Do you know about the Helms Amendment?

Candace Gibson, Resident Blogger (’12, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law)

Many of us know about the Hyde Amendment, but do you know about the Helms Amendment?  The Helms Amendment was passed in 1973 to the Foreign Assistance Act, restricting abortion funding abroad. Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary – here are the top 5 things you need to know about how it hurts women globally.

  1. Both the Helms Amendment and the Hyde Amendment are restrictions on abortion care that deny women at home and abroad the care they need.  Both were passed soon after Roe v. Wade became law.
  2.  The Helms Amendment attaches restrictions on abortion care to overseas federal funding.  It not only withholds access to safe abortion services but it also denies women information on abortion care.  Millions of women rely on U.S. funded programs in their countries for their reproductive health care.
  3. The Helms Amendment contributes to 47,000 deaths each year because women are forced to seek unsafe abortion services.
  4. Unfortunately, the Helms Amendment has also negatively impacted efforts to increase the use of contraception for women who would like to begin a contraception regimen after seeking abortion services.  Studies show that women are more likely to use contraception following abortion care when family planning services are offered at the same facility where they received abortion services.  Due to the Helms Amendment, women must find family planning counseling and services at another facility, lessening their ability to receive contraception.
  5.  Latinas in the developing world are greatly affected by the Helms Amendment because it deincentivizes efforts to decriminalize or legalize abortion care.  For instance, 18 states in Mexico have passed constitutional amendments that declare the sanctity of life since conception.  In these 18 states, women will not be able to get the care they need because they are less likely to have providers who are not receiving U.S. funding.

For more information, check out this factsheet by our friends at Ipas.

Reproductive Justice as Self-Determination

Ruth Dawson, Resident Blogger (’12, Emory University School of Law)

A report recently came out about the conditions of women members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest rebel group.  Though there is a “veneer of [gender] equality” in the organization, the report tells horrific stories of women, including young teenagers, forced to receive contraceptive shots and forbidden from having children.  Perhaps most sickening are the accounts of FARC women being forced to have abortions, or losing their infants to infanticide, in the instances when they did become pregnant.

But I am not disgusted by the bare fact that the women had abortions or used contraception.  Instead, as a reproductive justice advocate, I am most deeply troubled by the way these women were stripped of agency.  Forced contraception, forced abortion, and – not unlikely – forced sex, all strip women of self-determination.

Reproductive justice encompasses far more than the affirmative right to access birth control or abortion, as many opponents seem to believe.  Instead, RJ is about all people deciding if they want to have children, and if so, when and how to have and raise them.  Reproductive justice represents a broad universe of control over one’s own body, and over one’s self.  And that control goes in both directions.  The key to reproductive justice, then, is not just that people are using birth control, or that people are having abortions.  Rather, it is that individuals are making these decisions, unforced and uncoerced, for themselves.

Channeling Human Trafficking Survivors

Amanda Shapiro, Resident Blogger (’15, Brooklyn Law School)

New York announced that it will be among the first to create specialized courts for human trafficking and prostitution.  This move is indeed a step in the right direction.  Human trafficking has achieved celebrity status in human rights reform – likely because there aren’t many sympathetic defenses to “modern slavery” (e.g.,“Oh, whoops, I just forgot to pay my cleaning lady while I kept her in my basement for the past eight years” doesn’t fly too well in federal court).

However, the path to justice for victims of sex trafficking is complex.  We know (as The West Wing aptly noted) that no little girl says, “I want to be a prostitute when I grow up.”  And yet, the way the criminal justice system treats prostitutes would lead anyone to improperly deduce this motive.  This inference is so strong that it trickles into punishing children who are forced into sexual exploitation for money (most or all of which they don’t get).  Somehow, states find no problem in punishing children for prostitution, while contemporaneously declaring their inability to consent to sex (in statutory rape), their inability to enter into a contract (in contracts), and their inability to work (in child labor).

Proving that human trafficking is afoot requires “force, fraud, or coercion” – this burden does not seem high, but in practicality can be insurmountable.  “Pimps” use a grooming process (like that of pedophiles) for both children and women.  This tactic can even lead to victims defending their trafficker.  Despite New York’s laudable step, the trafficking courts will continue processing prostitutes through the criminal system (aka prosecuting them). Courts would do well to remind themselves, in considering “force,” that girls grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., rather than an object of commercial sexual exploitation.

Ahoy, ladies!

Ash Moore, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Oklahoma College of Law)

If you had three tries to guess “closest place to get an abortion,” I bet “Dutch boat” wouldn’t fly out of your mouth. But that’s exactly where Moroccan women can turn starting this week. The “abortion ship” will dock in international waters, keeping it legal despite the fact that abortion is outlawed in the Muslim-majority country.

With all the bad news coming from the American abortion front, it’s nice to see a shining beacon of hope bobbing in water. Last year, 92 restrictions on abortion were passed in the U.S. and with a new state Department of Health report revealing that abortions in Ohio dropped 12% in the wake of new, restrictive laws, there may only be more to come.

In the same study, we learn that most women who had abortions were unmarried, poorly educated, and under 25. I don’t know about you, but it sounds like a raw deal for a kid to me. All these people hollering about “best interests of the child” should really look at the mother’s situation and ask themselves what kind of chance for success a baby would have if the mother brought it to term.

I’ve known several women who had abortions not because they wanted to, but because they felt it was in the best interests of the fetus. Not just because they didn’t have the resources to take care of the baby once it was born, but also because they didn’t have the resources to care for the fetus. I don’t know what I would want to do if I turned up pregnant tomorrow (other than repent because it’s obviously the second coming). I do know I have a personal objection to abortion despite my unwillingness to deprive another grown woman of the option. But I also know that if I tried to have a baby now, it would hurt me and the baby.

All these right-to-lifers go up in arms and yell about adoption. Ok. How many kids have you adopted? How many have the people you know adopted? Now do you think that’s enough to cover all the kids already waiting for a family? I’m a law student, not a mathematician, but even I think the numbers don’t add up.

The organization running this abortion ship gives me hope. Hope that rationality and compassion will win out in the end. Hope that every woman will one day have access to all the reproductive health care she needs, no matter how controversial it is. Hope that America will stop passing draconian laws and nominating political candidates who believe women’s’ bodies can protect themselves from pregnancy after “legitimate rape.” This is my hope. Even if modern day pirates of the Robin Hood tradition have to take to the high seas to fight for what’s right.

The Repro Rundown

In the state with the highest infant mortality rates in the country, a star OB/GYN loses his position on the Mississippi state board of health because he is pro-choice.

Another double standard in support of Viagra by anti-choice legislators, and they’ve even got a catchphrase lined up: “Viagra, that wonderful drug that helps create life.

In Texas, there is a legislative struggle to keep Planned Parenthood in the state’s Women’s Health Program, more on the current developments here.

A trans-gender woman of color is charged with second degree manslaughter after her attacker died in the physical altercation.

Blogger Shark-Fu weighs in on Missouri’s Don’t Say Gay house bill that could bar schools from discussing lgbt issues and also keep student orgs like the  Gay-Straight Alliance from being recognized.

Have you heard of Chen Guangcheng?” a Chinese Human Rights attorney escapes from house arrest when imprisoned for his activism against forced abortions and sterilizations.

Working for RJ in a Long-Term Conflict Setting

Questions and answers on International Women’s Day with LSRJ’s founding executive director, Cari Sietstra, JD, Stanford ’02.

What do you do?

Since leaving my post as the founding executive director at LSRJ – a great job, if ever there was one – I’ve been an “independent consultant specializing in reproductive health and justice.”  Over time I’ve developed expertise in long-term conflict and crisis settings. 

Wait, what does “consultant in reproductive health and justice” mean, exactly?

While it could mean a number of different things, for me it means that for the past six years I’ve pitched potential projects to donors and then partnered with non-profits so the donor’s money is tax deductible and my work is done under an institutional umbrella.  I have a great deal of autonomy and flexibility.  I am based in the US but spend time each year in Thailand and sometimes Burma.

Most of my projects are located on the Thai/Burma border and focus on refugees, undocumented migrants, or internally displaced persons.  My colleagues and I are particularly interested in reducing harm from unsafe abortion, expanding access to emergency contraception and long acting reversible contraceptives like IUDS, and promoting adolescent reproductive health.

What does reproductive health look like where you work?

Basically, eastern Burma has been a conflict zone for more than sixty years.  So reproductive health indicators and maternal mortality rates are by far the worst in Asia and among the worst anywhere in the world.  Unsafe abortion and post-partum hemorrhage are the leading causes of maternal mortality.  There are extensive barriers to achieving reproductive justice including lack of family planning supplies and education, legal barriers to safe abortion, a lack of trained medical providers, early marriage (sometimes coerced or forced), and lack of access to basic healthcare and adequate nutrition.

For an in-depth discussion of reproductive heath in this area of the world, please check out the report Separated by Borders: united in need that our team just published with Ibis Reproductive Health.

You mentioned a “team” – who do you work with?

I am lucky to work with a team of exceptional women who include a doctor-researcher, a nurse, and the wonderful Maggie Hobstetter, another LSRJ alum. Maggie first came out to the border as an international legal intern for LSRJ in 2007.

Maggie and I have led a safe referral pilot project to connect undocumented Burmese migrants in Thailand with a safe, legal abortion.  (Abortion is legal in some cases in Thailand.)

Do you use your law degree in your work?

I do, especially on projects like the safe referral pilot, where we’ve trained Burmese and Thai health care providers on Thai law – what it is, how it’s interpreted and implemented, how to recognize women who qualify for legal abortions, etc.

But I don’t use most of the “hard” advocacy skills I practiced in law school.  My colleagues and I try hard to avoid any direct advocacy or persuasion.

We don’t tell the Burmese medics we work with that they “should” support legal abortion or that they “should” give unmarried couples family planning.  What we do is give them information that legal abortion is very safe (this is often absolutely new to them).  We share human rights documents that uphold the rights of both married and unmarried people to access reproductive healthcare.  But when folks say things like, “I think abortion is a sin,” or “unmarried couples should not have sex,” we don’t push back.  As outsiders, that isn’t our role.  Our role is facilitate difficult conversations about controversial issues in reproductive health and to empower local advocates with information and support.

Do you feel like that attitude reflects a reproductive justice framework?

I do.  I think the best way I can do work in a long-term crisis setting as a well-educated foreigner is to respect the values and priorities of the people I work with while still offering up information on a full-range of reproductive health technologies and rights.

You can’t just walk into an isolated, conflict-affected area and be all, “Hi, I’d like to give you some EC, IUDs and safe abortions. And can I talk to your teenagers too?”  People would be like, “Hi, crazy white lady.  Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s taken years of work to build the strong trust we have with our local partners.  And to do so we’ve tried to be clear that while we are very willing to push boundaries in terms of the work we do, we will always try to meet people where they are on these issues and respect profound differences of opinion.  It’s been an amazing way to create what we hope will be lasting social change.  Our motto is: “Baby steps.  It’s all about baby steps.”

We understand that in a long-term conflict setting we will not be able to fix the overall health situation until the core issue of the conflict itself is resolved.  But small interventions can make huge differences in the lives of women, families, and communities.

Happy 39th, Roe!

Susy Prochazka, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

*This post is part of a series written in support of Trust Women Week Silver Ribbon Campaign and the online virtual march from January 20-27. LSRJ is proud to partner with numerous orgs across the country – join the march by sending a message to your lawmakers today! And check back here throughout the week for more posts.

As the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision came and went this weekend, the TJSL chapter was excited to celebrate the decision in a variety of ways. We have a great relationship with The Lawyers Club of San Diego, a local group that focuses on empowering women lawyers, and on Saturday they hosted  an educational luncheon titled “That Was Then, This is Now: Reproductive Rights Update,” highlighting recent changes in reproductive rights and justice legislation. After the panel, we attended a Roe v. Wade Anniversary Dinner, an annual event thrown by the Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This year, the dinner focused on the global reach of RJ issues, featuring speakers discussing local, national, and international fights for reproductive rights. Mary Fjerstad, Director of Medical Affairs & Pharmacovigilance at WomanCare, spoke on the global movement in the fields of reproductive health care.  Kimala Price, Professor, San Diego State University &  Board Member of SisterSong, provided the national perspective by presenting on the anti-choice and racist billboards that have cropped up in Atlanta and New York earlier in 2011. Lastly,  Shukri Adam, Public Health Nurse Consultant Somali & Arabic at the Central Region Public Health Center, spoke of the cultural gaps that female Somali immigrants face in California in regards to their pregnancies.

And the celebrating is far from done! In February, our school is hosting the National Women and the Law Conference, an annual conference that explores the different issues that women face in the legal realm.  Our chapter has established such a presence on campus in the past that this year our faculty advisor was chosen to direct this year’s conference, and she swiftly designated the theme of Reproductive Justice.  Some of our board worked extensively on the Conference committee, performing community outreach and assisting with the hunt for speakers. All this hard work on the part of our members paid off when Sarah Weddington agreed to be the Keynote speaker.

At each initial meeting of the semester, each of our LSRJ board members shares what RJ means to us. We then carry this theme of personalizing the movement throughout the year, with each board member striving to educate and encourage interest in his or her particular niche view of RJ. Roe is incredibly important to all of us, albeit in different ways.  Roe is important to Sarah, our VP of Events, because it expanded access to abortions, making it safer to obtain one. Roe is important to Margaret because it provided an avenue to lessen patriarchal dominance in the family, potentially aiding women in abusive relationships. Roe is important to Thomas as a matter of health law, increasing the autonomy of private medical decisions. To all of us, Roe represents a pivotal decision, advancing each of our respective areas of interest in the RJ movement. 

In the space of one month, our chapter will be celebrating the continuing importance of Roe v. Wade at three amazing events, all of which present different avenues of reproductive justice. While Roe is only one facet of the RJ movement, it illustrates that the law, while never a perfect answer to society’s problems, may nonetheless be used as a tool to shape social justice movements.

A Potpourri of RJ Interests

Susy Prochazka, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

In our TJSL chapter, each member of the board is passionate about a different facet of the RJ movement.  This brings a great energy to our board and ensures that no one is ever bored (pun intended). To encourage this same vitality amongst our newest members, we decided early in the semester to have a different member of the board present on the topic of his or her particular passion at each monthly meeting in order to show the array of topics that RJ spans. Traditionally, our meetings were more informational and social in nature; through these presentations, we sought to increase the educational aspect of the monthly meetings.

Our secretary Margaret bravely volunteered to be the guinea pig of this experiment. As an intern at our local YWCA’s domestic violence clinic, Margaret wanted to promote October as Domestic Violence Awareness month at our school, which had remained conspicuously silent on the topic of DV in the past. Margaret did not limit herself to making a mere powerpoint citing the statistics and warnings signs of DV.  She completely committed herself to promoting the cause at our meeting by making shirts and ribbons and arranging a team for the “Mile in Her Shoes” charity walk that benefits a downtown safehouse program. Margaret’s dedication and energy was apparent during the meeting, and afterwards, two attendees, both of whom were attending their first ever LSRJ meeting, promptly signed up for the charity walk and inquired about other ways to promote DV awareness!  We considered the meeting a great success.

I went next. My interests lie in the realm of international human rights, so I focused on the theme of cultural restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. I presented on issues affecting women internationally that limit their right to exercise bodily autonomy, discussing some of the practices that impose these restrictions, such as honor killings, female genital cutting, forced marriages, and debt peonage/sex slavery.  I am no public speaker, but I tamped down my anxiety and spoke about what I am passionate about: addressing these international RJ issues. Afterwards I discussed international human rights internships with several members.  While I did not make fabulous shirts, as Margaret had, we are now planning a road trip to L.A. to see the Skirbal Museum Exhibit on the international oppression of women. With my area of focus, I felt that I was able to reach different people in the audience than Margaret had, which seems like a positive goal to have, as we are constantly engaging members in different ways. It was an experience that really let me really expound upon the area of law that I find fascinating while simultaneously snagging the attention of members interested in international law and drawing them into the discussion.

By letting our diverse interests lead the meetings, we are able to present a variety of topics to our members. We are pretty pleased with the level of interest that our presentations have generated, and the practice will continue into next semester.   Fascinated by health law, our co-president Thomas is arranging a panel regarding the legal implications of the different birthing options, whether adoption, traditional midwifery or obstetricians.  We look forward to another semester of harnessing our various passions in the RJ movement and using them to ensure our chapter’s diversity and longevity.

One (of Many!) Problems with Sexual Assault Investigation in India

This is the third in a series of posts by LSRJ alum Heather Sager (’10, Indiana University Maurer School of Law) who recently took a position at the Human Rights Law Network in India. Heather will be bringing us along on her journey through the field of international reproductive rights work.

I’ve mentioned before that part of my work with HRLN focuses on holding public tribunals. At these tribunals, we host people who have approached the State Human Rights Commissions and were ignored. Since we can only host a limited number of complainants, we choose based on a variety of factors, one of which is the inclusion of a variety of human rights violations. We try to focus on some of the most pervasive issues within whatever state we’re working. One of the most common, disturbing problems we see across the board is rape.

Part of my research into any human rights issue includes looking into the relevant legal and procedural background. In the process of researching rape, which I believe to be worsened by largely systemic issues within the country, I began to write about some of the more all-encompassing legal and social problems. This introduced me to rape investigation procedure in India.

Last September, Human Rights Watch issued a report calling attention to the use of the per vaginum examination (or, ‘finger test’ as it has been affectionately dubbed) in examining rape survivors in India. The report called for Indian legislation to introduce a standardized method of examining women and for the government to ban the use of a cruel, archaic process.

The per vaginum examination has been a controversial method of post-rape examination for some time. The method requires that a doctor insert his fingers into the vagina. Through this, he determines whether the hymen is present or absent, the ‘laxity’ of the vaginal tissue, the general shape and consistency of the vagina.

Until recently, this method was used across the board, in every case of reported rape where a medical examination was performed. In many instances, the per vaginum examination was performed without the woman’s prior knowledge or consent.

The per vaginum examination has long been discredited as a reliable test for medical purposes. Not just highly subjective, with unpredictable results, because of the test’s methodology (if we’re being generous with the word), it’s particularly cruel when administered immediately following a traumatic sexual assault.

But despite the widely agreed-upon fact that a finger does very little to serve as a consistent standard, the state has done very little to see that this practice is stopped. In March of this year, the Union Health Ministry of India issued new standards of post-sexual assault examination that, while improved, are greatly lacking.

The good news is that the new standards have barred using such helpful medical determinants as how well the woman is dressed and how well she keeps up her oral hygiene. The bad news is that the guidelines only limit the use of the finger test, allowing medical personnel significant leniency in deciding whether a situation warrants the use of the test.

Arguments that the test could still be of some use have been put forth, and the Ministry seems to have been listening. I wonder if they were also listening when the courts have used ‘finger test’ results in rape proceedings, calling attention to whether the woman is ‘habituated to sexual intercourse.’ Although the Supreme Court of India ruled in 2003 that a woman could not be cross-examined on her moral character in a rape case, courts across the country have continued to issue opinions on the general believability of her testimony, based in part on whether she may or may not have been sexually active.

Although my work in Delhi doesn’t focus solely on women’s rights issues, we deal very heavily in the area. As part of the Tribunals we hold, I’ve met with rape survivors here who were beaten by their attackers, refused help by the police, and ignored by the Commissions whose responsibility it is to protect them. Let’s add to this the doctors who may or may not decide this “test” is necessary in order to examine them and a court that may or may not use her ‘vaginal laxity’ to determine her reliability as a witness.

And the standard that decides whether one is ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’? Two fingers.

Introduction Part 2: Why Every Right is Connected to Womens’ and Reproductive Rights

This is the second in a series of posts by LSRJ alum Heather Sager (’10, Indiana University Maurer School of Law), who recently took a position at the Human Rights Law Network in India. Heather will be bringing us along on her journey through the field of international reproductive rights work. Click here to read her first entry.

In my post two weeks ago, I introduced the work I’ve been doing in India, with the Human Rights Law Network. Specifically, I wrote:

For the last month and a half I’ve been part of a small team that plans and executes public hearings on the National and State Human Rights Commissions throughout India. We bring in victims, activists, lawyers and experts, hold a hearing in every state with a Human Rights Commission, publish analysis of our findings, and perform various legal and individual case follow-up within the Commissions and court system. While every case is heart-wrenching, my personal focus remains on those involving women’s and reproductive rights.

Let me explore that a bit. Continue reading