Remembering Dr. Tiller 4 Years Later

Four years ago today, I was teaching high school. I heard on the radio or read an article about a doctor being murdered.

I didn’t consider myself a religious person, not then. I was just starting out on my spiritual journey. But even then, I heard the news and thought: aren’t churches meant to be safe places?

Even The Wire, after all, depicts Sundays as a ceasefire day.

I heard about a doctor being murdered while volunteering at his church, among his community, before God. He was murdered. The story stuck with me. It started following me around, interrupting my tasks with questions and worries.

I emailed my feminist friends. Four of us  gathered for weeks to have Tiller Talks, conversations about what Dr. Tiller’s death meant, what role we could play in preventing future murders, what we as individuals – as young feminist women – could do.

We wrote long lists of ideas — hosting movie nights, supporting abortion funds, cultivating dialogues with “the other side”, signing petitions, training to be abortion providers or airplane pilots — and debated what our tiny contingent could do, all of us young and eager, just starting out in our adult lives.

We didn’t have money or clout, but we had passion and conviction.

In the intervening years, one of us volunteered for an abortion fund, one conducted research on abortion, another sent thank you cards to other late-term abortion providers. We all did the tiny and not so tiny things we could, in Dr. Tiller’s memory and honor. But for ourselves as well.

tillerThank you, 4000 Years for Choice.

It feels right, real and good to work under the light of our passions. The flame that ignites from learning of an injustice grows to a fire with time. We do not live in a world where we murder people whom we disagree with, and as a religious person, as a feminist, as a woman it is my duty to stand up and say “this is wrong.”

Today I also think about Beatriz in El Salvador, who has lupus and is 24 weeks pregnant with a fetus that has no chance of surviving after birth. I think of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, who is denying her a life-saving procedure.

I think of Savita. I think of the countless women whose names we do not know, who died because they had no access to a simple medical procedure, who self-induced abortions, got unsafe abortions, who had no one to stand up for them. History is filled with these women. They are our ancestors, our relatives, our neighbors.

I think of what it means to live in a world where we let women die.

I think of the accident of birth — here, in LA, I have a say over what happens to my body, have access to the medical care I need, can afford an abortion; but in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile — if I’m pregnant there and need an abortion, I have no say. I wouldn’t have control over my own body there, wouldn’t have a say about my own health. Someone else would get to decide what happens to me – a court, a president, a doctor, a husband – determining whether I live or die.

I think of the abortion providers I know and love. I think of their courage and conviction. I think of the legacy Dr. Tiller left us, how he trusted women.

If you don’t own your body, what do you really own?


Ruminations on Savita Halappanavar’s Death: The Difference Between The Law and Its Application

Surely you’ve already heard of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in Ireland on October 28th of this year. Go on, read the article if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I’ve been listening on the radio, reading, thinking about the heartache her husband and family feel, about the protests in India and Ireland. About the medical providers who saw her suffering and are likely suffering now themselves. I’ve been rolling the facts around in my head: Savita was 31 years old. A dentist. A Hindu. Since 2008, Savita was living in Ireland with her husband, Praveen Halappanavar. She was organizing the Diwali festival in her community. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant with a desired pregnancy, then she miscarried. When she went to the Emergency Department, she requested an abortion and was denied one.

Some facts I do not know the answer to but wish I did: How well did Savita or her husband Praveen know Irish abortion law? What support did she and her husband have during the miscarriage? What influenced the decisions made by the medical personnel treating Savita? What had occurred in prior incidents when other women had come to the hospital in the midst of a miscarriage? What are the repercussions for denying a patient the necessary treatment? Who provides illegal abortions in Ireland? If a woman is unable to travel to the UK for an abortion, how does she access these non-medical and likely unsanitary and unsafe illegal abortion providers? What are the medical providers who treated Savita thinking and feeling now? When they talk with their beloveds at night, what do they say about this story?

Hearing about Savita’s autopsy report, we learn that her death was caused by septicaemia, and E.coli ESBL. However, these conditions were caused not by the miscarriage she was experiencing, but by a miscarriage of the law. By delaying the one treatment that would have likely saved Savita’s life: an abortion. I am certainly no expert on Irish abortion law, but after some searching I’ve learned that: Despite the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which not only made abortion illegal but also punishable, since 1992, Ireland explicitly allows abortion in order to save a women’s life.

Ah yes. The law has been adjusted (20 years ago!), but public opinion, provider knowledge and attitudes and skills and training…take time to change. The systems in place to prevent women from receiving abortions (including the kind that save their lives) has been around much longer. Maybe medical providers were uncertain, unskilled or afraid. Change takes time. Eventually, the miscarriage was removed from Savita’s body, but by then it was too late. Too much time had passed.

It is not the law itself, but the interpretation of the law that determines whether it is followed. The law is a blunt instrument, and when applied without clear interpretation, without ample knowledge by those affected, the results are often tragic.

This also presents an example of how a geographical location and its associated laws supersede nationality and religion. Because of the borders a cartographer drew around this land, our rules are different from those of the land next door. Rights you had back home are no longer accessible to you. It didn’t matter that Savita wasn’t Catholic, and wasn’t from Ireland. The decision-makers had decided long before she arrived.


Gloria Steinem on “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” at UCLA: The Quick Notes Version

Yesterday, I saw Gloria Steinem give her “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Votes” talk at UCLA. It reminded me of seeing Eve Ensler speak at Clark in 2008. It was the feeling of feminists gathering in one spot to hear a superstar speak, speak to us, in our language. It was riveting, electrifying. In all her glory, Gloria Steinem at 78 speaking to a full auditorium. She got two standing ovations before she even began speaking.

To set the scene: she began by commenting that lecture halls are based on hierarchy, which is based on patriarchy, with the audience seeing each others’ backs and unable to interact with each other. She prefers a circle (like all feminist teachers I know), and said “we [women]are linked, not ranked.” I took 5 pages of notes and rather than dump all the details onto you, I’ll share with you the tastiest morsels:

1. The central theme of the talk was “seizing control of reproduction” and how this control is fundamental to racist, classist and nationalist divisions. By isolating the women of the “superior” group and exploiting the women of the “inferior” group, all women are controlled. The gender imbalance caused by preferring one gender over the other (as is in China) causes destabilization, where all divisions are normalized and racism, classism and other forms of structural violence become normalized.

2. Attacks on abortion providers is large-scale domestic terrorism. The anti-choice activists responsible for this terrorism have now taken to the legislatures. 55% of women of reproductive age now live in states with restrictions on reproductive rights. The current Republican platform includes the Human Life Amendment plank, where a pregnant women’s body becomes nationalized, can be searched and detained (as is done now with addicted or jailed pregnant women).

3. Legislators have “real jobs” before they came into office, and many worked in insurance, the prison industry and liquor. Using their legislative power, they push through the regulations that benefit them. For example, despite numerous legislators campaigning on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s, it was never ratified. Legislators must be held accountable by those who vote them into office.

4. The biggest economic stimulus would be mandating equal pay for men and women…because women would spend the money. (From progressive to reductionist in one sentence!)

5. The night’s most interesting tangent: Most religious buildings are built as the body of a woman, with the inner and outer labia entrances, the vaginal aisle, the ovarian side structures, and the pulpit womb. Men in skirts take over the cartel of giving birth, by taking over the mythic significance of reproduction. While women may give life, these men give everlasting life. The message is: heaven is superior to, is better than women.

6. Best quips: Abstinence-only sexual health education is the only federally funded program that rewards ignorance with taxpayer money. Voting matters – it’s when the least powerful has just as much power as the most powerful. Women didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left them. The means we choose dictate the ends; the means are the ends. Loss of memory is the root of oppression.The best decisions come from mixed-gender groups because there is no masculinity to prove. National boundaries don’t stop pollution and immigration. We have more in common than we think; ask what others need and support them. How is it that men can be CEOs without having been pregnant?

7. Recommended reading: Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson et al, which argues that polarized sex roles are correlated with race and class divisions.

8. Piece of advice:  Say “how interesting that you feel that way” when disagreeing.

9. The US is the only democracy with no national childcare, which puts pressure on the individual rather than the social policy.

10. Lastly, feminists have been too nice. We would have accomplished more! Persuading and asking takes longer than doing. We need to harness our consumer power. The AA group structure may be useful – it’s everywhere, it’s leader-less and there is a strong community.

Despite my enthusiasm about the talk and the speaker, it’s important to note that some claims were cherry-picked. Steinem made several claims that didn’t hold up to light questioning after the talk: First, that 70% of native women were sterilized because the government told them they wouldn’t understand how to use birth control. The highest I could find was 25-40%, in the 1970s. Though even that is questionable. Second, that in Europe, 6 million witches were killed for sharing dangerous knowledge that helped women. Access to, and knowledge of, contraception and abortifacients allows women – not the state – to decide when to procreate. (Not the church, not the state!) But, it looks like it was closer to 35,000 or 110,000200,000 at the most. Lastly, she contrasted civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was sterilized without her consent, and Hamer’s grandmother, who had 22 children (20 as a result of rape). Steinem argued that farm equipment was the difference; the bodies of Hamer’s grandmother’s children were needed to work the land; Hamer’s reproductive capabilities weren’t necessary. Yes,  it’s true that Hamer was sterilized…at the age of 44. It’s a much less compelling argument when understood within the context of the average woman reproductive life: from 15 – 45 years old. Sterilizing someone without their consent is wrong at any age, but the contrast with her grandmother’s experience is less powerful in this new context. Despite these poorly chosen examples, it’s true that compulsory sterilization has happened and is happening all over the world, and that women continue to be targeted for violence. I just wish she had chosen her examples with the help of a fact-checker.

PS She looks jaw-dropping-ly great for someone two years shy of 80. I was sitting towards the back, but she looked no older than 60 to me. Take away message: wear black and do what you love?

There Are No Perfect Words: Just Be There

I didn’t sleep last night, so I was tired coming into work, my brain a fuzzy cotton ball. Unfocused thoughts, threads of meaning, half-decisions appearing and disappearing into the grey matter fog. My coworker told me that my eyes looked like they needed pajamas. At dance class last week, it was clear. Why I am doing this, why this work is my work, this blood my blood.

Five years  ago I worked at a fancypants sleepover camp, supervising counselors, delivering Important Messages From Above, making sure beds had (only) the assigned bodies in ’em at night, talking in soothing tones with parents on the phone. It was a walking behind the elephant kind of job, and I relished any time I had with actual campers, with young people, with high schoolers. I can’t help it. I like their angsty, precocious, hopeful, fatalistic awkwardness. I like how they surprise me, make me want to be a better example, call me out when I stray from my own principles.

I was called to talk to a girl who stepped out of class crying and didn’t come back for a while. Ten or 15 minutes maybe. I sat next to her and she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, said she’d get in trouble. I laid out the usual boundary: only if you plan on hurting yourself or others, maybe I mentioned sharing only up not out. I don’t know how she ended up telling me, because thinking back all I remember is her not looking at me, and crying, her face red and splotchy. Her boyfriend was being hurt by his family and she was far away and can’t help or comfort him. He was in a bad state, and so was she, by extension. What is there, really, to say to that? After going to school to study language and signs and meaning I can safely say that there’s just nothing to say, most of the time. There are no magic words. Later that day, I searched for places he could call and go, gave her a list when no one was looking.

Today in the middle of lunch, my coworker asked me to stop eating and come with her. Could I do a counseling session for a non-native speaker? After some quick thinking we decided that me interpreting for a counselor would be better. The woman had been here prior, with another interpreter, and the decision she had reached then was different than the one she was – adamantly and with much conviction – choosing now. The pressure to translate clearly and unequivocally, combined with the energy of her anxiety and frustration made me shake from nervousness. The mantra I had from camp – be the calmest person in the room – smoothed things out only slightly. I still said “sanitary napkins” instead of um, “pads” about five times. Cringe-worthy translation, my friends. Not my proudest moments as a polyglot.

What a complicated situation to be in, to be in another country with imperfect knowledge of the language, making decisions alone. I wanted to reach out and touch her, hold her hand through the fog and shakiness. Tomorrow I am going in with her, to interpret from the sidelines or maybe just to offer a familiar language, to witness and just be there.

I think sometimes the most we can offer each other is to just be there, to confirm that we are not ever really all alone.

Vagina Week Is Better Than Shark Week

I saw more vaginas last week than I have my whole life. They’re amazing. Each one’s different, like noses, toes, kneecaps. One of my favorite ways to pass the time on public transportation is to look at everyone’s noses. Pick a body part in a crowded place and notice how everyone’s is similar but individual, a symphony of genetic variety.

So, vaginas. Between pelvic exams, Pap smears, and procedures I’ve seen about twelve or fifteen this week, women allowing us to see the softest, most vulnerable part of their bodies. It’s an underappreciated body part. It’s where we all came from! Before I go off on a tangent about politics and religion controlling vaginas and the people who have them, vagina books (even coloring books), let me tell you why I’m seeing so many of them lately.

This past week was week 1 of my practicum: 49 hours observing 12 pelvic exams, 6 counseling sessions, 3 procedures, 2 Pap smears. I have a renewed reverence for vaginas. They can accomplish things no other organ can!

I’ve been following every type of provider, observing the reception area, counseling sessions, procedures, follow-up appointments. Everyone has stretched and expanded to let me in, to warmly welcome me. I feel comfortable and grateful for my new home. I am surrounded by doctors, nurses, psychologists, researchers who respect, appreciate and help vaginas. And the women who have them. What an honor, this work, this project, this place.