisle, legislators showed no understanding of the process of drug addiction, its biological reality as a chronic relapsing disorder that often emerges from today’s political and social disorder. Loss of jobs and cuts on public services has produced a parallel drug economy. Women of color are more likely to be affected by the reduction of public services. Furthermore, according to Tennessee’s commissioner of health, in 60% of the cases the mothers in question had a prescription for the drugs in their bodies.

With this bill the fetus carries more rights than the living mother to be. The value of the fetus is only there to negate the humanity of the woman, who, as a Virginia state senator stated recently, is less than a full being. But that’s only as a fetus. Once born, that child joins the army of the poor in Tennessee or in California. Poverty for children of color has intensified and expanded. According to a recent Annie E Casey Foundation report, minority children trail behind white children on every social account measured. If children’s safety motivates this bill, then since African American, Latinos and American Indians are way more likely to live in areas where industrial pollution is harmful for their health, why not punish the “polluters” instead of poor women? Clearly, when the child is born, protection of life takes a different meaning according to class, race and ethnicity.

In both states, the war on drugs has targeted women of color. The recent announcement of clemency for inmates that have spent at least ten years in jail for nonviolent drug offenses, is hardly an act of clemency, especially for women, in particular for women of color and poor women whose bodies are again going to be channeled to jail.

In Europe, the debt economy has used austerity measures in Greece to send people to jail for debt. In the United States, the debt economy has used racial discrimination inherited from slavery and genocidal policies to achieve the same level of success through impoverishment.

Martin Luther king once said, “Central to democracy is the fundamental belief that one belongs and one’s voice matters…” These women have no say. They are flesh and bones with reproductive capability devoid of rights. After strict State surveillance, they are to be culled from the herd, neither citizens nor humans.

These policies go beyond cruelty. They institutionalize and normalize mass dehumanization.

 

(Image Credit: Slate / Kostsov / Thinkstock)

Plenty of reasons to be outraged

Jessica Valenti started a recent address with a question that she said a young man asked her: “Why are you so angry?” She immediately said that she was not angry but sad and exhausted. Then after enumerating a series of laws and actions against women and reminding the audience that the Hyde Amendment has nullified the Roe decision for many financially vulnerable women, she finally admitted that she is angry: “I am angry that forty years after Roe, women are still fighting for recognition of our basic humanity.”

The fact is that there are plenty of reasons to be outraged.

A recent study demonstrates that, in the United States, many actors are eager to deny women their basic humanity and access to care and are already doing great harm to pregnant women thanks to recent legislation that put a pregnant woman in a lower rank than a fetus.

The feticide laws have encouraged and required health providers to inform police of pregnant patients who had problems with drugs. Many providers comply with these demands quite easily, especially when their patients are African Americans and/or poor. In many instances, for women patients, and especially for African American women patients, there is no medical confidentiality.

Why are so many American doctors ready to relinquish their medical ethical responsibility toward their women patients? A court can put a fetus in protective custody with a guardian to the fetus being appointed by a court decision requiring “the fetus to be detained…and transported” to the local hospital for “in patient treatment and protection.” The care of the mother is not considered, whether by health care providers of the pregnant woman or whether by the court.

Where are medical ethical rules for women like Laura Pemberton who wanted to have a vaginal delivery after having had a C-section? Her doctor used a court order to perform the surgical procedure. Pemberton was strapped and hauled off to a judge who decided her fate. Neither she nor her husband was allowed legal assistance.

In case after case, pregnant women who have sought help for reasons ranging from problems with drugs to requesting vaginal birth as the first option have been threatened and persecuted instead of being helped, and all of this with the approval of their own health care provider.

Where are the social workers and social programs to support women with the problem of drug addiction? Instead, their lives are torn apart even more?

Astonishingly, already inadequate access to health care is threatened during pregnancy, especially, but not only, for women who live in precarious conditions. They need to be listened to in order to receive the most appropriate care. Instead of receiving health care, they get prison.

Absurd situations have been created to intimidate and even terrorize pregnant women.  Sometimes the State goes to unbelievable lengths. For example, one woman was imprisoned because she “did willfully and unlawfully give birth to a male infant”.   In its absurdity, the wording of the official court document shows the profound disdain for the life of the pregnant woman

Sending pregnant women to prison in the name of protection of the personhood of the fetus while prenatal care provided by the state to incarcerated women is notoriously inadequate, if not absent, is absurd … and criminal.

There is an alternative.

Under the Nazi occupation of France, authorities commanded French doctors to report any wounded person. The board of the newly formed French Medical Association responded immediately:

“The President of the French Medical Association takes this occasion to remind every colleague that when called to assist the sick or the wounded, there is only one mission to fulfill and that is to deliver care. Respect for professional confidentiality is a necessary condition for the trust those who are ill have in their physicians. No administrative reason whatsoever exists that allows you to free yourself from this obligation.”

This declaration was sent to every doctor in the country. It became the nonnegotiable rule of ethics. It still is. This declaration is engraved on marble and is visible in the hall of the French Medical Association building in Paris. It is also taught in medical school to future doctors who would have eventually to fight for their patients’ protection. To this day, medical confidentiality is key and protects patients, even in court.

Doctors, nurses and other medical and social workers should be protecting women, who deserve the care they need. Instead, they have become `providers’, removing their human responsibility that the French doctors once understood to be their unbreakable ethical duty. Alternatives to state brutality already exist. Being ethical sometimes demands resistance to inhuman laws.

 

(Photo Credit: Charlotte Cooper / Flickr)

Where’s the outrage at the forced powerlessness of pregnant women?

 

According to a recent study, as described in a post here last month, in the United States, being a person is tricky business if you are pregnant, poor, or a woman of color. That study responds to two sets of interrelated events: [1] the effort to pass laws that give a fetus the constitutional right of a person, thus far passed in 38 states; and [2] the increased number of arrests and incarceration of pregnant women.

The study raises many questions, ranging from the conceptualization of protection, including medical care, based on the socioeconomic status of the pregnant woman, to the concept of fetus personhood. Fetus personhood was embedded in the Roe v Wade decision in its discussion of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy as “not absolute, and … subject to some limitations…. A State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life.”

Pregnant women have been incarcerated with greater frequency because of the establishment of a process that renders them available and appropriate to incarceration. The study identifies that process through the records and examination of the incarceration of pregnant women in the United States between 1973 and 2005. In every case the bases of arrest was the protection of the personhood of the fetus.

Being-pregnant, then, has become being-powerless. At one level, this is not new. In Beggars and Choosers, Rickie Solinger recounts how officials used White pregnant teenagers to fuel the adoption business: “Beginning in the late 1940s, community and government authorities together developed a raft of strategies some quite coercive, to press white unwed mothers to relinquish their babies to deserving couples” (70). Those teenagers were presented as “mentally disturbed” because they failed to have a husband to protect them, “a proof of neurosis,” making them potential bad mothers. The same authorities singled out and removed unwed Black teenage mothers from any public assistance, intensifying their already precarious situation.

In both cases the personhood of the young woman was reduced to being a carrier in which the state had a prevailing interest of control and protection. In this historical context, the Roe v Wade decision allowed the same ambivalence to be developed concerning the personhood of all women, with the invisible hand of the state ready to take over a woman’s right to control her body.

The study emphasizes the responsibility of the perverse effects of this lack of clarity of the woman’s existence as a person with regard to women’s versus fetus’ personhood. These effects created an insidious web of laws, which have led to the mounting incarceration of pregnant women. The fact that 38 states passed feticide or similar laws that have justified the arrest of pregnant women is no accident.

As we saw with Aaron Swartz’s suicide prompted by the violence of the American justice system, no campaign with celebrities and intellectual was organized to defend an individual who tried to defend our rights. In the case of both incarcerated pregnant women and Aaron Swartz, the outcry is limited and will probably remain so, thanks to the combined power of the State and a Civil Society that bends to corporate needs and wishes. Every day in this country, women are imprisoned because they are less important, they have less being-in-the-world, than something called the protection of “potential life.” Where is the outrage?

 

(Image Credit: The Atlantic / Lauren Giardano)

Prison and the war on (pregnant) women

A new study appeared today that describes yet another front on the prison side of the war on women in the United States: pregnancy. The study, Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973–2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health, reports on 413 cases over four decades in which “a woman’s pregnancy was a necessary factor leading to attempted and actual deprivations of a woman’s physical liberty.” “Deprivation of physical liberty” means forced incarceration. Some women were kept in psychiatric wards against their will; others were kept in jails and prisons against their will. In each case, part of the point of the confinement was that the woman’s will doesn’t matter because, effectively, it doesn’t exist. For the authors of the report, this is part of the war-on-women fetal personhood movement. It’s built on centuries old traditions of `protecting’ women from themselves, and of course protecting children from their mothers.

Now, not all children need protection. 231 cases originated in the South. That’s a whopping 56% in one region. South Carolina is Number 1 with 93 cases. That means almost a quarter of all the cases come from one state, and, to make the map even more glaring, 34 of those 93 cases from two contiguous counties. Florida comes in second with 56. In Florida, 25 of the cases came from one county, 23 of which came from two hospitals: Sacred Heart Hospital and Baptist Hospital. Women `need’ protection.

And who are these women who need protection? 71% of all `protected’ pregnant women were represented by indigent defense. Class was the great unifier in this group. Across the board, an overwhelming majority of the women in each racial/ethnic and age category was low- or no-income.

59% were women of color, of whom 52% were African American. In South Carolina, African Americans made up 30 percent of the state’s population, and made up 74 percent of the caseload. Of course, this mirrors the national numbers, where African American women make up almost 13% of the general population, and 33% of women prisoners. African American women’s rate of incarceration, nationally, is four times that of white women.

60% of the `protected’ pregnant women were 21 – 30 years old.

Women make up the fastest growing prison population in the United States. It’s a key part of the war on women, and as we know, war is not healthy for children “and other living things”.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube.com/DemocracyNow.org)

Sendai, Fukushima, and the narrow road to the ancients

The road to the ancients, this week, is a narrow path to the north. It is composed of the dead, the suffering, the children and the elders and the pregnant women. It began with crushing noise followed by obliterating silence, and now … the return of black rain.

In Port-au-Prince, this week, people shudder, look at one another and whisper, “Nous sommes tous Japonais.” We are all Japanese.

We are not all Japanese, but we are all stunned. What are we to say, to think, to feel, to do as the images continue, as the news worsens, as our heads continue to shake in disbelief and our tears continue to sting?

The evacuation proceeds. Some say the evacuation is too cautious, too reactionary.  When nuclear reactors are threatened, when there is a danger of radiation leakage, as clearly there is in Fukushima, remove the pregnant women, remove the children, remove the elders.  Do it whether or not the reactors have blown, exploded, ignited. Do it in advance. That is a lesson of Chernobyl, especially for pregnant women. That is a lesson of Three Mile Island, especially for children.

The elders suffer particular hardships in the disaster in Sendai. First, Japan is the most rapidly aging country in the world, with the longest life expectancy. Women live to 86 years old, men to 79. More than 20 percent of Japan’s estimated population of 127 million is over 65 years old. 20 percent of Japan’s elders live in poverty. Elder care has been a crisis for some time now.

Second, Sendai is an area with many elders. Some came for the `peaceful’, and less costly, life. Others have lived their lives in the Tohoku region, in the northeast of Japan, and have watched as the younger generations moved south, to better jobs, to the metropole.  The tsunami struck an area with a higher proportion of elders.

The earthquake, the tsunami, the flames and the radioactive leaks struck at the most vulnerable. They came down, and continue to come down, on the deep north of the country, which is also the interior, the inner recesses, even the dead-end.

On the 16 May 1689, at the age of 45, the poet Matsuo Basho set off, with a companion and friend Sora, to walk to Oku, on the island of Honshu. His travel journal, if it can be called that, Oku no Hosomichi, is said to be one of the most revered literary texts in Japanese history. Its title is variously translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Narrow Road to Oku, Narrow Road to the Interior. Upon his return to his home in Edo, Basho spent the next three years editing and revising the journal, which he completed in 1694. Then he died, and the book was published posthumously.

The journey began: “Days and months are travelers of eternity.  So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives, travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road.”

At one point, Basho and Sora arrive at Sendai. It was a day of celebration, in which residents tied blue irises to the eaves and roofs of their homes and prayed for health. The travelers stayed for a few days, prayed, relaxed, sought out a famous painter Kaemon, and then moved on. They followed a map drawn by Kaemon and came to a monument, over a thousand years old, and paused:

“In this ever-changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their courses, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients. I felt as if I were in the presence of the ancients themselves.”

On the road leading out of Sendai to the deep north, the poet Basho came face to face with time, with timelessness, and with the ancients. And he knew joy.  What would he know today?

This week, the road to the ancients is once again a narrow path to the north.

 

(Photo Credit: Fukushima `Black Rain” by Soichiro Koriyama)