a bird and a bottle

A Right Grows in Mexico City

Besides Keroack’s resignation (hooray!), there was other good reproductive justice news yesterday.

parenting by choice pin

Mexico City is set to pass a law that would substantially liberalize abortion laws there. The city council will vote on April 19 and the Mayor has pledged to sign it. The law would be a beg step for any country, and an especially notable one in Latin America, where three countries completely ban abortion in all cases. And get this: the proposed law is even more liberal than the U.S.’s, and in all the right ways. The NY Times has the full story:

Dominated by liberals, Mexico City’s legislature is expected to legalize abortion in a few weeks. The bill would make this city one of the largest entities in Latin America to break with a long tradition of women resorting to illegal clinics and midwives to end unwanted pregnancies.


The Mexico City bill would make it legal to have an abortion during the first trimester for any reason. The procedure would be free at city health facilities. Private hospitals would be required to provide an abortion to any woman who asks for one, though doctors with religious or ethical objections would not be required to perform abortions.

You see that? Abortion would be FREE at all city facilities and hospitals would be required to provide the service to any woman who asks. Sure, specific doctors with objections can refuse to perform, but someone at the hospital has to do it if a woman wants it. We can’t even get such assurances for birth control.

And there’s none of the infantilizing waiting periods, which assume that women have to be forced to think through this decision, which any woman knows is and just another way to throw an obstacle in the paths of women seeking abortions. There’s no Hyde Amendment-type caveat; in Mexico City, all women rich and poor will have equal and real access to abortion services. There’s no informed consent provision which in the U.S. requires doctors to read a script engineered to discourage women from following through with their abortions and which restricts the free speech rights of doctors and the privacy rights of their patients. In short, it’s a great law.

Of course, it’s passage will not be without opponents:

“Women are dying, above all poor women, because of unsafe abortions,” said María Consuelo Mejía, the director of Catholics for the Right to Decide. “What we would like is that these women never have to confront the necessity of an abortion, but in this society it’s impossible right now. There is no access to information, to contraceptives. Nor do most women have the power to negotiate the use of contraceptives with their partners.”

Conservatives respond that abortion is tantamount to murder. “This law is a law that will cost many lives,” said Jorge Serrano Limón, the head of Provida, an anti-abortion group. “If it is signed, it will spill a lot of blood, the blood of babies just conceived in the maternal womb.”

Same old rhetoric. One side focuses on women and their rights, the other pretends women don’t exist except for as walking wombs. But here’s my favorite quote from someone opposing the law:

Mr. Serrano Limón [the head of Provida] and other opponents also dispute that the law will end illegal abortions. The procedure carries such a stigma here, they say, that whether legal or not, many women will seek out underground clinics to keep their condition secret from their friends and families anyway.

So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps the reason that abortion is so stigmatized in Mexican society is because the repressive and restrictive laws have made it that way. The Church’s rhetoric hasn’t helped either, of course. Legalizing abortion will help destigmatize it by allowing women to come out from the shadows and to stop seeking out those back alley abortionists. See, Mr. Serrano Limón? It’s a simple game of cause and effect.

Speaking of cause and effect, this law will have a huge impact on women’s health, and particularly on the lives of poor women.

Many women here are watching the political battle with a mix of trepidation and hope. Like many laws in Mexico, the abortion law is honored as much in its breach as its observance.

Government officials estimate at least 110,000 women a year seek illegal abortions in Mexico, and many abortion rights groups say the number is much higher. At least 88 women died in 2006 from botched abortions, the Health Ministry says, though it is far from clear that all cases were reported.

For the well off, it is common knowledge that certain gynecologists perform illegal abortions in private hospitals, disguising the procedure as something else on documents.

For the poor, unwanted pregnancies often mean finding a midwife or an underground clinic, abortion rights advocates say. Some young women also resort to huge doses of drugs for arthritis and gastritis, available over the counter, that can cause miscarriages. Others use teas made from traditional herbs to cause miscarriages. All of these methods carry dangers.

Having read Rickie Solinger’s Beggars and Choosers (which I heartily recommend, btw), I’m wary of heaping blame on midwives and others who perform often safe and effective abortion services when the procedure is illegal, because it again imagines the world of abortion rights as a bunch of forces acting on women rather than a combination of many factors.

That said, there are clear risks to underground abortions, most of them created not by the procedure itself but by its illegality — in those rare instances when there is a problem, women cannot seek medical attention for fear of prosecution. And the ramifications for their lives, health, and fertility are great.

The story of one woman, Dolores, who did not want her full name used, is typical. When she was 18, she became pregnant after her first sexual encounter with a boyfriend she barely knew, mostly because she knew nothing about contraception or even the basics of sexuality.

“I was alone and had no help,” she said in an interview. “In fact, I thought about it a lot before I made the decision, but in the end there was no other way. I wasn’t in the economic position to face the situation.”

Panicked, she visited a midwife, who inserted a flexible tube into the womb to let air in and provoke a miscarriage. Dolores was told to wait three days before removing the tube.

She started bleeding within 15 minutes of leaving the midwife’s house. The bleeding continued unabated for a month. At last, she fainted in front of her parents from a loss of blood and they took her to a hospital, where she recovered slowly after a week of treatment. “I almost died,” she said.

Now 41, she has never carried a baby to term. Two of her pregnancies ended in premature births, and both infants died.

Pro-life? With stories like this pro-life has to be pro-abortion rights.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for April 19 (ironic, the religious undertones of that gesture). I’ve got hope (though it’s slim) that Mexico City can be a leader for a new era of abortion rights in Latin America (and maybe beyond?).


Two Updates: A funny take on the E.R.A. and Serious Criticism of the PLRA
March 30, 2007, 8:32 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, feminism/s & gender, law, news, politics, video


1.) Colbert on the E.R.A. (can’t embed b/c WordPress isn’t cool enough yet). Choice quote: “The E.R.A. is just going to lead to one thing. Unisex bathrooms. Which means men will be forced to pee sitting down. Well I demand the option to stand. My body, my choice.”

2.) The American Constitution Society releases a policy brief explaining in detail the reasons for amending or getting rid of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), for which I advocated the other day. Here’s a snippet of the brief, which you can download in full here:

But in addition to frivolous or legally insufficient lawsuits, there are, of course, serious cases brought by prisoners: cases involving life-threatening deliberate indifference by authorities to prisoner health and safety; sexual assaults; religious discrimination; retaliation against those who exercise their free speech rights; and so on. When the PLRA was passed, its supporters emphasized, over and over: “[We] do not want to prevent inmates from raising legitimate claims. This legislation will not prevent those claims from being raised. The legislation will, however, go far in preventing inmates from abusing the Federal judicial system.”

Yet “prevent[ing] inmates from raising legitimate claims” is precisely what the PLRA has done in many instances. If the PLRA were successfully “reduc[ing] the quantity and improv[ing] the quality of prisoner suits,” as its supporters intended, one would expect the dramatic decline in filings to be accompanied by a concomitant increase in plaintiffs’ success rates. The evidence is quite the contrary. The shrunken inmate docket is less successful than before the PLRA’s enactment; more cases are dismissed, and fewer settle. An important explanation is that constitutionally meritorious cases are now faced with new and often insurmountable obstacles.

OK, now I’ve got to actually do some work.

Give Them (Back) The Vote!
March 30, 2007, 8:18 am
Filed under: activism, civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, news & views, politics

Good news out of Maryland today: The state Senate the other day approved a bill that would give back the franchise to all ex-offenders after they have completed their sentences and probation or parole, except for those who have committed election fraud. The state’s old (current) law was complicated, but it barred some ex-offenders from voting forever and some for three years after the completion of their sentences and probation or parole.

Of course, as the Baltimore Sun reports, there are two sides to this story:

Supporters said the measure is needed to help former offenders become productive citizens. Some of the qualifying felonies are as minor as food stamp fraud.

Opponents argued that the people convicted of the most serious felonies should never be allowed to vote.

There’s no reason that people convicted of felonies should be permanently barred from voting. Doing so doesn’t deter crime and only ensures that prison reform never happens since those with the most intimate knowledge of prisons have no political voice and no political power. Many have argued that these bans are unconstitutional, but in 2005 the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the issue.

According to a NY Times Editorial today encouraging the MD Governor to sign the bill, in passing this legislation, Maryland will come line with a handful of other states. Of course, the disenfranchisement of ex-felons remains a problem in the deep south, where the law’s racist roots and results haven’t lost enough traction:

These changes have been slow in coming to the Deep South, where felon voting bans were enacted long ago as part of broad plan aimed at diluting black political power.

The most damaging bans are found in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist recently committed himself to sweeping away restrictions that bar more than 950,000 ex-offenders from voting. The news from Maryland should give Mr. Crist inspiration to move forward.

Florida’s draconian ban permanently strips the franchise from anyone convicted of a single felony. A felony can be anything from possession of a small amount of marijuana to a serious violent crime. Only two other states have similarly harsh bans, which are vestiges of Reconstruction-era policies to suppress the Black vote. Though there is an appeals process in FL through which a person can apply to have her or his voting rights restored, the process is long and complex and the restoration of rights can only be approved by the Governor or an executive committee.

Maryland is setting a good example. Gov Crist needs to follow his neighbor to the north’s lead.

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights

At the Vienna Convention in 1961, the participants declared that women’s rights are human rights.

women’s rights are human rights

But it was only yesterday that Amnesty International UK, the British affiliate of one of the leading human rights organizations in the world, announced that it had decided to support abortion rights. Human rights advocacy groups have long stayed away from abortion (and remained neutral officially) because of the political nature of the debate around abortion and because of how explosive those conversations have been. Yesterday’s announcement is not representative of Amnesty International globally, but it may indicate that a change will come when the organization’s full Council votes on it this summer.

Salon’s broadsheet has the background:

But the vote, which came in response to a rising number of repressive anti-abortion laws, is being used to test the waters about changing Amnesty’s global position. The change would allow substantial legal influence to work on behalf of women who are being prosecuted or persecuted for having abortions.

I say: if we’re serious that women’s rights are human rights, this step is long overdue. Catholics for a Free Choice (an American organization) agrees:

Catholics for a Free Choice President Jon O’Brien supports AIUK’s decision, saying, “Increasingly, human rights advocacy groups the world over are realizing that a woman’s freedom is intimately tied to her ability to control her reproductive health. Be it the UK, Ireland or Mexico, all women deserve access to safe, legal abortion. Amnesty International UK has a great opportunity to affirm that reproductive rights, including the right to end a pregnancy through abortion, are a vital part of the human rights canon.”

Of course, anti-choice organizations are already coming out against this step. You can voice your support for international recognition of abortion as a human right by contacting Amnesty here.

Sorting Things Out At Guantanamo
March 29, 2007, 2:27 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, news, news & views, politics, war, wider world

I’ve been avoiding writing about Guantanamo.

I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it has something to do with the size of the can of worms I’d be opening.

Am opening.

There’s been a lot of fanfare over the last few days about the resolution of two cases at Guantanamo: David Hicks’s guilty plea and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confessions. Many people see it as a step toward resolution — toward the end of the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo.

Today, Adam Liptak, writing in the NY Times, puts the Hicks plea and the Mohammed confession in perspective. These resolutions, he writes, do not say much about the efficacy or fairness of the system that the Bush Administration has established for adjudicating cases at Guantanamo. In fact, says Liptak, in a regular criminal justice system, these processes would be aberrant. Critics of the Bush Administration policy (and I) agree:

To hear critics of the administration describe them, the conclusions of the two proceedings were tainted by past abuse and a justice system not worthy of the name.

“The proceedings themselves just demonstrate the absence of fixed rules,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law who represents other prisoners at Guantánamo. “This is justice on the fly.”

Of course, the administration’s defenders stand up for the procedures that are being implemented. But I’m left with the nagging feeling that no resolution that comes out of detention at Guantanamo can ever be considers just. I’m particularly concerned about the incentive system that detention at Guantanamo and labeling as an enemy combatant constructs. So is Liptak.

Guilty pleas are common in ordinary criminal cases, too, of course. But in a garden-variety criminal prosecution, the parties bargain, in the famous phrase, in the shadow of the law.

In the usual case, defendants make a rational calculation based on the strength of the evidence against them, the state of the law and, most important, outcomes in earlier cases. If defendants think a plea will result in a shorter sentence than the likely one at trial, discounted by the possibility of acquittal, they plead guilty.

None of that holds at Guantánamo. The incentives and calculations are quite different there.

Mr. Hicks, for instance, was bargaining in the shadow of many things — the conditions at the base, international diplomacy, homesickness and the possibility of indefinite detention without charge. But he was not, for the most part, bargaining in the shadow of the law.

The statute under which he was to be tried was brand new and untested. The relevant regulations are as yet largely unwritten. There is no body of similar trials to set the parameters for settlement discussions.

If the President (et al) want these “trials” and “pleas” to be taken seriously, they need to provide the same protections to alleged enemy combatants as are provided to American defendants; due process has got to mean something, and people need to be entitled to counsel from the beginning of the process. Currently, detainees are not entitled to an attorney for the hearings at which they are designated “enemy combatant.” I’m guessing that once that label is attached to a person, it tends to stick. The presumption of innocence vanishes. The trial, if there is to be one, becomes a farce. And a guilty plea becomes the only way out and is inherently coerced.

I, among many, believe Guantanamo should be closed, and was saddened but not surprised by Bush’s statement last week that the prison will remain open at least until the end of his tenure. But given that it’s sticking around, the administration has got to stop pretending that what’s going on there is acceptable and that Hicks and Mohammed are examples of how and why.

A New Kind of Incarceration: Giving Prisoners The Keys (Literally)
March 28, 2007, 8:44 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news, news & views, politics, Uncategorized, wider world

There’s an uproar in the U.K. these days over a new policy in place in several prisons there: giving incarcerated men and women the keys to their cells.

Rubbing your eyes? You read it right.

It has become widespread practice in British prisons to give the incarcerees keys to safety locks on their cells. Focused on those men and women who are nearing release, the policy is meant to help inculcate responsibility for one’s own belongings and respect for others.

British right wingers, of course, are in a frenzy:

Shipley Tory MP Philip Davies accused the Government of “turning prisons into hotels”.

He said: “People will be horrified to know so many prisons give inmates their own keys. It will reinforce their views that the regime is far too lax and cushy.

“These people are banged up for a reason. But the Government seems more concerned about the human rights of criminals than those of their victims, who are footing the bill to keep them in increasingly pleasant surroundings.”

(don’t you just love how the Daily Mail puts “human rights” in scare quotes like that (not in the quoted portion)? As if it’s not a real concept.)

Anyway, of course this policy doesn’t mean that incarcerated men and women actually roam free. They are in prison, after all. There’s the whole trouble of armed guards and barbed wire fencing. It’s not as if keeping someone locked in a 8×10 cell is requisite to incarceration. The British Home Office agrees.

Home Office Minister Gerry Sutcliffe said: “It’s mainly used for people who are soon going to be released or in open prisons.

“It’s all part of providing incentives to encourage them to take more responsibility for themselves, to give them a little bit more respect and decency.”

He stressed that the prisoners’ locks could be over-ridden by staff keys and insisted: “There are no security issues about this. The keys are for their own cells and nowhere else.”

Could this work in the U.S.? Is it a good enough policy that we should care? Is this even a place where prisoner’s rights activists should be expending their energy?

ERA Now Here to Stay?


I just found out, via Shakespeare’s Sister , that yesterday House and Senate Democrats reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment.

The ERA, for those of you who are surprised that such a thing is not already part of our Constitution, is centered around this simple but beautiful concept: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it. The ERA would require the strictest form of constitutional (equal protection) scrutiny for claims of sex discrimination (which now receive what’s called “intermediate” scrutiny). It’d make it clear that sex discrimination is not acceptable in our society. It would make that stance part of the Constitution. It’s a big deal. And not only symbolically. The ERA might have real implications for women’s lives.

The ERA has been on the table before (for a long long time). The ERA came thisclose to passing about 27 years ago, but ultimately failed to gather the support of enough of the states. By the ratification deadline in 1979, 35 states had ratified, out of the necessary 38. Though some have argued that the ERA continued to be before the states even after the 1979 deadline, it hasn’t been taken up in earnest since then.

And now it’s back!

“Elections have consequences, and isn’t it true those consequences are good right now?” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked a mostly female crowd yesterday at a news conference, as the audience cheered. “We are turning this country around, bit by bit, to put it in a more progressive direction.”

As Shakes notes, the usual suspects, Phyllis Schlafly chief among them, are already coming out of the woodwork to fight this.

After introducing the ERA yesterday, leaders in both houses vowed to bring it to a floor vote by the end of this session. It needs the support of 2/3 of the Senate to pass. Here’s hoping it leaps over that floor and onto state ballots in 2008.