Civil rights are those basic rights needed in order to participate in the political life of a civil society. In the U.S., these rights are set out in the Constitution and its Amendments. In this country, most people are familiar with the term “civil rights” because of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which was centered on rights for black Americans. Unfortunately, civil rights are still not guaranteed for all people in this country. Pregnant women are particularly victimized.
The New York Times published an Op-Ed on pregnancy and civil rights this weekend. It makes some excellent points. Most important among them: The authors have identified 793 cases in which a pregnant woman was denied her physical liberty. This is, I hope, shocking enough for most readers. But here’s the really incredible part. The scope of this study (part of which was published as a peer-reviewed article last year) includes cases back to 1973 (when Roe v. Wade came down). But 380 of those cases–48% of them!–happened since 2005. In other words, the United States is increasingly, and at a truly alarming rate, denying basic civil rights to pregnant women.
This shouldn’t be a surprise in the wake of an election in which multiple embryonic and fetal personhood measures were on statewide ballots. But, somehow, it’s still getting very little attention. Some of the cases Paltrow and Flavin (the authors of the Op-Ed mentioned above) raise are clearly intended to remedy this:
- A woman arrested on murder charges for the “crime” of having a miscarriage. (Louisiana)
A woman taken prisoner and forced to undergo a Cesarean, for the “crime” of having a miscarriage. (Florida)
A woman forced by a judge to undergo an early Cesarean that ultimately killed her and the 26-week fetus she was carrying. (Washington DC)
These are sensational cases where the actions of the state upon a particular woman are pretty clearly wrong, regardless of political leaning. I understand Paltrow and Flavin’s rationale for focusing on these cases–they’re persuasive, and they focus on physical liberty. These authors had to limit their scope somehow; this is not a critique of them or their work. However, I’m nervous about this message because it leaves a lot of things out of the conversation. It leaves a full discussion of the civil rights of pregnant women unsaid. Physical liberty is important, yes. But pregnant women–like other human beings–also have a right to basic safety. They have a right to life, liberty, privacy, protection from discrimination, freedom of thought, freedom of expression.
And there are a lot more than 793 women since 1973 who’ve had their civil rights infringed–trampled!–if we consider the full spectrum of rights that we offer to other humans. Somebody should be talking about this.
Several articles on abortion laws have come out in the past few days, most of which point out that significant amounts of legislation have been passed on this matter in the last 3-4 years. One of the best of these pieces appears in the New York Times. (Go here to read it.) I have appreciated Erik Eckholm’s reporting for some time, and this piece is no exception. This is a well-researched and carefully written article that is about as nuanced as an article of this length can be. Some highlights in this article include:
- Attention to exigency: A federal appeals court will hear arguments Monday on a case stemming from the debacle in Texas this summer. (Run a search on Wendy Davis if this is news to you.)
- A series of quotes from Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life: “I’m very encouraged . . I think it is more difficult to get an abortion in the country today.” This mindset is a huge problem. I wish NRL would be encouraged by and advocating for a decrease in the need for abortions, rather than just being smug about limiting access.
- Comprehensive understanding of the ways current laws on abortion interact–or don’t. Eckholm reports bans on 20-week abortions are en effect in nine states, in direct violation of the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. Thus, this article makes clear that action is imminent. Further, Ekcholm refers to a “legal patchwork,” which demonstrates how very dependent “rights” are on where one lives, one’s ability to be mobile, and one’s ability to access and understand regulatory rhetorics.
- Several phrases that point out how insurance coverage (and laws that effect it) have a major impact on abortion practices. This points to a need to be aware of how the changing climate of healthcare in the US will affect access to abortions.
I’m a bit late to this (the end of one’s first semester as an assistant professor is difficult, as it turns out), but despite the delay was thrilled to read Abi McNiven’s thoughtful and smart review of the Critical Medical Humanities Symposium. Perhaps my favorite lines are these: The goal of the symposium was “to think beyond the primal diagnosis scene underpinning the ‘re-humanising medicine’ mantra familiar within the medical humanities. The invitation was set to unabashedly direct attention to—for example—issues of gender, race, disability, health policy, and material-economic underpinnings.” Read the whole review here: http://medicalhumanities.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/critical-medical-humanities-symposium-review-by-abi-mcniven/
I just spotted this headline on CNN.com: “Surrogate mother had right to choose.” (If you need the background for this short opinion piece, go here. The short version, though, is that a surrogate mother refused to abort her pregnancy when the parents asked her to.) While I certainly don’t agree with everything Dan O’Connor has to say about this issue, I do think he introduces some smart nuances to this debate.
The most interesting to me is this: “The problem stems from our conflicted understanding of what we mean when we say a woman has the right to choose what she does with her body.” While this is very smart it come ways, it also underscores a really problematic assumption. O’Connor–like most people–seems to assume that a woman in the modern U.S. does indeed HAVE choices about her body. This is something Rickie Solinger‘s politics of choice thoroughly refutes. Women may have “choices,” but they are severely limited and influenced by oppressive systemic forces of law, politics, social pressures, and economics.
This politics of choice is also something that O’Connor gets at in a roundabout way. Consider this quotation: “Like most surrogates, [Kelley] is not financially well-off; note the distinct lack of fully employed, millionaire surrogate mothers.” Here, O’Connor gets it exactly right. Kelley may have “chosen” to be a surrogate, but that was a choice that was heavily influenced by her economic circumstances. One might consider a poor woman’s decision to become a surrogate less a choice than an act of survival or desperation.
This fascinating and heartbreaking case just broke on CNN:
Lori Stodghill arrived at the ER of St. Thomas More Hospital in severe distress; she was 28 weeks pregnant. (Full term is usually considered to be around 36 or 37 weeks.) She and the twin boys she was carrying died, and her husband sued the hospital. The hospital–a Catholic institution–has now argued that the twins were not legally people, and therefore did not have a right to life. This is, of course, a shocking claim for a Catholic institution to make. Currently Jeremy Stodghill is waiting to see if the Colorado Supreme Court will take his case.
What I find most incredible in terms of rhetorics of personhood, though, is the apparent confusion over the difference between an embryo and a fetus. Here’s a direct quote from the CNN story (and I would suspect this might be something that changes once the fact-checkers get hold of it, so I’ll use a screenshot):
Now, in scientific rhetorics, an embryo becomes a fetus around week 8 or 9 of gestation. Since Lori Stodghill’s pregnancy was 20 weeks beyond that–she was in her third trimester, not her first–the choice to invoke the term “embryo” is a little bit shocking. Using the term “embryo” rather than “fetus” creates additional distance from the term “person”; this rhetorical move seems to make Jeremy Stodghill’s position weaker. In the interest of making apparent those responsible for this rhetorical shift … As nearly as I can tell (after an hour’s worth of Internet research), it was the CNN reporters who introduced this term rather than the attorneys for St. Thomas More Hospital or the Colorado law they relied upon; regardless, the slippage in terms is quite intriguing.