Should Young Women be Allowed to Choose Sterilization?

Emily Gillingham, Resident Blogger (’15, Michigan State University College of Law)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the many young women who, after much careful deliberation and research, have concluded that they want to be sterilized- only to be turned down by their doctors.  The story plays out again, and again, and again, on blog after blog.  This is A Thing That Is Happening, and it really burns my toast.  Some doctors are telling women that they won’t perform the procedure until the women are 30 or even 35 years old, in case they decide later that they want kids.

Let me be clear here- there is a long, complicated, and painful history (and present) of sterilization where the woman is being coerced or forced by a person or by the government, or targeted because of her race, class, religion or disability, or lacks informed consent.  I’m talking about women who are being denied the procedure only because their doctors are worried that they will regret it.

For those women, being denied the procedure is frustrating.  As blogger Bri Seeley wrote, “I was livid. I had asked for a procedure for six straight years with no break in my desires, opinions, or beliefs.  Why did the medical community continue to deny me of my personal right to sterilization?”

Sterilization is safer than pregnancy, and actually reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease.  It doesn’t increase women’s risk of breast cancer, unlike a certain birth control method might (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, PILL), and it’s reversible in 25% to 87% of cases.  It also leaves some women options like in vitro fertilization and adoption if they decide that they want to have a child and reversal doesn’t take.  Also, although some IUDs and hormonal implants are actually more effective than sterilization, not every method is a good fit for every woman, so making sterilization available to women who want it is important.

If your brain is exploding with the effort of trying to understand why this is happening at a time where the right to choose abortion is being severely restricted, politicians seem to have some sort of bet going about who can be the biggest jerk about restricting contraceptive access, and raising kids is hella expensive, I totally feel you.

I hesitate to blame the medical community, because although studies vary widely on sterilization regret rates, the strongest predictor of regret is young age.

Nonetheless, there is something creepily paternalistic about medical professionals making women who’ve decided that they don’t want kids risk birth control failure for a decade or more, just in case they’re wrong.  After all, some of the research about young age and sterilization regret that the National Institutes of Health points to is based on procedures performed in the 1970s and 1980s, and our attitudes about women’s role in society and the number of women who wish to remain childless have shifted dramatically since then. It would be interesting to see future research focus on women who are denied sterilization procedures. We could learn a lot from the women’s motives, the doctor’s rationales for denial, and demographic data. The most visible blog posts on this subject are written by white women, and there is value in knowing why we aren’t reading women of color blog on this topic.

Denial of sterilization to young women is related to, and perpetuates, the myth that all women want children and that those who do not will change their minds.  As reproductive justice advocates, we should be fighting for doctors to respect women’s personal decisions about sterilization.

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.

Getty Images & The Lean In Collection – There’s Room to Lean Further

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

Last month Getty Images, in collaboration with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit foundation, launched over 2,500 new stock images aimed at depicting “female leadership in contemporary work and life”. As a collection, the images are a beautifully composed collage of picture perfect women, girls, families, and friendship. However, taken individually, some of the images may perpetuate a problematic oversimplification of what it takes for women to thrive in the corporate world.

A number of the images play with the work/life balance motif, showing thin, stylish women in contemporary work and home office settings.  In an interview with NPR, Getty’s Pamela Grossman discussed how these images were intended to present an updated and more dynamic vision of motherhood.

“The older model would be that … the mother looked incredibly harried, and she would be juggling a dinner plate in one hand and a baby in the other. Sometimes even more arms would be Photoshopped onto her to show just how indeed she was juggling it all.”  Grossman compared this outdated model of a multitasking mom with that depicted in the LeanIn Collection, “They really feel like they have contemporary style, and they’re engaged and energetic.”

Although the intent behind the collection is admirable, it is hard not to question whether this contemporary view of working mothers may be setting an unobtainable bar for those of us contemplating or trying to balance motherhood with a career.  In a country where income inequality continues to grow and women face a wage gap of $.77 to every dollar earned by a man, where most lack access to paid maternity leave, where the glass ceiling and maternal wall are still very much intact for women pursuing corporate leadership, and where female attorneys represent less than one-third of lawyers at law firms (a number that has actually been dropping for the past four years), the new Collection presents a picture that is hard to reconcile with the reality working mothers face.

Many of the images of working mothers show them sitting at their immaculate desks, working on their laptops while young children balance on their knee or sit serenely nearby. How do these women manage to keep their children from grabbing at the laptops, pouring coffee over the keyboards or pulling on their dangly earrings and perfectly coiffed hair?  Where are these women supposed to be?  Certainly not at work-I have no data on this but I bet there are more dog friendly offices in the U.S. than child friendly.  So are these mothers supposed to be representing the women who are fortunate enough to have a flexible working schedule that allows them to work from home? If so, they must be wealthy enough to afford housekeeping because their offices are immaculate with few or no toys in sight for their perfectly behaved children.

Although the collection does include women of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, it fails to move past the model thin and designer dressed. The idea of a more “contemporary” working mother is nice, but at the end of the day these are stock photos used to depict artificial scenarios in order to sell a product or service, or to communicate a point of view or sentiment..

To claim that the Collection serves a loftier dual purpose is an overreach and I question whether these images of the “contemporary” working mother are actually an improvement upon the traditional multi-armed multitasking mother. What woman can possibly live up to the unrealistic standards these images depict while trying to succeed in a world where working women continue to be discriminated against because they are mothers. The Collection’s embrace of the unrealistic while touting it as “empowering,” left me feeling just the opposite – how will I ever be able to obtain such a lifestyle while balancing my legal career with the needs of my family?

Stock Up: Ridding Preposterous Images of Women from Stock Photography

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

It was a pleasant surprise to wake up the other morning and see a positive move towards gender parity. announced that it would be partnering with Getty Images to improve the representation of women in stock photography. That’s right, heels will soon be back in style for walking instead of stepping on men, or hanging off of disembodied legs. I’m not too crazy about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In thesis: that women must learn to adopt characteristics like “assertiveness”  to succeed in this maniverse, rather than dismantling it. But Sandberg aptly described the need for this project as, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

And what we’re seeing these days is pretty abismal. Advertising is gravitating towards more objectification of female bodies than ever before. It’s not difficult to imagine the toll this imagery takes on young women and girls: depression, eating disorders, and lower self-esteem, to name a few ramifications. But we hear less about the implications these images have for young men. One peer-reviewed study found that men were more tolerant of rape myths and sexual harassment after they viewed images of sexually objectified women. The effects became more pronounced as the exposure to objectifying imagery increased. And if the stock images out there aren’t offensive, they’re just downright ridiculous. This project won’t rid the world of women posing as beer bottles, but it will more accurately depict the “working woman;” she’s leaving those man-stomping heels at home this time.

18.7 percent is not enough

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

This month marks the start of the second session of the 113th Congress — the most diverse Congress in U.S. history.   My own home state of New Hampshire played a big role in this distinction having sent the only ever all female delegation to Washington, D.C.  Hawaii is a close second, having sent three women as part of its four-member delegation. However, with eighty-one House members and twenty Senators, women still account for only 18.7% of Congressional members.[1]

Despite their comparatively low numbers, women have increasingly gained recognition for their leadership on a variety of issues.  Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kelley Ayotte (R-NH) and others garnered attention for their role in last year’s budget negotiations and are largely credited for saving our country from the dreaded fiscal cliff.  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the voice for family unity and women’s equality during the immigration debate introducing a number of amendments including one to allocate 30,000 residency cards for traditionally female employment, employment that goes largely unrecognized in our current system.

The Shaheen amendment, passed late in 2012, and named for Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), ended the decades long ban on insurance coverage for abortion services for military rape survivors. The attention to sexual violence in the military has only grown over the past year thanks to the efforts of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Although not always in agreement – only eighteen of the twenty female Senators are pro-choice – the women serving in Congress are a force in their own right.  A recent study found that regardless of their party, women are “thirty-one percent more effective than men at advancing legislation.”

As we embark on the second session of this historic Congress, it is tempered by the fact that half of all states have never elected a woman to the Senate and in the words of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.”


5 Reproductive Justice Resolutions You Can Adopt in 2014

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

These days, it seems that there is a list for everything: 29 Ways to Love Being 29, 10 Ways to Prevent Yourself from Alien Abduction, Top 5 Trite New Year’s Resolutions, etc. etc.  At the risk of sounding preachy, here are 5 reproductive justice-related resolutions that I have adopted for 2014.

  1. Be sex positive – It sounds so easy in theory.  But sometimes when one is faced with a friend or younger sibling and sexuality, the “ick factor” takes over.  Breathe deeply and feel emboldened by the thought that you may be the only person your little brother can talk to about such things.
  2. Examine and reevaluate your privilege – In social justice spaces, it is crucial that folks commit to evaluating and dismantling their own privilege, which can be based on race, class, gender, and various other identities.  It can be difficult to focus on these structural concerns while caught up in exciting work.  But our movement cannot truly achieve our aims without such rigorous self-reflection and holding ourselves accountable.
  3. Raise your voice – I often find myself horrified by news articles these days: people denied their rights, or stripped of agency and subjugated to an employer’s or hospital’s religious directives.  This is the year to write a blog post or Op-Ed in the local paper, and raise your RJ voice.
  4. Practice what you preach – Women’s health folks know the importance of preventive care and of prioritizing one’s health.  But we don’t always schedule the tests, screenings, and health care into our own schedules as we advocate others to do.  2014 is the year to lead by example.
  5. Be kind to yourself – At the same time, advocates have to be kind to themselves in the same way they are to others.  Often, I find that it is advocates who are hardest on themselves.  I have a friends who is a safe sex advocate, and when she contracted an STI, self-imposed a layer of shame upon an already tough situation.  While RJ advocates hold themselves up to a high standard, it’s important to leave some flexibility, some room to be kind and gentle to oneself.

Happy New Year, all!

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.

Stop blurring the line

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

I’ve read the varying commentary on blurred lines; ranging from the song is “kind of rapey” to defenders that wrote, in fact, Robin Thicke’s song is allowing for the woman to take the initiative, “go ahead” get at him girl! I think, like most women, I landed somewhere in the middle.  Such lyrics of the song like proclaiming that “she” wanted him but “she’s” actually a a good girl bothered me because it draws a distinct line between a woman’s sexual desires and how she had to behave in order to still be seen as a “good girl” that feel unjustified and confining.  Some of the lyrics also just felt outright appalling; “just let me liberate you”? Thanks Robin Thicke, we women, have been waiting for you and your catchy pop lyrics to liberate us.  Finally, I probably fall in the minority in finding the title of the song also problematic.  I’m a pretty direct person, particularly in the matters of the heart and lust, so dealing with blurred lines just isn’t my thing.  And maybe if, as a society, we were taught to be more open about our feelings and desires then there would be less instances of blurred lines. I acknowledge, however, that this is not how the romantic lives of many operate. The phrase blurred lines is something many relate to and as long as blurring the lines doesn’t mean “well she said no but she really seemed to be acting like yes,” then I don’t really have a problem with the phrase. It is possible that the intent was to refer to blurred lines as being that period when both parties are trying to figure out whether they are interested in each other and not the worrisome “rapey” interpretation of blurred lines?

In any case, while the title of the song and these particular lyrics bothered me, mostly, I found the song catchy and not really a call to arms to perpetuate a problematic rape culture.  If the song came on at a party or after a late night happy hour, I would, along with most of my girlfriends, jump up to dance to it.

Now the video was a whole other matter.  I just couldn’t get behind it or understand it’s deeper “parody” meaning the artists’ claim they had in developing it. The video, to me, just looked demeaning and not even entertaining.

That’s why when these Auckland law students came out with this parody, I found it absolutely brilliant!  Their parodying lyrics are sharp, witty, insightful and their video highlights exactly how absurd and demeaning Robin Thicke & co’s original video was.  Thanks Aukland law students for a video that identifies the misogynistic nature of sexuality in our society and reminds us, no men can’t just grab us, that’s a #sexcrime! (And Kudos for garnering more attention to gender equality and #Liberation)

Making the world safe for mothers (or at least America)

Courtney Fraser, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, University of California, Berkeley Law School)

Since time immemorial, I think it can be uncontroversially posed, there has been tremendous cultural pressure on women to have children. Recently, though, it seems – from a limited and particular sample of my college friends – that some sub-cultural, post-third-wave push-back is gaining traction among certain young women. In my corner of the world – a hipster-heavy liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon – it is far more fashionable to not want kids. Gracing the Facebooks of my friends are links to such vindicating gems as “Sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion, study finds,” or a t-shirt that reads, “Why would I want kids? I’m ENJOYING my life!” Perfunctorily scrolling through our news feeds, we’d groan in the deluge of pictures featuring babies or pregnant bellies. “Another one? Gross!” – or whatever. Against this backdrop, when I started thinking I might – might – want to someday sport a baby bump of my own, I was actually petrified to say so lest my confession meet the same deriding aversion we had leveled at those other poor parenting fools. Yet it is undeniable that the hegemonic norms in the larger society still coercively point women toward motherhood. The reasons for this don’t have to be recapitulated – blah, blah, evolutionary psychology, structure of capitalism, blah, blah – but the other side of this emerging double-bind got my attention. Why is it that some young American women are not only choosing to be child-free themselves but aggressively denouncing the reproductive decisions of others?

Could it be that mothers in the United States get really, truly screwed?

Obviously, there are much worse places to be a mother – or a woman at all – but that discussion is outside my scope. Privileged checked; onward we go. The wage gap that’s so tenacious, it turns out, can be attributed in non-trivial part to parental status – so mothers stand at a disadvantage not only to men because they are women, but to other women because they are parents. (The opposite is true for men, interestingly – Shelly Correll’s 2007 study revealed that, while potential employers responded negatively across the board to a hypothetical mother’s resume compared to that of a non-mother, fatherhood actually came with bonuses to the likelihood of hiring and the recommended starting salary.) Pregnancy discrimination is routine, despite being unlawful, with employers denying pregnant women important health-related privileges (such as access to water, restrooms, or a place to sit down) until they are forced to quit. These anti-mother biases seem to stem from, rather than any actual deficiency in the workplace productivity of parenting women, good old-fashioned prejudice (no other reasonable causes forthcoming). Mothers are stereotyped, according to Correll’s study, as warmer but less competent than childless women – even when their qualifications are the same.

I understand the impulse to push back against the status quo in this way. Rejecting the motherhood paradigm seems like a solid way to signal that women aren’t all incompetent, unreliable workers who deserve to be segregated into less prestigious, lower-paying jobs – the only problem is, the group that loses this symbolic joust is the one that’s been othered in the process – i.e., mothers. Mothers, in this model, have become a proxy for women writ large – and childless women are reaping (some of) the benefits by filling a role in the workplace adjacent to men, who typically do not have to compromise their careers for their families (although some are choosing to, and I think that’s swell). Perhaps a more productive (and RJ-driven) way to transmit the same message would be to implement policies to benefit employed mothers, as Sweden, Norway, and some other countries have done. Honoring the needs of new parents rather than treating them as detriments would be better for mothers, fathers, and children, and – crucially – could help to lift motherhood out of its devalued status by showing that we, as a culture, respect women’s choices – at a bare minimum, enough not to penalize them for making the very choice our society encourages them to make.

Finding Balance as a Mom and a Professional. It’s Personal!

Josie Sustaire, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Oregon School of Law)

I was raised by my stay-at-home mom.  She told me on numerous occasions that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up.  I believed her.  I grew up adoring Punky Brewster, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.  These were girls who refused to fit a mold.  However, I mostly clung to these role models to avoid the other predominant role models I saw on television shows: the moms.  Family Ties, Growing Pains, Roseanne.  I was inundated with images of the stay-at-home mom.  I knew early on, however, that I did not want to be a stay-at-home mom and I disliked the idea that the yardstick against which I would be measured was the at-home mom model.  I know I’m not the only girl to have been raised by parents who told her she could be anything she wanted to be nor am I the first girl to not want to be a stay-at-home mom.  So if this is true, then why are there so few women in leadership roles?  Well, I don’t have the answer, but I have a hunch.

Two of my classmates recently sent me two different news stories addressing this very issue.  The first was an article about Marissa Mayer, who recently made a command decision at Yahoo! to put an end to telecommuting.  This decision has sparked fierce debates (seriously, just Google Marissa Mayer and telecommuting).  This article makes it clear from its title “Marissa Mayer is killing telecommuting, and that’s a good thing,” that Marissa Mayer’s decision was the right one.

For starters, I fundamentally disagree with this approach.  As a woman, I despise when women (the author is a woman) tell other women the “right” and “wrong” way to either parent or run a company because, of course, you can’t do both.  Intelligent, successful women should be fully aware of the fact that what works for one doesn’t work for all.  What I found most troubling is that the author completely ignores the fact that Mayer, despite having axed telecommuting, just had a private nursery built next to her office, an option not available to the other women in her building.  So, as much as I can appreciate the focus on actual interpersonal communication and face-to-face interactions among staff, I find it difficult to look up to a woman who sets two separate standards, one for her and one for all other women below her.

The second article sent to me was a story about Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.  Sandberg, in her 60 Minutes interview points the finger at women.  She believes that women are their own worst enemies and that women have put up their own barriers to success.  Now, I’ll agree that there are undoubtedly women who make certain decisions that aren’t the pursuit of reaching the top rung of the ladder but I won’t stand with Sandberg and point the finger at one group.  We are ALL to blame for this.  The lack of female leaders isn’t attributable to just some women making some choices, I would wager that it is much more likely to be attributed to a society that still measures a women’s success in a 1950’s framework.

I have a number of titles, at school and at home.  Wife, mommy, part-time chef, partly-part-time housekeeper, student, group leader, mentor, friend.  I wear each of them proudly and at times I am slow to switch gears and I make mistakes.  I’m not perfect.  But I manage and I would like to think I manage fairly well.  I want to succeed just as much as I want my husband, marriage, and my children to succeed.  I don’t feel compelled to choose one title over another.  In fact, when the media, movies, or Momsters make me feel as if I do, I get angry.  I asked a Federal court judge recently who raised five children how to combat the sneers and snide comments from the PTA moms (aka Momsters).  She leaned in and whispered, “You don’t need to worry about them because you know.  You know about you and your family and they don’t.”  At first, I thought, “what the hell kind of advice is that?”  But now I know what she meant.  I am the only one who truly knows what works for me, not the Momsters, or my classmates, professors, advisors, the media, movies, or even powerful female executives.