New Study Debunks Six of the Worst “Myths” About Sex-Selective Abortion

Gavin Barney, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

The documentary It’s a Girl was released in 2012 to immediate acclaim in traditionally progressive and pro-choice corners – the Amnesty International Film Festival made it an official selection and Ms. Magazine called the movie “unflinching” in its positive review. Fully titled It’s a Girl: the Three Deadliest Words in the World, the film describes the problem of son preference in India and China, telling how, tragically, as many girls are “eliminated” yearly in those countries as are born in the United States. However, the documentary was not quite what it appeared: a 2013 article in Slate uncovered that It’s a Girl was produced with strong, but well hidden, ties to an organization called Harvest Media Ministry that makes anti-choice videos. The film also has a subtle, but real anti-abortion message. The really troubling thing about It’s a Girl is not necessarily who produced it however – anti’s are not automatically incapable of producing material of worth. Rather, the problem is how films like this fit into the narrative of another issue here in the United States: the recent onslaught of “sex-selective abortion” ban legislation that impose criminal penalties on the performance of an abortion sought because of the sex of the fetus.

CaptureLast week I attended a talk coinciding with the release of a new report on the issue of sex-selective abortion bans called “Replacing Myths with Facts.” Produced by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), and the University of Chicago, the study identifies six common and damaging myths and misconceptions that have allowed sex-selective abortion bans to worm their way into so many legislative sessions. Chief amongst these myths is that male-biased sex ratios “are proof that sex-selective abortions are occurring,” (spoiler: there are other major factors at play) and that the “primary motivation behind laws banning sex-selective abortion in the United States is to prevent gender-based discrimination” (another spoiler: it’s really about restricting access to abortions in general).

The speakers began their presentation by introducing the room to It’s a Girl. It was suggested at the talk, and I am inclined to agree, that one of the reasons both that It’s a Girl has been a hit among pro-choice people and that anti-choice organizations and politicians have so aggressively pushed sex-selective abortion bans is that the issue of sex selection is particularly uncomfortable for pro-choice folks. The notion that people would be actively choosing boy babies over girl babies, and acting on those choices, is disturbing to any person with even the broadest feminist beliefs. Additionally, recent technological innovations that potentially open the door to allowing people to use artificial reproductive technologies to choose traits, including sex, for so-called “designer babies” make questions of sex preference more current and significant. In light of these realities, it is not terribly surprising that many normally pro-choice people may be willing to start carving out exceptions to abortion access – and it is equally unsurprising that racial stereotypes and misconceptions have played a major role.

This, of course, is where “Replacing Myths with Facts” comes in. In its introduction, “Replacing Myths” explains how proponents of sex-selective abortion bans focus on “the problem of ‘missing women’ in China and India in particular” to justify their policies. They rely on and reinforce stereotypes that people in the Asian and Pacific Island community bring these presences and practices to the US. This is myth #5 that “Replacing Myths” debunks: the most recent studies have found that foreign born Chinese, Indians, and Koreans actually “have more girls overall than white Americans.” This is a particularly important myth to debunk because the way the laws are designed – putting the onus on the health care provider to deny abortions based on son preference with the threat of criminal sanctions –opens the door to doctors generally denying API women abortions out of stereotype fueled fear.

Sex-selective abortion bans have become an extremely prevalent tactic to limit abortion access, and the fact that these policies are based heavily on racist stereotypes and spread by playing on people’s racial misconceptions make this an issue of particular import to supporters of reproductive justice. I encourage you to read “Replacing Myths with Facts” and to inoculate yourself as best you can against the lies around sex-selective abortion.

The Changing Abortion Conversation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Sasha Young, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, Northwestern School of Law)

I recently saw a film that caught me by surprise, “La Espera” (released in the States as images“Expecting”) by Chilean filmmaker Francisca Fuenzalida. The film is devoted to one night, when Natalia and Rodrigo, a teenage couple from Santiago, self-induce an abortion with Misoprostol. The film was released in 2011 to critical praise for great filmmaking and the courage to tackle the subject of abortion in a country with one of the strictest abortion bans in the world.

Earlier this year I traveled to Chile, the skinny country that lines the western coast of South America, with a bit of angst over what I would find. I wondered what a country that in the last 50 years had a socialist president, a revolution, and a dictator [who, despite his human rights violations, brought incredible economic development and one of the most oppressive abortion laws in the world] would actually look like. I’d heard stories from friends about their own botched Misoprostol abortions, and I’d read about little Belén, the 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother’s partner and then praised by the former president for deciding to continue her pregnancy. What I found was a country where, although it’s not uncommon to see hormonal teens passionately rolling around the manicured lawns of el Cerro Santa Lucía or see street art cursing the bourgeoisie, the conversation about abortion is hard to find.

I worked in an abortion clinic in Bogotá, lived beside an abortion clinic in Mexico City, and marched to stop restrictions on reproductive rights in Atlanta. I’m from a little island where abortion is still illegal, but even there in Aruba, the conversation of abortion happens. So I was really excited a few weeks ago to hear a debate happening around new Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s plans to introduce therapeutic abortion exceptions to Chile’s abortion law later this year. The controversial president is a physician by profession, a single mother of three children, and possibly made of steel considering the political risk she’s taking with this new initiative. Abortion is a controversial topic, but in a region with one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, where bad abortions are the leading killer of young women, and where criminal penalties for abortion disproportionately affect poor women, we have to at least have a conversation about what reproductive justice in our region looks like.  The winds are changing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and having an open and honest conversation is the first step to achieving equal access to tools that help us decide when, how, why, and if we want to parent.


The World is Round, People! Gender Inequity in Hollywood

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

“…And perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not.  Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” – Cate Blanchett, accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress

Earlier this week, Cate Blanchett won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and used her bully pulpit to highlight the film industry’s implicit gender bias. Despite the highly problematic context around Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, the movie for which she won, Blanchett’s statement about women in film rings true at all levels of the entertainment industry.

Women actors, writers, directors, and producers alike face an uphill battle in this town.  This infographic from the New York Film Academy highlights some of the dismal statistics. Perhaps the most shocking number is the most basic: there is a 5:1 ratio of men to women working on films. Another is that the Forbes 2013 list of the ten highest paid actresses made a combined $181 M, compared to the $465 M made by the ten highest paid actors.  Yes, the men made over twice as much from their craft.  In 2014, I have to say this is fairly depressing. I live in Hollywood – in fact, the Academy Awards ceremony took place just a few blocks from my house. So though I am decidedly not in “the industry,” these numbers hit home. Gender justice is at the core of reproductive justice. Women (and other non-male-identified folks, though these numbers don’t reflect this nuance) must be able to work in their industry and support their families, free of systemic discrimination.

The good news is that engaging more women at all levels of the film process isn’t just good for gender equity – it’s increasingly good for business.  As Blanchett mentioned, movies with female protagonists or heroines are increasingly blockbusters.  We just have to get out there and see them.  Despite the uber liberal façade, Hollywood has a long way to go.

If I Were Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

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

Last week, I watched in horror as the Fifth Circuit approved a Texas law that will prevent one third of abortion providers from performing much-needed services. I had two thoughts: (1) I was reminded of the saying in Austin, TX, “The problem with Austin is that once you leave it, you’re in Texas;” and (2) if this gets appealed to SCOTUS (it did), and I were Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), what would I do? If I (RBG) don’t grant certiorari,Texan women will face almost insurmountable barriers to abortion access and let’s face it this is just the latest terrible attack on access to reproductive health services; but if I do, I risk making the Texas law a model move in the war-on-women playbook.

After pondering RBG’s thoughts, I began to think about the cultural climate that produced anti-abortion sentiments today. We have movies like Juno and Knocked Up (recall “shmashmortion”) that gloss over unplanned pregnancies, and that refuse to entertain abortion as an option. But remember the ‘70s? Abortion wasn’t a bad thing. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? That movie had an excellent abortion scene. Stacy has a regretful sexual encounter, she gets pregnant, and the guy (Damone, ugh.) refuses to help her pay for the abortion. But she gets one, and there’s no uproar. The outrage is correctly directed at Damone (ugh.) for just sucking overall. Let me be clear, Fast Times—the movie that features oral sex on carrots, and Sean Penn as a greasy-haired, Hawaiian-shirted stoner—handles abortion better than most of the country today. I don’t know what I would do if I were RBG, but if I were Harvey Weinstein, I would be getting at least one of my leading ladies out of maternity clothes, and into the abortion clinic.

Enough with smooshing already! (Part 2)

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

Earlier this week I wrote about the merits of the film Don Jon; it was entertaining and delivered a meaningful but not preachy social commentary. While Don Jon brings to light the struggle viewers of pornography face in determining its role in their journey to sexual individuality (or lack thereof), it’s important that we not forget about the real people upon which the pornography industry is based and the public health challenges they face.  The same month that Don Jon was released three performers in the pornography industry tested positive for HIV.  Despite federal workplace laws that should mean pornography actors wear condoms on set, condoms often are not used.  Actors have even expressed fear they would be out of work if they ask to use condoms on set.  The pornography industry has reacted to the most recent HIV-infections by stating they will conduct more frequent STD testing.  However, testing costs fall on the actors.

Regardless of your view on pornography or its role in your sexuality, it’s a lucrative industry that will continue to thrive.  The pornography industry must be pushed to implement workplace practices that protect their employees’ health, including requiring that actors wear condoms.   Learn more about the public health reasoning for advancing policies that safeguard the sexual health of these actors here.

Enough with smooshing already! (Part 1)

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger, (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

The term “smoosh” –slang for sex– was brought into the general public’s lexicon through that disaster of hit MTV reality show, Jersey Shore.  Sound silly? Possibly even degrading?  Well, then some would say it’s an apt reflection of the Jersey Shore casts’ outlook on sex.  Don Jon, a film written and directed by Joseph Gordon Levitt opened in theaters September 27 and seems at first glance to bring this “smooshing” culture to the big screen.

Similar to Jersey Shore, the film plays on ridiculing the absurdity of Jersey Shore culture, mostly though, the film provides social commentary in a poignant and delightfully entertaining way. The film explores themes of sexual individuality and sexual freedom.  Everyone enjoys sex differently and sexual freedom is a critical right we must, as a society, safeguard in order to pave the way for each individual to fully explore their sexuality. The movie seems to propose the question; can there be a point where our sexual freedom in fact hinders our sexual individuality?  Namely, does addiction to internet pornography stifle enjoyment and exploration of actual sex?  Gordon-Levitt’s movie suggests that it can.  Moreover, the depiction of sex in most pornogaphy might have a detrimental impact not only on sexual individuality but gender equity.  In Gordon-Levitt’s own words, “The message Don Jon is trying to bring to light—and make fun of—is reducing people, especially women, to nothing but sex objects.”   I appreciate this message.  And any film that tries to tackle gender equity usually gets my seal of approval.  I also love that it tries to remind its audience of a timeless observation; that sex is most importantly about connecting in a genuine and intimate way with another person. 

Moving Backwards: Silver Screen Portrayal of Teen Sexuality

Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)

A week or so ago, my classmates and I were arguing one of the most pressing questions of our nostalgia-obsessed generation: What is ultimate high school movie – Clueless or Mean Girls? (Answer: Neither, it’s obviously Heathers.) Amid the heady discussion and subsequent teen movie marathon planning, I started thinking about how high school movies have portrayed teen sexuality, contraception, and pregnancy over the years. In so many of the teen movies I grew up watching, sex was something that characters are obsessed with and defined by, and pregnancy is the ultimate horror. But is this moralizing cast on teen movies a modern thing? Maybe so.

One of my favorite teen movies is the cult classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (FTaRH). For a film that came out in 1982 – smack dab between two landslide election wins for Reagan – it’s shockingly open-minded. One of the main characters, Stacy, is a 15 year old freshman. She has sex for the first time with a 26 year old man and then initiates an encounter with a classmate, Mike Damone, from which she gets pregnant. She decides to get an abortion and tells Damone that he owes her half of the fee and a ride to the clinic. When Damone turns out to be a flake, Stacy’s brother deduces what has happened. He picks her up from the clinic, agrees to keep it a secret from their parents, and takes her out for lunch. Her best friend get revenge by vandalizing Damone’s car and locker in a classic act of high school public humiliation. Stacy, rather than being ostracized or shamed, is shown as being supported by her social circle and loved ones. It is Damone who is ridiculed for shirking his responsibilities, not Stacy for being sexually active. Stacy shows no signs of trauma and the abortion is never brought up again. Instead her narrative becomes one of her blossoming romance with Rat, a boy who has long harbored a crush on her. Rat angrily brushes aside Damone’s veiled insult that Stacy is “a very aggressive girl” (undertones of slut-shaming fully in force). Stacy continues to be assertive by giving Rat a picture of herself with her phone number on it and kissing him. Her reputation, as well as her confidence in herself and her sexuality is unshaken and unpunished.

I can only imagine the outcry such a story line would cause now. It’s a testament to how much we’ve gone backwards to imagine the complaints that would hound FTaRH for giving teens license to have wild, unprotected sex because the movies told them there’d be no penalties! The climate we live in today even mistakenly accused Juno, a movie in which the young woman chooses adoption rather than abortion, of glamorizing teen sex without consequences. In reality, teen pregnancy and teen moms face a great deal of stigma that is racially charged and makes it difficult to continue their education.

Turning to a classic of the aughts, Mean Girls is a film that has people endlessly quoting and referencing it eight years later. It was written by Tina Fey who promisingly said last week, “If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m going lose my mind.” And Mean Girls does have some golden reproductive justice moments. For example, it makes fun of a health curriculum that tells students that they’ll die if they have sex (taught by a teacher later revealed to be in a relationship with an underage student no less). And yet it leaves some things to be desired. When arch-Mean Girl Regina is in her bedroom with her boyfriend, her mother pops in and asks, “You guys need anything? Some snacks? A condom? Let me know!” It’s part of a larger characterization of Regina’s cold personality resulting from a dysfunctional family in which her mother sets no boundaries because she wants to be a “cool mom.” But is it really being a bad mother to make sure your daughter is equipped to deal with her sexual decisions rather than trying to control her sexuality? Not according to the way many families treat teen sexuality in the Netherlands. Apparently acknowledging that teens have sex, having open communication about contraceptives, and allowing sleepovers actually encourages trust and responsibility rather than the opposite.

Even if Hollywood is unlikely to portray teen sexuality in this way anytime soon (because of both conservative backlash and the lack of narrative drama), hopefully the actual experiences of American teenagers can begin to approach it.



Shelley Halstead, LSRJ Summer Legal Intern

I am not a reviewer of movies but I feel like I can review previews of movies. OK, I don’t even know if I can do that. But I can tell if I want to go see a movie from the preview. And after watching the Ruby Sparks preview I now know I will not be going to see that movie.

Dig this: Through a young author’s spark of imagination, his protagonist, the ingénue Ruby, transforms from existing on the page to a living breathing entity to behold. Or to be held as our writer protagonist will soon enough be able to do. The opening shot of the preview begins with the young male author putting paper into a typewriter (old school, perhaps it’s just that old fashioned kind of love he’s looking for) with his voice over telling us that he has a good idea but then says he thinks “it’s just stupid.” To which another male voice responds, “Tell me about it.” Immediately I think the response is sarcastic, exasperated like mine, as in yeah, buddy, tell me about your stupid idea. So, the young author begins to speak about the girl he wants to write about as her image appears on screen backlit by the sunshine, nothing discernible except the outline of her body, with her legs and figure accentuated beneath a white flowing skirt  as she walks through a golden field. His therapist(?) editor(?) says that it sounds romantic. Cut to him saying: “Ruby is from Dayton, Ohio” (sounds wholesome) “but was kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher, or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet.” So ok, not that wholesome. And why does he almost immediately begin with examples of her sexual  exploration? Does this exemplify her free spirit? I, of course, wonder what happened to the male teacher she was sleeping with? How old was he? How old was she? Cut to:

Therapist/editor: I’m glad you found something that inspires you.

Young author: [But] I can’t fall in love with a girl I write.

Therapist/editor:  Why not?

Young author: Because she’s not real.

Oh, but soon enough she will be. She will be everything he’s ever wanted, ever dreamed of, ever created. When she does appear in the preview sequence the young author calls his friend to tell him the wacky news. His friend, incredulous at first, says, “There’s no possible way that girl is in your house, because she’s not a real person. People don’t just appear out of thin air.”

But because it’s the movies we can suspend reality for the sake of art. The art of let’s make believe you are loved not for yourself but what you could be.

 Friend: Have you tried writing more?

Author writes, Ruby acts.

Friend: That’s insane, you’ve manifested a woman with your mind. You can make her do anything you want. For men everywhere, tell me you’re not going to let that go to waste.

This audience member: Big yawn.

 Omniscient voiceover (again): You may see this and think it’s magic, but falling in love is an act of magic.

What’s frustrating about this preview is that it leads us down the oft-trodden male fantasy of the perfect woman. If only one could create her she’d be perfect. (Bwwaahaahaa.) And according to an interview with the NY times, Ms. Kazan, who in real life is the author of the screenplay and plays Ruby on the screen says that “I think I was writing in reaction to a lot of fictional female characters that have been on screen the last few years,” and “just feeling like there’s a diminutive ideal of a girl that’s just one shade away from being true.” While the director puts it more succinctly, “The film is really talking about a male fantasy in a very blatant way.”

Again, I don’t know about the film, but the preview certainly conveys that. For me, it hit that male fantasy squarely on the nose, and appropriately, it made my skin crawl. For the untrained or less cynical or even more hopeful in the crowd (none of whom are me) it’s selling the most magical of magic—it’s selling love or at least the idea of it. The problem is that the preview sells what the interviews, the artists’ statements, and the movie purport to critique—female autonomy within a three dimensional relationship/character. When the omniscient voiceover calls this magic and love it’s forgoing all the creepiness that we just witnessed. They’re selling the fantasy whereby the leading male, lost and forlorn, is to be saved or invigorated by the love of his/the woman.

Believe me, I agree with Kazan and the director that this notion of love, the one where women can be molded by her intimate’s desire, should be critiqued. And I understand that the studio and not the actor/screenwriter/director have a say in the how their film is marketed, but if one does want to make a statement or turn a trope on its head, this preview makes it more difficult for someone like me to buy it.  So even if this movie ends up being quirky and lovely, or quirky and thought provoking, I will never know. But then again, I’m apparently not their target audience.

Movie Review: The Business of Being Born

Film actress and television host Ricki Lake, twice pregnant (in real life and also in the movie Mrs. Winterbourne, alongside his royal hotness, Brendan Fraser), brings one of her birth experiences to the silver screen in The Business of Being Born.  Upset with the hospital birth experience the first time, Ms. Lake opts for a home birth the second time (Go Ricki! Go Ricki! Go Ricki!).  Her second son, Owen Sussman (now 9 years old), greets the world in gooey glory about 45 minutes into the movie, so you know it’s good.  The only thing that might have made it better is, as is the case for all movies, Brendan Fraser.

Somewhere between Frontline and Fahrenheit 911, this documentary presents a fact-based albeit slightly sanctimonious (and one-sided) examination of midwifery (mid-whiff-er-ee) and birthing options in America.  The statistics are frequently sobering – the one that really stuck with me was that, in 1900, 95% of all U.S. births took place at home, which was down to 50% by 1938 and <1% by 1955 (where it is today).  The movie partially credits hippy communes with the “rebirth” of midwifery in the U.S., noting necessity and the empowerment aspects of home birth.  Continue reading

RJ Events at Rutgers School of Law

There are two events happening at Rutgers in March and in April that are directly related to reproductive justice and women’s rights worldwide.  The first one is being hosted by the Rutgers Women’s Law Forum.  It is a screening of Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, which is a documentary about a woman’s struggle to obtain asylum in the American immigration system.  If she is deported to Mali, she will have to bring her daughter with her, who would then be subject to Female Genital Mutilation, or excision.  Approximately 90% of women and girls in Mali are subject to FGM, some as young as two days old, which can lead to infection, reproductive problems, and death.  It is an ancient tradition, linked by some to Islam, that many people are fighting against in local communities, at the statewide level, and across the world.  The movie Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter explores not only the cultural and social issues surrounding FGM in Mali, but also reviews the legal process by which Mrs. Goundo attempts to protect her daughter from FGM. Continue reading