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The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

A version of this article appears on Socialist Resurgence: https://socialistresurgence.org/2019/10/23/the-struggle-against-the-40-days-for-life/

The Struggle Against the 40 Days for Life

Heather Bradford

10/21/19


While some people prefer to spend the fall season carving pumpkins, thousands of anti-choice activists across the United States prefer to spend it trying to carve away reproductive rights.  In over 500 cities, from Marietta, Georgia to Bismarck, North Dakota, anti-choice protesters have once again mobilized for the annual fall campaign 40 Days for Life. Beginning September 25th and ending November 3rd, reproductive health clinics are again inundated with demonstrators from dawn until dusk during the 40 day vigil.  In the wake of aggressive abortion restrictions passed last spring and summer and over forty years of attacks on abortion rights, it is critical that pro-choice activists take action against this campaign.        


What is the 40 Days for Life?

For those unfamiliar with these events, the 40 Days for Life is an international campaign which urges participants to use prayer, fasting, education, and vigils to stop abortion.  On the surface, these may sound benign compared to arson, murder, acid attacks, or other less kindly tactics used by the anti-choice movement in the past. Participants must even sign an agreement that they will obey the law and conduct themselves with non-violence.  Nevertheless, these tactics constitute harassment of patients who utilize reproductive health services. If it was truly a matter of religious fasting and prayer, this could be done in the privacy of home or in churches, rather than at hundreds of reproductive health clinics across the country.  While the actions are framed as vigils, these “vigils” are held outside of clinics, sometimes for over twelve hours a day, for the entire forty days. Participants carry signs which say “Pray to End Abortion” and “witness” or engage with staff, patients, and pedestrians. The religious language of vigil obscures the reality that it is a picket and “witnessing” often amounts to harassment.  For instance, at the WE Health Clinic in Duluth, Minnesota a few of these picketers have prayed loudly, played religious music, skirted the property, and entered the physical space of patients and counter protesters. Indeed, it is a movement to end abortion not through the imagined power of the spiritual realm, but in the very real public arena through picketing and marshaling anti-choice activists into action.  While there may be some praying involved, appearing at clinics amounts to preying upon patients.          


The 40 Days for Life initially grew out of anti-choice activism in Texas.  David Bereit, the founder of the group and former pharmaceutical sales representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb, began his activist career organizing against the 1998 expansion of a Planned Parenthood in College Station, Texas.  The Planned Parenthood had operated in College Station for 24 years, but sought to build a stand alone facility to provide abortions. In response to this, Bereit founded the Coalition for Life, which protested the Planned Parenthood on abortion days.  Over the years, he saw decreased engagement in this organizing. Looking for fresh tactics, he envisioned the 40 Days for Life as a shorter, more targeted campaign. Held in the fall of 2004, the first 40 Days for Life recruited 1000 volunteers to picket in the public right away of the College Station Planned Parenthood.  The campaign drew support from local churches and Knights of Columbus, who covered daily shifts from 7 am to 3 pm. The following year, a second 40 Days for Life was launched in Dallas, Texas to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and quickly expanded to Seattle, Houston, and Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Owing to the swift success of the campaign, Bereit went on to work for the American Life League, a national organization opposed to euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research, and all forms of contraceptives.  The first nationally coordinated 40 days for Life began in 2007 in 89 cities and 33 states (Bereit, Carney, and Lambert, 2017). The campaign has since spread to 61 countries, has amassed 1 million participants, is supported to 19,000 churches, and claims to have closed over 104 abortion clinics (Saving lives and ending abortion, 2019)


It is a certainly a bold claim to say they have closed 104 abortion clinics.  But, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of clinics across the country.  For instance, in 1992 Kentucky had eight abortion facilities, but as of 2018 had one. In 1992, Louisiana had 17 abortion facilities and as of 2018 had three.  In Missouri, there were 12 abortion facilities, but in 2018, it was down to one. Many of these closures are due to TRAP laws, or Targeted Regulations of Abortion Facilities.  TRAP laws are among the 1,100 restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade and target clinics by forcing them to comply with unnecessary regulations such as admitting privileges, minimum room and doorway sizes, and meeting the requirements of ambulatory surgical centers. The Supreme Court struck down TRAP laws in Texas in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (Arons, n.d.).  However, the decision came too late for many clinics.  In 2013, prior to the passage of TRAP Laws under House Bill 2, there were over 40 abortion clinics in Texas. This number was halved by the time the Supreme Court decision was made in 2016 and it is unlikely that many of the clinics will reopen (Ura, Murphy, Daniel, and Carbonell, 2016).  The 40 Days for Life is not specifically related to TRAP laws, but it is part of a continuum of tactics used by the anti-choice movement. With fewer clinics operating across the country, it is easier for anti-choice forces to concentrate their protests on what few remain. The Planned Parenthood that served College Station, where the 40 Days for Life began, itself closed in 2013.  The clinic, along with three other Planned Parenthood clinics, closed their doors the same day Texas governor Rick Perry announced the passage of House Bill 2. However, the clinic cited that loss of funding after the 2011 legislative session was the reason for the closure (Brown, 2013). The closure of the clinic was made more appalling by the fact that the facility subsequently went on to become a crisis pregnancy center called Hope Pregnancy Center and a headquarters for the 40 Days for Life (CCM News, 2015).  Crisis Pregnancy Centers are yet another tactic used by the anti-choice movement. These fake clinics have proliferated across the United States, using the guise of reproductive health care to spread false information and lure abortion seekers away from actual clinics. 


 

The 40 Days for Life Campaign Today


This year in Minnesota, there are seven registered 40 Days for Life campaigns.  The number of campaigns outnumber the actual number abortion clinics in the state, which is five.  According to UnRestrict MN, three of five of these clinics are located within the Minneapolis and St. Paul area (2019).  Wisconsin is hosting seven 40 Days for Life vigils this year, but only has three abortion clinics in the state. Many of these pickets are located at Planned Parenthood clinics, which often do not provide abortions.  For instance, Planned Parenthoods in Mankato, MN and St. Cloud, MN are not abortion providers, but are locations for the 40 Days for Life campaign. The campaign therefore target cancer screening, STI tests, birth control, transgender health services, and other health care.  Make no mistake, they want to end Planned Parenthood. Even communities without reproductive health providers are hosting campaigns. Although Walker, Minnesota has a population less than 1000 and is two hours away from the nearest abortion clinics in either direction, it is home to a 40 Days for Life campaign.  The remote town was even visited by Dr. Haywood Robinson, the director of campaign’s medical affairs and education. Robinson was once an abortion provider, who now describes abortion as genocide and was a founding member of the 40 Days for Life when it first launched in Texas (40 Days For Life’ speaker comes to Walker, 2019).   


The passage of restrictive abortion laws this past year has only increased the numbers of anti-choice protesters at clinics this fall.  The Red River Clinic of Fargo, North Dakota, the only abortion clinic in the state, reported a larger than usual number of protesters during this year’s 40 Days for Life.  Earlier this year, North Dakota passed a law which would require doctors to provide inaccurate information that drug induced abortion can be reversed. A lawsuit against the restriction has been filed by the Red River Clinic and American Medical Association and the law was recently blocked by a federal judge (Hyatt, 2019).  In Alabama, where the Human Life Protection Act was passed in May, protesters have reportedly increased in numbers in the subsequent months. The ban, which sought to make abortion a felony offense for doctors and outlawed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is being legally challenged by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.  Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery Alabama, one of three clinics in the state, has braced itself for more demonstrators, who have purchased a nearby parking lot for their operations. Their activities include a mobile ultrasound machine called “Life on Wheels,” which offers ultrasounds to abortion seekers in an attempt to sway their decision.  A local pro-choice organization called Power House, provides housing for abortion seekers and escorts them to their appointment by shielding them with an umbrella and navigating the crowds of harassers (Crain, 2019). As a whole, there has been a substantial uptick in anti-choice activities at abortion clinics over the last several years. The number of protesters outside of clinics was 21, 175 in 2015 and by 2018 had risen to 99,409.  Incidents of obstruction at clinics has also increased, from 242 instances in 2015 to 3,038 instances in 2018. One example is Red Rose Rescue, wherein anti-choice activists trespass into health clinics to harass patients under the guise of giving them a red rose. Abortion clinics reported 15,773 instances of internet harassment and hate mail in 2017, which increases to 21, 252 in 2018. Instances of hate mail and phone harassment increased by 1000 since 2015 (National Abortion Federation, 2018).  This increased activity has many causes and no doubt, the election of Donald Trump has emboldened many reactionary elements of society. Further, anti-choice activists may be on the move because their movement has been given new life by their many successes passing abortion restrictions, expanding crisis pregnancy centers, and limiting funding to reproductive health services (such as Planned Parenthood’s loss of Title X funding).     


The Need for a 40 Days for Choice


There are modest, but valiant efforts across the country to counter the 40 Days for Life.  In 2014, the Feminist Justice League in Duluth, Minnesota began counter protesting the 40 Days for Life and have continued this effort each fall, picketing once a week.  The group has also organized “Chalk for Choice” once a week. This event entails creating positive messages and images on the plaza of the Building for Women. The Building for Women is home to the WE Health Clinic, one of the five abortion clinics in Minnesota.  The clinic plays an important role in providing abortion to the northern and central parts of the state as well as Northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Locally, the 40 Days for Choice has grown, as Feminist Action Collective, founded after the election of Donald Trump, has also sponsored a once a week counter protest during the 40 Days for Life.  H.O.T.D.I.S.H. (Hands of the Decision, It’s Healthcare) Militia, an abortion fund also located in Duluth, has also joined the 40 Days for Choice, and last year hosted one night a week of protest and also organizes an abortion fundraiser during the 40 Days. Other Duluth events for the 40 Days for Choice this year included an educational presentation on the constitutional history of reproductive rights, a launch party for the 40 Days for Choice, and an upcoming poetry night that celebrates body autonomy.  University of Minnesota Duluth’s Student Advocates for Choice have also collaborated on community events for the 40 Days for Choice, including participation in the H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia abortion fundraiser and hosting their own protests of the Women’s Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center located across the street from the WE Health Clinic. The statewide UnRestrict Minnesota campaign has sponsored some of these events and sought to involve AFSCME in reproductive rights organizing. The collaboration of multiple groups for the 40 Days for Choice offers an organizing template of what might be possible elsewhere in the country.


Other events are also being organized.  Since 2015, the Guild of Silly Heathens in Missouri has hosted a variety of pro-choice events for a 40 Days for Choice at Planned Parenthood in Columbia, Mo.  Like many Planned Parenthood clinics, the Columbia location does not provide abortions but is still a hot spot for anti-choice protest. The sole abortion provider in Missouri is in St. Louis (Woods, 2018).   Missouri is one of six states with only one abortion clinic, a clinic which was almost closed this past summer in the wake of new restrictions. The Movement for Abortion Defense in Cincinnati, Ohio has also counter protested the 40 Days for Life last spring.  Madison Wisconsin Abortion Defense held a counter protest against the 40 Days for Life last March. Unfortunately, there is no nationally coordinated effort to organize the 40 Days for Life, so these actions are taken by individual groups or small networks of groups in collaboration.


Abortion does not have to be a controversial issue.  It is healthcare that should be available free, readily, safely, on demand, and without stigma.  Beyond healthcare, it is vital to the equality, inclusion and empowerment of women and abortion seekers who are trans and non-binary.   Forced pregnancy is degrading, inhumane, and dangerous. There is a lot of work to be done to fight back against the onslaught of restrictions and barriers that have been passed since Roe v. Wade.  One piece of this work should be a nationally organized campaign against the 40 Days for Life as part of renewed engagement in clinic defense and mass action.  The anti-choice movement is coming out in force and all defenders of reproductive justice rise to the occasion in a time when abortion rights are already barely existent in large swaths of the country.  While this is a movement that has sworn to non-violence tactics, the consequence of illegal abortion is anything but. In a society with widespread sexual assault, domestic violence, economic deprivation, mass incarceration, and marginalization of the oppressed, body autonomy is the leading front in the battleground for liberation.  prochoice


Sources:

Arons, J. (n.d.). The Last Clinics Standing. Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/reproductive-freedom/abortion/last-clinics-standing.

Bereit, D., Carney, S., & Lambert, C. (2017). 40 Days for life: discover what God has done … imagine what He can do. Nashville, TN: Cappella Books. 

Brown, B. (2013, July 19). Planned Parenthood announces closure of Bryan clinic, two others in Texas. Retrieved from https://www.theeagle.com/news/local/planned-parenthood-announces-closure-of-bryan-clinic-two-others-in/article_f5ded327-fe5a-5694-b5e3-35a759a33ef2.html.

CM News. (2015, November 10). Planned Parenthood Facility Repurposed In Bryan, Texas. Retrieved from https://www.ccmmagazine.com/news/planned-parenthood-facility-repurposed-in-bryan-texas/.

Crain, A. (2019, September 25). 40 Days for Life means more protesters outside Alabama abortion clinic. Retrieved from https://www.al.com/news/2019/09/40-days-for-life-means-more-protesters-outside-alabama-abortion-clinic.html.

How many abortion clinics are there in Minnesota? (2019). Retrieved from https://unrestrictmn.org/faq/abortion-facilities-in-minnesota/.

Hyatt, K. (2019, September 25). Protesters gather outside Fargo abortion clinic on start of 40-day campaign. Retrieved from https://www.westfargopioneer.com/news/4678872-Protesters-gather-outside-Fargo-abortion-clinic-on-start-of-40-day-campaign.

National Abortion Federation. (2018). 2018 Anti-Abortion Violence and Disruption Statistics. (pp. 1–10). Retrieved from https://prochoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-Anti-Abortion-Violence-and-Disruption.pdf

Saving lives & ending abortion. (2019). Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.40daysforlife.com/about-results.aspx. 

Ura, A., Murphy, R., Daniel, A., & Carbonell, L. (2016, June 28). Here Are the Texas Abortion Clinics That Have Closed Since 2013. Retrieved from https://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/28/texas-abortion-clinics-have-closed-hb2-passed-2013/.

Woods, E. (2018, January 3). 40 Days for Life: Protesting the Protesters. Retrieved from https://reproaction.org/40-days-for-life-protesting-the-protesters/.

’40 Days For Life’ speaker comes to Walker, (2019, October 17). Retrieved from https://www.bluemountaineagle.com/life/national/days-for-life-speaker-comes-to-walker/article_16d52b8a-84c2-567b-b1d9-4815c43db3f8.html.

 

Illegal Abortion: Lessons From Romania

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Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania

by H. Bradford

7/10/18

I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity.  In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries.  In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose.  Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience.  Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade.  While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us.  Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.


To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year).  Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989.  During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain.  The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals.  According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.


1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:

Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end.  Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers.  Most often it was through illegal channels.  The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion.  One way or another, women continued to seek abortions.  Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege.  Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws.  Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest.  It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce.   For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children.  She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed.  While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.


Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it.  Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here.  Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive.  Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services.  Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding.  The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society.  While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.


  1.  Unsafe Abortion:

The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions.  Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women.  These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created.  Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences.  Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals.  About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman.  As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion.  This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death.  Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion.  In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania.  Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.


Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States.  There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania.  For one, abortion medicine is more advanced.  In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989.  Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania).  The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States.  Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose.  Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were.  This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge.  Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers.  This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion.  There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy.  However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.


  1. Criminality:

In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions.  Time in prison was generally one to three years.  However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer.  Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes.  She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment.  Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.


If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty.  In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment.  Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder.  Why is it different?  And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes.  But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison.  The United States has the largest prison population in the world.  22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion.  What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned?  The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population.  African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population.  Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.

Image result for romania communist prison


  1. Unwanted Children:

One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children.  After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion.  Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages.  Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV.  After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse.  Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth.  I doubt the United States would do much better.


Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children.  In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request).  For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request.  Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives.  In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire.  The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer.  Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children).  While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families.  The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families.  In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children.  There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.

Image result for romanian communist woman


  1. Ideology of Gender Oppression:

In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion.  After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated.  Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression.  However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women.  Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state.  Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother.  While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women.  In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers.  That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive.  Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag.  Women are not naturally anything.  Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary.  So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions.  Not all people with uteruses are women.  Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced.  The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement.  In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman.  It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.

Image result for romanian communist women


  1. Culture of Suspicion:

Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion.  Women were made to have regular gynecological exams.  Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women.  Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another.  Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.


The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame.  Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common.  If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence.   Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame.  In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion.  I am pro-abortion.  If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine.  Abortion can be life saving.  Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships.  Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.

 


  1. Abortion and Abuse

Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area.  However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter.  Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil.  She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy.  State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week.  The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.


If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser.  Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power.  Advocates have pushed back against this narrative.  Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have.  However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation).  Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims.  Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.

  1.  U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion

One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies.  Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west.  The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States.  This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women.  Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.


Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact.  One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since.  Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services.  I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere.  In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries.  The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world.  I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here.   In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.

Image result for jimmy carter ceausescu

Conclusion:

Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other.  It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system.  But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized.  In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators.  In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives.  While women might not have the power  to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience.   As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

Image result for aging well

(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

Image result for garbage dump gull

(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/16/18

2017 was a big year for feminism.  The election of Donald Trump mobilized feminists towards activism, which was expressed through events such as the Women’s March, International Women’s Day Strike, protests and social media campaigns regarding sexual harassment and assault, forming new groups, and more.  It is an exciting time to be a feminist, to be sure.  Locally, there has been a flourishing of feminist activities this past year.  The Feminist Action Collective emerged in November 2016 as a large, active, vibrate group which has sponsored a variety of successful events over the past year.  Locally, we have also seen the re-emergence of the HOTDISH Militia, which began in 2002 but had become inactive over the years.  Our group, the Feminist Justice League, was established several years ago during a much less active time in feminist organizing.  The renewed interest in feminism creates new challenges and opportunities for our group.  The following is an overview of our activism in 2017 as well as our outlook for 2018.


 

January 2017 Women’s March, Duluth MN:

2017 started off big with several January events.  The first was the January 2017 Women’s March.  The Feminist Action Collective organized buses to Washington DC, but there was also a local march in Duluth.  One of our members, A. attended the march in Washington DC and later reported her experience back to the group at an event we hosted as a local coffee shop.  It was an inspiring experience for her, despite some mechanical mishaps experienced by the bus.  Several members of the Feminist Justice League participated in the local march in Duluth, which was attended by several thousand people.  This year, Feminist Action Collective is organizing an anniversary march.  Feminist Justice League is supporting their efforts in a number of ways.  Firstly, we have endorsed the event.  Secondly, we are going to make some posters for the event on Friday.  Thirdly, I have tried to promote their event by obtaining sponsors for them, such as Occupy Duluth, Socialist Action, and Safe Haven.  A. and I will also serve as Peace Marshalls at the event.

an image from the Duluth News Tribune- Duluth Women’s March

 

Glow for Roe:

Feminist Justice League organized Glow for Roe last year, which happened to fall on the SAME day as the Women’s March and Dough for Utero.  Although it was an extremely busy day, about two dozen people showed up to hold glow sticks for our glow in the dark protest in support of reproductive rights.  We have done this event twice before and this was the most successful year for that particular protest.  However, in 2018, we are not hosting a Glow for Roe event.  This is because there is already a Women’s March, Dough for Utero, and Party on the Plaza.  Glow for Roe was developed when there was far less feminist activism, so moving towards the future, it may not be as necessary as it was in the past.  Still, a glow in the dark protest is a fun idea, so perhaps it will return in 2019! Image may contain: 4 people, night and outdoor

Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza:

January 2017 also saw Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza, which were both organized by Hotdish Militia and the Women’s Health Center.  Dough for Utero featured $19.73 pizza and beer, raising more money than any previous fundraiser.  Party in the Plaza was a vibrant event in which several Feminist Justice League members attended.  We contributed to the event by promoting it and providing picket signs.  Certainly, 2017 saw more activism related to reproductive rights than there has been in Duluth for a long time! Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, dog and outdoor

Valentine Letters to Prisoners

In February, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a Valentine Letters to Prisoners event with Superior Save the Kids.  The goal of the event was to send solidarity cards to prisoners near Valentine’s Day.  In Christian traditions, Valentine cards were first exchanged by St. Valentine while he was in a Roman prison, so the theme seemed suiting.  The event was attended by several people and was a way for our group to be more intersectional as we tried to connect feminism with issues in the criminal justice system.

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A photo of A.C.’s letters last year

Homeless Bill of Rights Letter Writing:

Feminist Justice League hosted a small letter writing event, wherein members gathered at a coffee shop and wrote letters to the editor to various news outlets regarding the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Feminist Justice League is one of the endorsing organizations of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  A year later, the homeless bill has not yet passed, protracting this already long struggle to pass a bill ensuring that homeless individuals are treated with dignity.


International Women’s Day Strike:

In March, Feminist Justice League organized a symbolic strike for International Women’s Day.  The strike was a protest that lasted for 78 minutes to highlight the pay gap between men and women.  At various intervals, we banged on pots to highlight the pay gap between Hispanic women, African American women, Native American women, Pacific Islander women, and women over the age of 55 and men.  This event was followed by a panel, wherein several speakers discussed labor issues and gender.  The event was successful in that it was covered by several news outlets and was even mentioned in a British Socialist newspaper! Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, hat, child and outdoor

HOTDISH Militia Bowl-a-Thon:

The biggest event that Feminist Justice League participated in April was HOTDISH Militia’s bowl-a-thon.  We had a team of about seven people and though I don’t remember the exact number, I believe we raised over $600.  Our team dressed as superheroes at the event and won a prize for best costumes.  It was a fun event and HOTDISH Militia’s best fundraising event yet!  They reached their fundraising goal and were able to obtain matched funds to help low income women access reproductive health care locally. Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Graham Garfield Petition:

In May, members of the Feminist Justice League participated in several events related to the Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  We were able to develop a successful petition which contributed to his resignation as a Superior City Councilor.  However, interest in the case waned over time and although his trial is ongoing, there is little activism around it at this time. Still, I think that the group was able to effectively work towards his resignation and can be proud that we sought to educate the community about myths regarding domestic violence.


 

Mother’s Day Letters to Prisoners/Film Showing:

During the month of May, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a film showing about incarcerated mothers with Superior Save the Kids.  The group also co-sponsored a mother’s day themed Letters to Prisoners event.  By helping to host and support these events, Feminist Justice League hopes to connect feminism with other issues.


 

Chalk for Choice:

During the summer and fall, Feminist Justice League sponsored Chalk for Choice events on the evening before clinic days at the Women’s Health Center.  While these events are often only attended by a few people, our group receives a lot of positive feedback from workers at the WHC.  During these events, we draw or write supportive images and messages for the patients and workers who utilize the Women’s Health Center.  The events provides us with a creative niche for our activism.  Looking at 2018, it should certainly continue these events as they are easy to organize, do not require large numbers of participants, and are a unique way to promote reproductive rights. No automatic alt text available.

40 Days of Choice:

For the past several years, Feminist Justice League has organized events for 40 Days of Choice, which happens each year in September and October in response to the 40 Days of Life.  The 40 Days of Life is an international campaign wherein pro-life activists gather outside of abortion clinics and reproductive health centers to pray and protest to end abortion.  The Feminist Justice League was actually founded in response to this annual pro-life campaign.  This year, as in year’s past, we participated in the event by hosting Friday pro-choice pickets.  Some of the pickets were smaller than in year’s past owing to FJL’s dwindling numbers.  On the other hand, some were larger owing to the participating of the HOTDISH milia this year.  HOTDISH sponsored its own Thursday pickets.  Our goal next year should be to increase the numbers at these events by bolstering our own membership, continued collaboration with Hotdish, and improved collaboration with Feminist Action Collective.  This year, we also hosted a successful launching party for the 40 Days of Choice, but the success of the event would not have been possible without HOTDISH Milia’s collaboration and WHC’s support. Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

Feminist Frolics:

Once a month throughout the year, Feminist Justice League hosted events called Feminist Frolics.  These events usually do not attract more than four or five people, but are high quality educational opportunities and community building events.  This year’s highlights include a citizen science project wherein were learned about women in science and learned how to test the health of a river by examining small fauna such as snails, worms, and insect larvae.  We also learned how to geocache and did this while collecting garbage.  I researched women and waste management and did a short presentation on that topic for our event.  We also learned more about fungi and one of our members, Ar., told us about her experiences gathering and selling mushrooms to local businesses.   A few of us also attended a Halloween themed event wherein we hiked to an abandoned cemetery at night and learned about the history of witches and capitalism, based upon my readings on that topic.  We have not done a frolic in a few months due to cold weather, but we can consider planning more at our next meeting.  My suggestion is that we continued them, but on a more irregular basis in 2018.  Personally, I put a great deal of effort into researching these topics and lack the time I once had.  However, I think that these events remain viable if we can find others who are willing to research and present the topics.  These events remain important because they are an opportunity for learning, connecting to nature, and bonding. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, child, shoes and outdoor

Spark in the Dark:

Following the swarm of sexual harassment and assault cases involving celebrities and politicians, FJL organized a small protest against assault and harassment.  The goal was to believe victims, hold public figures accountable, and make ourselves visible.  The evening event was attended by about a dozen activists, despite chilly weather.  In the end, we lit sparklers to symbolize the spark of social movement organizing around these issues but also light in darkness. Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and crowd

Christmas Cards to Prisoners:

The same day as the Spark in the Dark event, we once again collaborated with Letters to Prisoners/Save the Kids to send Christmas Cards to Prisoners.  The event was the best attended Letters to Prisoners event yet.  It was hosted at Amazing Grace Cafe and activists at the event were interviewed by a newspaper. Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

 

Looking at 2018

 

Our Challenges and Assets:

As we move into 2018, our biggest challenge by far is that we have a small, active membership.  Over the years, we have lost a few people who used to be more active in the group.  One of our active members, A., has recently had a child so she will not be as active for a while.  Two of our members, C. and An., have young children so they will not be able to participate as much as they would like.  Children should not be a barrier to participation and this also shows our weakness in providing child care.  Since we are small, it is hard to provide this service.  At the same time, perhaps we can think of alternative roles for these members, such as posting online content to our Facebook page.  Small membership limits what we can do as an organization but also has a demoralizing effect.  I often wonder if I have personally failed as an activist when our numbers are low.  Thus, we should brainstorm ways in which we can attract new members.  Ideas towards this end might include collaborating with other organizations, tabling at events, putting up fliers more often, and advertising ourselves more on community calendars.  I think it is also important to reframe what success looks like and better work with what we have.  If interest in feminism is generally increased and other organizations have seen new members, then we should celebrate the overall victory of feminism, even if our organization is small.  Further, even a small organization can maximize its impact in the community through collaboration with others.


Despite our low numbers, we do have some assets.  I am proud of the many events that our group sponsored and organized last year.  We also have some great members with some useful knowledge and skills.  Both J. and I work in the field of domestic violence, which I think puts us in a good position to do activism related to this. I also work part time at the WHC, so I think this will help us continue our reproductive rights activism. We have a new member named C, who is smart, knowledgeable of science, and very active in criminal justice activism.  A. is a male member and close friend who is an asset to the group because of his long history of local activism, especially his labor activism.  We have several members who sometimes attend, but perhaps get spread thin by their own activist schedules.  Overall, we often attract low-income and working class activists to our group.  We also often attract members who have experienced homelessness, trauma, mental health issues, poverty, violence, etc.  I think that we can be proud of ourselves if we continue to be an organization that creates space for those who experience multiple oppressions.  While these things can be barriers to activism, it can inform the sorts of issues we work on and perspectives we promote.  At the same time, our organization mostly attracts white people.  There is no immediate solution to making our group more diverse, but, we should always be mindful of the pitfalls of “White feminism” and seriously consider how the group can tackle racism along with sexism.   Sponsoring, promoting, attending, and collaborating with anti-racism activism is one step in that direction.


Finally, several of our key members and most of those who attend our events are anti-capitalist.  This can help us create a niche in the feminist movement.  Although we are a small group, we can act as a complimentary group to FAC.  FAC is a larger group that appeals to a broader group of people.  However, based upon their focus on candidate events, female identity, representation in politics and the business community, etc. the group leans towards liberal feminist ideology.  Our niche in comparison is that we should try to attract anarchist and socialist feminists or provide space to promote those ideologies.  While this ideological focus is less popular, promoting anti-capitalist feminism is a way to differentiate ourselves and what we do.  This should not be rigid nor a requirement for participation/membership- but a useful framework for focusing the organization’s tactics and issues.  The goal is not to compete with other feminist groups, but to broaden the overall feminist movement through theoretical diversity while collaborating on common causes.


Our Goals:

Based upon the following summary, I suggest the following goals for 2018.

 

  1. Co-sponsor a Letters to Prisoners Valentine, Mother’s Day, and Christmas events in 2018 to continue criminal justice related work.
  2. Continue Feminist Frolics on a more limited basis in 2018.  For instance, create feminist history geocaches in the area for Women’s History Month in March.
  3. Host an event for International Women’s Day in March (depending upon other local events)
  4. Consider collaborating with other organizations to create a community Take Back the Night this summer as the major undertaking of the year.
  5. Continue to Chalk for Choice in the warmer months.
  6. Continue the 40 Days of Choice events.
  7. Work more closely with Feminist Action Collective
  8. Continue to work with HOTDISH Militia
  9. Consider other projects such as a Stitch and Bitch Group
  10. Plan an action related to Crisis Pregnancy Centers
  11. Participate in the Bowl-a-Thon
  12. Host a socialist feminist educational event
  13. Increase our membership by at least one or two core members
  14. Collaborate with and support other organizations and events in areas such as labor, anti-racism, environment, indigenous rights, anti-war, sex workers rights, LGBT issues, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, US imperialism, etc.
  15. Table, put up fliers, make better use of the media
  16. Continue to consider our purpose and niche so that we remain relevant
  17. Try to promote ourselves more!  We could make buttons…

 

Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners

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Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners

H. Bradford

2/16/17

On February 13th, the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition), collaborated with Letters to Prisoners and Superior Save the Kids to do a solidarity Valentine card event.  The event was attended by about nine individuals, who met at the Superior Public Library for an hour and a half as they wrote letters and sent cards to various incarcerated individuals.   The event was a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and produced a large pile of letters.  As I report back on this event, I wanted to share a little history and why this is a feminist issue.


Now, when I pitched the idea to Meghan, the organizer for Letters to Prisoners, she was a little worried that the idea of women sending Valentine cards to prisoners was a little….iffy.  Not that there is anything wrong with women forming relationships with men who are in prison, but this sort of letter writing doesn’t seem like a particularly feministy activity.  In a way, this represents how it is almost impossible to think about Valentine’s Day in a non-romantic way!  Valentine Cards are almost always about romantic love.  (Though in my own card shopping this year, I was surprised to find that there are a fair amount of Valentine Cards sold on behalf of cats and dogs…)  In any event, it was very important to make clear that this event was not about romance.  It was about sending cards that express love for freedom, social justice, humanity, and a better world.  Hence, these were solidarity Valentine cards.

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Sending cards to prisoners on Valentine’s Day makes a lot of sense to me.  Now, eons ago, I used to be a Lutheran.  Lutherans aren’t known for their support of Saints (hence, the whole protestant reformation).  However, I remember in confirmation class I learned about Saint Valentine, probably around Valentine’s Day.   I learned that he was imprisoned for performing Christian weddings in the pagan Roman Empire and sent a letter to his followers before his execution.   Even Catholics don’t know if St. Valentine actually existed as a historical individual.  According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the first person named St. Valentine was beheaded on Feb 14th 270 AD for comforting Christian martyrs.  There are two other saints named Valentine, one who was killed in Africa and another who was a Bishop in Terni (north of Rome).   It is the Bishop from Terni who may be the Valentine most associated with the holiday, as he allegedly married couples and thusly became the patron saint of young people, marriage, and love.  He is also the saint of bee keeping, epilepsy, and plagues, though these don’t sound quite as romantic.  Like the original Valentine, his feast day was February 14th.   In some stories, he either befriended or was romantically involved with the daughter of his jailer/judge, but this may have been a later addition to his story.  Over time, the story and feast day became more closely associated with romance rather than Christian martyrdom.   The romantic associations with the holiday may have come from other holidays, such as the Roman holiday of Lupercalia (which involved match making) between Feb 13-15 and Galatin’s Day (lover of women day).


Like Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, modern Valentine’s Day took off in the United States mid to late 1800s.  This was bolstered by the industrial revolution, which allowed for the mass production of media, gift items, and cards (a boon for popularizing holidays).  Like the other holidays, the modern celebrations was also buoyed by increased space for secularism in society.   It would be interesting to write a history of Valentine’s Day, but for lack of space and time, suffice to say the holiday has had some romantic connotations since the beginning, but if the story is boiled down to its most basic elements it is a story of a man who is imprisoned and executed by a powerful empire on the basis of religious belief.   It is a story about capital punishment and religious intolerance.  Christianity may be the dominant religion in this country today, but religious persecution certainly continues through the violence, incarceration, and surveillance of Muslims in our country as well as recent attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country.   In terms of capital punishment, the United States is the only country in the Americas that executed prisoners in 2015.  Most industrialized countries have abolished the death penalty, so although we are among the 54 countries that practice capital punishment- most of the other countries are our so-called enemies…you know, the poor countries that we want to bring democracy to in the Middle East and Africa.  Because of the actual history of St. Valentine, I think that the holiday provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on our criminal justice system.

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I have only gone to a few Letters to Prisoners events, but a person can learn a lot about our criminal justice system by simply sending a letter or card.  For instance, although the event was pitched as a Valentine card making event, prisoners are not allowed to receive glittery, pretty, colorful handmade cards.  The cards must be done in black and white ink.  Likewise, the prisoners can not receive letters with colorful birds or flowers.  The stamps must be Forever FLAG stamps.  Officially, this is to control what kinds of stamps are sent to prevent drugs from being sent in the guise of stamps.  But really?  Really?  Forever FLAG stamps.  I think this sends a powerful message that they are owned and controlled by the United States.  The letters are stamped with mandatory patriotism.  I also observed that most of the prisons are in the south of the United States.  For instance, I sent cards to four political prisoners with birthdays in February.  Three of the four were in prisons in the southern U.S.   The south has the largest prison population.  There are 867,000 prisoners in Louisiana, Alabama has 677,000 prisoners, and Mississippi has 740,000 prisoners.  Georgia has over 550,000 prisoners and Texas 669,000.  Minnesota has 194,00 and California 365,000.  The states with the highest prison populations have the poorest populations and a history of slavery.   While the bulk of the U.S. prison population lives in the south, as a whole, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.  We have more prisons than colleges.  Finally, many of the political prisoners that I have written to have been imprisoned for decades.  Many, like Leonard Peltier, will likely die in prison.  If we look to our neighbors in the Americas, many countries limit life sentences.  In Brazil,  Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay the maximum prison sentence is 30 years.  It is 25 years in Paraguay and 35 years in Ecuador.  I find it ironic that many of the countries that the United States has tried to bring democracy to through supported coups and military training are actually more democratic and humane that our own country.

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To connect the issue more closely to feminism specifically, I had my friend Lucas construct a list of female prisoners for participants to write to.  Participants in the letter writing event chose from this list or sought other lists from online.  While the United States hosts 25% of the world’s prison population, if we looked at the world’s female prison population, we detain 33% of the world’s female prisoners.  It is astonishing to think that 1/3 of all of the women in prison, in the entire world, are held in the United States.  While we did not discuss female specific issues related to prisoners at the event, there are some unique challenges that female prisoners face.  For one, while prisoners should legally have the right, this has been denied to women.  States such as Georgia, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Missouri have no policy regarding pregnancy, which leaves the decision in the hands of correctional facilities.  In the past, correctional facilities in Arizona and Missouri have refused to transport female prisoners for abortion procedures.  Of course, barriers that all women face in obtaining abortion pertain to imprisoned women as well, including waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, limited access in some parts of the country, parental consent, etc.  Female inmates with children must navigate custody issues and expensive phone calls if they want to remain in touch with their children.   A collect phone call from a prison in Minnesota costs about 75 cents a minute, but in Kentucky, the cost is $5.70 a minute!  In North Dakota, the cost is over $6.00 a minute!  These costs are expensive because prisons have contracts with phone companies, which offer kickbacks to the agency that contracted with them.  From my own experience working in a domestic violence shelter, many of the women who come to shelter have criminal histories.  However, some of this includes arrests for assaults that were really actions taken for self-defense.  These criminal backgrounds make it harder to obtain housing, as it may disqualify them from some programs or make landlords less willing to rent to them.  It also makes employment more difficult, as only the lowest paid sectors of the service industry will hire them.  This creates barriers for escaping domestic violence and building a life outside of crime and poverty for their family.  But, gender aside, as human beings, we are all diminished by a racist, ableist, and classist criminal justice system which divides us, removes sectors of the population away from their families and communities, and steals the lives of fellow humans at a profit to corporations!

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Sources:

http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/history-of-st-valentine.html

http://www.rawstory.com/2015/01/this-map-shows-you-just-how-many-prisoners-are-in-each-us-state/

http://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-valentines-day-2017-2

http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day

https://rewire.news/article/2015/12/18/shouldnt-take-superhero-access-abortion-care-prison-jessica-jones/

http://fortune.com/2015/12/10/prison-reform-women/

https://www.prisonphonejustice.org/about/

My Short Stint as a Radical Cheerleader

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Back in 2010, I started up a radical cheerleading group called the Rah Rah Revolutionaries.   You might ask, what is radical cheerleading?  Well, it is a form of performance based activism that began in the mid-1990s by three sisters in Florida (Aimee, Coleen, and Cara Jennings). Generally speaking, it has an anarchist, anti-capitalist, feminist history.  I am not an anarchist, but I enjoy the idea of appropriating cheerleading and twisting it into something subversive.  By the time that I started the group, radical cheerleading was in decline nationally.  This isn’t surprising, as social movements in general were in decline after the Bush years.  Nevertheless, 2010/2011 saw a resurgence of protest and I am glad that the cheerleaders were a tiny part of that.


When I started the group, I had a lot of energy for activism.  I had just returned from a semester abroad in South Korea and I was looking to re-engage in my community.  The trip was a bit of a political isolation chamber.  Weird ideas fester in isolation.  I wanted to start up a radical clowning group at the same time.  For better or worse, that idea never took off.  Anyway, the idea of radical cheerleading had appealed to me for some time, though I am not sure how I first became familiar with the idea.  It seemed like a way to add something fun and interesting to the run of the mill protests that I had been attending.  Admittedly, my main motivation was probably the fact that I had been a cheerleader in high school.  Granted, I was the worst cheerleader in the history of cheerleading.  I was so awful that I actually got hate mail asking me to quit the squad.  This makes for a funny story, especially because the sender did not add a stamp to the letter.  I had to pay postage for my own hatemail.  I feel that paying postage for your hate mail pretty much means you fail at life.  None of this traumatized me enough to squash my fantasy of being an adult communist cheerleader.  To this end, I made some handmade fliers and put them up around Duluth.  I assembled some cheering clothes and recruited a few interested friends.  Thus, this is how the Rah Rah Revolutionaries was born.


The group really came into fruition when we tabled at the Duluth/Superior Pride Festival that year.  This helped us establish an email list.  This is also where we did our first action as the Rah Rah Revolutionaries, which involved cheering and chanting at a group of religious activists who were there to protest the Pride Festival.  In all, I have good memories of tabling at this event as many young people and members of the LGBT community showed interest in our group.

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Following the event at Pride, we had a few meetings at my house.  We never practiced any chants or routines, but we planned some events we could attend.  Our events that fall included a fundraiser for CASDA  (a local domestic violence shelter) and an anti-war rally.  We were able to lead the anti-war march and lead the protesters in chants.  We were also involved in a few “Cheer for Choice” events.  In these events, we counter protested the 40 Days for Life picket outside of the Building for Women.  We did this several times during their 40 day vigil.  Because of my affinity for costumes and red and black clothes, I provided most of the uniforms/clothes to my friends.  After these fall events, the group went on hiatus during the winter.  It re-emerged in February 2011 with a few protests against Scott Walker’s attack against collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin.  We also did a few “Cheer for Choice” events that spring in front of Planned Parenthood as a way to counter protest .  In all, only about a half dozen people were actively involved in the group, with a dozen participants altogether. rah6


Unfortunately, I graduated in the spring of 2011 and moved to Mankato in fall 2011 for graduate school.  The group did not continue after I moved away.  Years passed, and while I looked back at the brief stint at a cheerleader with fondness, I figured that it was something that would forever remain a brief moment in the past.  However, after attending the Pride Festival this year, I once again became nostalgic for my pompons and cheerleader outfit.  As I saw young politicized youth wandering around the festival, I thought that they might enjoy radical cheerleading.  Perhaps it would be a way to make protesting fun and accessible.  At the very least, it could add some color and noise to local protests and pickets.  Around the country, there are not many active radical cheerleading groups these days.  I myself am pretty busy with other things.  But, the magnetism of nostalgia and possibility pulls me back to that past moment.  So, I am preparing for round two of the cheerleading squad.  Hopefully we can cheer on the masses to, “Rise up!  Rise up! Rise Up up up up!”

 

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich


This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.


The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.

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(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?


Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.

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Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).


Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.


Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.


A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

Why I Fight for Reproductive Rights

Once again it is the 40 Days for Life, when pro-life activists stand outside the Building for Women for 12 hours a day…for 40 days.  It is a national campaign that began in 2004 and manages to mobilize its supporters twice a year for 40 days of protest and prayer.  I must admit, this is impressive dedication and ability to mobilize people.  I am a part of the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition and we go there once a week on Fridays from 12-6.  It is hard to mobilize people to the same degree that the pro-life side can.

While many women support the right to choose, few feel the need to go out and picket in support of this right.  It is the same with many causes.  Those who go out and protest are a very tiny minority of the mass of people who may support the cause.  But, doing this remains very important.  Here is why:
We are losing:
The fact of the matter is that while many people are generally pro-choice, the right to abortion has been whittled away over the past 40 years.  It has been 40 years of defeat.  This defeat comes in the form of waiting periods, parental consent, admitting privileges, funding, restrictions on abortions after 20 weeks, and the vast swaths of the country where it is impossible to get an abortion owing to distance to a clinic.   89% of the women in this country live in a county without an abortion provider (and that is from 2011 so it is probably more now.)  95% of MINNESOTA counties do not have providers.  Of course, there are some women, such as those in the military or in prisons, who have no access to funding or freedom of access at all.
Beyond losing in this legislative sense, we have lost in discourse.  Once again, many (well, stubbornly around half depending on the measure) people support legal abortion, but with caveats.  It should only occur early.  It should be rare.  It is shameful.  Abortion is inferior to birth control.  It is sad and tragic.  It is better to allow it than to punish women and doctors.  There are hundreds of caveats like this.  Rather than abortion on demand and without apology, most people accept it only as a necessary evil.  To me, the pro-life movement has been very successful at helping people imagine blobs of cells and tissue as human.  It is sad that so few people can imagine the humanity and worth of an adult female.   I want to be a human.  I want to participate fully and equally in society.  Honestly, as dramatic as it sounds, I would rather DIE than be forced to endure pregnancy.  It seems dehumanizing and disgusting.  I am more than just an incubator of life.  For me, abortion is a legitimate choice.  Anything less is an insult to my humanity.  With that said, we need to protest to remind people that women’s lives matter and to stand against the endless onslaught against our right not be forced to give birth!
No one will fight for this but us:
There is this misplaced notion that if we elect pro-choice candidates that the battle is won.  Well, for 40 years these pro-choice candidates have not been able to stop legal restrictions on abortion.  It might be easy to blame pro-life politicians, but really, can you think of a mainstream candidate who has truly advanced the cause?  If they have, it is with those hundreds of caveats.  In fact, they are a source of the caveats!  The Clintons helped to add “rare” into abortion discourse in the 1990s.  Hilary called it a sad and tragic choice.  Carter supported the Hyde Amendment.  Obama has in quotes and voting record, sought middle ground with anti-choice activists, sought to ban later abortions, wants teens to see the “sacredness” of sex, and voted present rather than “no” on several anti-abortion bills in Illinois.  In trying to compromise or appease less radical voters, they inject the discourse with poison.  Mainstream reproductive rights organizations place their hopes in the electoral system, and as such are restricted by the stifling discourse.  They are pro-choice yet fail to see any choice in the political system.  And so the conversation is less radical.  It is accepted that abortion should be rare, it is regretable, it should be ended, it is tragic, no one wants it…  cautious caveats that shame women and justify restrictions.
The truth is that no one will fight for women, but a women’s movement.  Politicians may give lip service to the issues of women, but in the absence of a strong social movement there is little incentive to make good on promises.  An agenda regarding women will never get pushed beyond what is comfortable and electable.  Who would put themselves out on a limb?  No one…unless of course there is a vibrant social movement pushing for more change.  This is why democracy is in the streets.  It may not feel this way when there are six people standing on a corner- but it would if everyone who believed in the issue showed up.
There is nothing wrong with protest:
I’ve said it before, but protesting isn’t very respectable.  People understand volunteering at a soup kitchen.  They get it and they idealize it.  They don’t get standing on a corner.  Worse, there is even a sense of cynicism about it.  It doesn’t change anything.  It is pointless.  It just copies the tactics of the pro-lifers.  It antagonizes people.
Protesting does change things.  It forces people to see things and deal with issues. It draws attention to a cause.  It shows people that they are not alone in their opinion or struggle.  When we counter picket the pro-lifers we show that there is another side and that the other side isn’t content to be invisible.  We want to be seen and heard.  We want our view represented on the street.  We are not there to harass or antagonize women.  We are there to show them that there are people who support their choices…so much so that we are willing to publicly proclaim it.  We also show the workers in the building that we support them.  They can’t protest because of a conflict of interest, so we are a voice to those who can’t speak out but want to.  Protest shows that the fight isn’t over and the discussion is ongoing.
Conclusion:
So that is why I protest the 40 Days of Life.  I protest because of the losses, because no one will fight for me, and because it is a way to promote my views. I fight because I am terrified of the day that I am forced to be pregnant….and it isn’t about being responsible or making smart choices.  It is about enduring patriarchy…rape culture…and the fear that I could be a victim.  It is also a conviction that I matter.  My life matters.  My hopes and dreams are more than a biological capacity I was cursed with on account of my biological sex. I hope that others will join in.
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Wading Through Roe V. Wade

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Happy 42 year anniversary abortion rights…

Now, why do I support Abortion Rights?

Because I am female.

Okay, as much as I would like to end it there, I am sure the topic requires a bit more explanation.  To begin with, I personally don’t want to become pregnant.  I feel it would be pretty horrific to become pregnant and then be forced to give birth.  It is hard to imagine.  While on a panel regarding this topic, I related it to Romania.  In 1965, Romania outlawed abortion in most cases.  A woman could only obtain an abortion if she had 4-5 children (depending on the decade) and was over 45 (or 40 depending on the decade)…or was disabled.  The country stopped importing contraceptives and did not teach sex ed.  So, in a very real way, pregnancy was mandatory.  More than this, women were subjected to mandatory gynecological exams.  This occurred every 1-3 months at work places.  If a woman wanted any medical service…she had an exam.  High school girls also were subjected to these exams as well as college applicants.  Now, if a woman wanted to obtain an illegal abortion, she may obtain one at 2-4 months wages from a black market provider.  Worse- by 1989 one out of three people were informants for the secret police.  So, if a woman wanted to obtain an abortion, she was well…unsure who to trust as anyone could potentially turn her in to the police.  Yikes.

Call me crazy, but this does not sound like a society I want to live in.  What was the result?  Women sought abortions, but over 9,000 died from botched illegal abortions between 1965-1989.  They developed home methods of abortion, but generally lived in fear of health institutions.  Even a miscarriage caused fear, as they feared they would get into trouble for what might appear like a botched abortion.  But, as awful as it was for women, it was terrible for children.  Obviously, a lot of unwanted children were born.  Where did they end up?  Oh, in the 700 underfunded understaffed orphanages where children lingered in their own urine, were put in strait jackets, locked in white rooms, and left undernourished and neglected.  About 170,000 orphans lived in such conditions by 1989.  10,000 of them had AIDs from blood transfusions.  Some babies were simply killed.  Infanticide was so rampant that new births weren’t registered for two weeks.  Premature babies or under weight babies were left to die.  The birth rate increased during these years, but the quality of life went down.  So, this is what illegal abortion looks like…at least in its extreme.

Perhaps this seems too extreme to relate to us here.  I think that the elements of the hellish tale are certainly possible.  Illegal abortion requires punishment.  The U.S. already has the highest prison rate in the world.  25% of the world’s prison population live here.  I don’t think we should add doctors and women who seek abortion.  Illegal abortion also requires surveillance.  In the Romanian case, women were subjected to the exams.  However, if we are to enforce illegality, women must be monitored to some degree.  Then there is the issue of unwanted children.  Over half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned.  Obviously, to deal with the influx of new children, we would need a lot more institutions for those unwanted children…unless we are content to let them linger in their waste and waste away without attention.  But, even in Romania, women found a way to have abortions.  Illegality did not stop it, even in the most repressive conditions.  Here, women would find a way.  The women who find a way would be those who can travel or those who are connected to doctors.  So, illegal abortion is war against poor women.

So, I support legal abortion because I don’t want to be forced to be pregnant.  This brings in the issue of fetal rights or the value of fetuses.  This is a sticky issue.  What is the value of a fetus?  To me, I don’t see much value in them.  Early on, embryos, zygotes, blastocysts, and fetuses look like inhuman masses of nothing.  They are tiny, parasitic blobs.  I hardly envision them as human.  What value do they have?  By what criteria should we bestow value upon life?  Any criterion that I develop, or anyone develops, is always a matter of opinion.  I might argue, life has value if has lived a long time, is rare, causes no harm, and is intelligent.  Okay, following this, human lives have little value…but some monkeys have value. How about age?  This would give value to tortoises, corals, clams, and trees.   How about rarity?  This gives value to endangered animals.  To begin, as a human…it follows that I should value human life.  I do, as a value human life enough to want all people to have food, housing, medicine, leisure, equality, and freedom.  Is all human life equal in value?  Well, I would say that not all humans are equal inasmuch as some deserve special rights/accomodations.  Most people agree that children should not be forced to work.  Most people also agree that children should not engage in sexual relations with adults.  We grant some special protections to children.  Children also lack some rights.  They can’t vote or drive…have credit cards….run for public office…join the military…etc.  So, by virtue of their age, children are denied and granted some rights.  At what “age” do humans have a right to life?  How is this determined?  Doctors base this on viability, but this is variable and a medical construct.   I would argue that humans have a right to life when they are born.  However, this value statement comes from a utilitarian sense of what is good for society.  If abortion was illegal at say…the second or third trimester (really, 9 states do outlaw abortion after 20 weeks and most don’t do it after 24ish) there is the case that women could become ill or not be aware of their pregnancy.  I believe that no one should be forced to be pregnant…certainly so if the fetus will harm her or prevent her from obtaining medical care.  I believe that an adult woman (or a pregnant teen) has more value than an unborn fetus.  That is my value hierarchy and why I have no qualms with abortion.  The loss of the unborn has less social impact than the oppression or subjugation of adult women.

Everyone has a life value hierarchy…at least if they stop to think about it.  Let’s think about it.  Does a human embryo have more value than a coral reef?  A coral reef isn’t intelligent, but it is old.  You have a choice, save an embryo or save the Great Barrier Reef.  What do you choose?  Well, this is absurd.  Personally, I think a WHOLE reef is worth more than an embryo.  How about the Brazilian Rainforest?  Abortion can end tomorrow, but we have to destroy the rainforest.  Again, it is silly.  How about something that isn’t even alive?  One two month old fetus will survive…but the Vatican will burn to the ground.  We value many things…and we value them inconsistently.

If this is the case, should we make laws on values?  For instance, although I think that people should eat less meat and that animal life has “value”…I really don’t want laws that make eating meat illegal.  At the end of the day, I think people should have choice.  I may not agree with the choice, but it is up to me to educate and argue my position.  Yet, at the same time, some meats should be outlawed…such as eating tiger meat.  Why?  Well, it is a value judgment…but generally, tigers should not go extinct.  The extinction of an animal has an impact on the environment…plus it is lost forever.  The rarity of the tiger gives it more value in my book of values.

Some may argue that fetal life has value based upon its potential to become an adult human.  I think it is interesting.  Does the future give things value?  Food would have no value because it turns to poop.  OR, maybe poop has value because it could fertilize the soil, thereby creating more food.  I step on a lot of acorns.  I don’t quite value them the same way as a full grown oak.  The sun will one day expand to consume the earth.  In this sense, should the sun be hated for its future destruction of the earth?

In any event, the value arguments only make me go in circles.  There are no easy answers.  I only know that my values are different.  In a pluralistic society, how to we deal with different values?  Those who value the lives of women…want legal abortion.  Those who value privacy want legal abortion.  Those who don’t want more punishment and control of women or doctors, support legal abortion.  I certainly can’t imagine life being better with illegal abortion.   I am not sure how any woman can imagine that this would improve society.

It really seems that life has sucked for women for a long time.  Women couldn’t vote.  Women couldn’t work outside of the home.  Women couldn’t get divorced, even if they were being abused.  Women are abused-but there is more awareness about it…and shelters….women are sexually assaulted… but there is a growing awareness of rape culture.  Women couldn’t pursue higher education.  Women couldn’t wear pants!  I see these increased rights for women as gains.  Not being forced to be pregnant is also a gain.   Maybe some fetuses have perished along the way.   Yeah, it’s flippant, but what is the point of bringing a child into the world when half the world is oppressed?

This brings me back to the example.  We have a pretty good idea that society wherein abortion is illegal tends to be a bad experience for women.  Well, and to children too.  The Romanian orphans had permanent disabilities from the neglect they faced.  Those from pre-1973 also don’t often look at it fondly.  Remember the good old days of back alley abortions, wife beating, and illegal contraceptives?…said no one ever.    Well, some people have said it…but those people are assholes.  So I fight.  I fight for this issue.  I fight because I have been sexually harassed while picketing for this issue!  Even last night (after speaking on the panel and walking back to my car) I was asked by a man in a truck, “Hey baby, want a ride?”    In a world where women are meat and consent is a distant concept-yeah- abortion is needed.

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