Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Our Own Backyard



by Vanessa Hunsberger


I’m thinking of a country. A country where pharmacists can refuse to give women their prescribed birth control because of their personal beliefs. Where women may have to drive two and a half hours to reach the nearest abortion provider. Where doctors must relay medically inaccurate information to patients and, tragically, where three times as many women died in childbirth as the official target figure.


I’m not talking about a country that has recently emerged from civil war or one that depends on foreign aid to meet the needs of its people. I’m not referring to a country where church and state officially function as one. I am instead referring to our own country, the United States.


American women are experiencing a decline in the standard of medical care available to them as well as greatly restricted access to the optimum spectrum of reproductive health services. In Arizona, for instance, after a woman has decided to undergo an abortion, she must be given a physical description of her fetus and receive information about the public assistance available to her if she chooses to carry her child to term. In an unconstitutional move, states like Idaho have put in place laws that prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. In Mississippi and other states, pharmacists may refuse to dispense emergency contraception if they are personally against using it. These alarming laws that infringe upon women’s rights and endanger their health are unfortunately growing in number as groups with conservative religious agendas seek to impose their views on all women.


Women’s reproductive health needs are best met through informed discussion and decision-making between women and their medical providers and not through medically unsound laws designed solely to reduce women’s access to reproductive healthcare.


While advocates of women’s reproductive health spend their energy fighting the many bills that would further trample on women’s health rights, 12.7 maternal deaths from pregnancy-related causes occur per 100,000 live births. Maternal deaths include those women who, even months after their pregnancy ends, succumb to medical conditions such as hemorrhage and eclampsia or complications like those that can result from anesthesia and caesarean sections. We unfortunately understand that some women will inevitably be lost in childbirth. However, the quality of medicine today allows us to prevent many maternal deaths. The advanced nature of American medicine makes the worsening of the country’s maternal mortality ratio particularly jarring. Maternal deaths increased because of issues such as low rates of prenatal care (due to expense and lack of health insurance) and an over-reliance on medically unnecessary caesarean sections. In 2006, the US ranked behind 49 other countries with lower ratios of maternal mortality. This means that our maternal mortality ratio looks like those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine while nations such as Greece, Ireland and Denmark boast maternal mortality ratios about five times lower than the United States.


Discussion on women’s reproductive health seems to inevitably return to valuing life. Yet, while our legislators try to convince us that showing ultrasound images to women who want abortions actually protects them and boast about the unbeatable quality of the American healthcare system, an unacceptable number of families are losing their mothers. The joy of bringing a child into the world becomes a family’s biggest tragedy.


Maternal mortality and reproductive healthcare are inextricably tied. A country that values women listens to their needs. Given that 99 percent of women who have had sex have used a form of contraception other than natural family planning, it is clear that American women want to protect their access to contraception. Despite this figure, in 2010, almost half of all pregnancies were unintended. Education about and access to contraception are clearly lacking. Only women in control of their bodies and informed about their options can decide what is best for them. A country that values women provides them with access to the medical care they need. However, the United States does not promote women’s reproductive education or prioritize their survival in childbirth: our maternal mortality ratio is shockingly high and African American women are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. A country that respects women will invest its resources in ensuring that avoidable maternal deaths, especially of poor women and women of color, do not occur. That is how you value life and the reproductive health of women.

Vanessa Hunsberger is a summer intern with Legal Voice and a rising 3L at the University of Washington School of Law. She is an avid traveler, having spent over 20 years in West Africa, Southeast Asia, China and Russia.


Photo by Ominate.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sex Worker Participation Critical to “Turn the Tide” on HIV and AIDS

by Nina Schwartz 


Last Sunday marked the beginning of the XIX International Global AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. The Conference is being held in this country this year for the first time in more than two decades, following the recent repeal of a ban on people living with HIV entering the U.S. Government officials, activists, academics, people living with HIV, and stakeholders from around the world have gathered to discuss the treatment, prevention, and care of HIV and AIDS. 


 Notably absent from the table is one of the populations most critically affected by HIV and AIDS--sex workers. Current U.S. law prohibits any person who has participated in sex work in the last ten years from entering this country, regardless of whether sex work is legal in their country. 


However, sex workers are not silenced by this antiquated policy. Hundreds of representatives from around the world have gathered in Kolkata, India, for the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, the alternative International AIDS Conference for sex workers and allies.  The conference is focusing on seven freedoms, including “freedom to work and choose occupation” and “freedom from abuse and violence.” Through collective action and organizing events like the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, sex workers are demanding that they be recognized as and treated like workers, not victims or criminals. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge and input is essential to increasing sex workers’ health and safety and determining the necessary steps to reduce the transmission of HIV among sex workers. 


The U.S. travel ban for foreign sex workers is just one obstacle to changing policies and practices around sex work. 


Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting police and prosecutors in four major U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) using condom possession as evidence supporting prostitution charges. The report describes the violence, harassment, and other human rights violations that many sex workers encounter in their daily lives. Practices criminalizing condoms have also been documented in other countries, including Kenya, Russia, and South Africa. When sex workers are afraid to carry condoms out of fear of consequences from law enforcement, it compromises their health and safety, as well as public health more broadly. 


Much progress has been made in addressing the global AIDS crisis, but there is still much more work that remains to be done. The theme of this year’s International AIDS Conference is “Turning the Tide Together.” The outdated, discriminatory policy banning current and former sex workers and drug users from entering the U.S. undermines this important call to action. It is only together, with all of the stakeholders and affected populations at the table, that an end to the AIDS epidemic is possible. 


Nina is a summer intern with Legal Voice and a rising 3L at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why I believe in Marriage for All


by Erin Okuno


While making lunch the other day, I thought about my wedding, it was such a fabulous day. It was a gorgeous September day where summer prevailed and our closest friends and family gathered. More than one friend remarked at how diverse, warm, and inviting our wedding felt.

Our close friend Julian conducted the ceremony and gave us a Native American Yakama blessing and cleansing. Julian and his brother Lloyd sang in their language and shared with our guests several Yakama prayers. Around us were friends and family from rich and diverse backgrounds all willing to share their day with us. We had friends from mixed backgrounds, international friends and family, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Natives, Whites, singles and widows, couples straight and gay-- some married, some not, old and young, and one couple was celebrating their own 20th wedding anniversary. 


That day was special; it symbolized the life we were starting and it represented the life 
we live and the people we want sharing it with us. Now married for several years and with one pre-school age little boy and another baby weeks away from making a debut, I believe more than ever in wanting my children to respect others who are like or different from them and to be
respected for their own unique and genuineness.

This includes respecting families who may look differently than our family. Our pre-schooler is perceptive. He understands the notion of family and how his family has a daddy, mommy, grandparents, and extended family. Now I want him to know that other families may look different-- some may have two or more parents, some may have parents of the same sex, and others may have one parent or a grandparent raising them, or other ways of being a family.


As a parent I realize I only have so much influence over my child (soon to be children) and as they grow that influence will be shared outside of the home. That is why I believe strongly everyone should have the right to be legally married-- including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Being legally married signals as a community we value all families and that children of lesbian and gay parents- many of whom are and will be my children’s classmates and playmates- are equals, valued, and respected. Already in his class there are several children with two-moms and other family configurations.


The Washington State Legislature passed a bill which Governor Gregoire signed it into law on February 13, 2012 (my birthday) allowing gays and lesbians to marry. It is being put to a voter referendum on the November ballot. I hope you will join me in voting to approve Referendum 74 so the law can go into effect. If you aren’t a Washington voter than your job is to talk to others and keep the issue alive, hopefully we’ll see the day where everyone has the same legal rights to marry regardless of where you live. As I wrote in a Facebook post after the vote was passed, thanking my friends who worked hard to bring the bill to vote: “I wish you didn't have to fight for a right I take for granted. If invited to your wedding I will dance like crazy...” I want others to have wonderful wedding memories and to have the same right to family that I am so fortunate to have.




Erin Okuno is a volunteer parent ambassador with Pride Foundation, working toward the freedom to marry for all Washingtonians.  If you’d like to help out too, contact Laurie Carlsson at laurie@pridefoundation.org. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Lifelong Dream: Reflections on the 40th Anniversary of Title IX


by Libby Ludlow



As a ski racer, the odds were not exactly in my favor. I was uncommonly small, I lacked a natural gift for gliding on flat terrain, and I had four season-ending injuries in the ten years that I was on the National Team. Like any World Cup skier, I put my time in at the gym and I logged thousands of miles training gates, but I was able to achieve my dream of competing in the Olympics in part because of my involvement in other sports.

Heading into high school, I decided that I wanted to pole vault. It made perfect sense.  I loved the feeling of flying and I wanted to try something new and fun. There was only one hitch: at the time, there was no such thing as girl’s pole vault. Undeterred, I competed against the boys. My freshman year I vaulted 11’, the highest of any girl in the state, and I even qualified for the conference meet in boy’s pole vault.  For my first two years, the points that I earned by competing in boy’s pole vault didn’t count toward my team’s score because I was a girl. 

It wasn’t long, however, before girl’s pole vault started to gain ground.  By my sophomore year, girl’s pole vault was an exhibition (non-scoring) event at the State Championships, and by the time I was a senior, it officially became a scoring event. I am proud to have been a part of the rise of girl’s pole vault in Washington. Now, girls are vaulting way higher than I ever did, and they don’t think twice about having to compete against the boys.

I strongly believe that I was a good ski racer because I was a good overall athlete.  I wouldn’t have been the skier I was if it weren’t for the athleticism that I built off the slopes doing sports like soccer, softball, gymnastics, diving, and of course, pole vault.  That’s why, with the recent 40th anniversary of Title IX, I am incredibly grateful for the fact that I had access to—and the support to pursue—many different sports.  In a way, access to a wide variety of sports made my skiing dreams possible. 

One of the best parts about sports is the opportunity to demonstrate to yourself time and time again, “I can do this.”  It’s more than just telling yourself, “I can do this.”  Through long-term involvement in sports, you prove to yourself that you can do it.  Whether it is small (e.g. “I can go on this run”) or whether it is big (e.g. “I can win this run”), through sports we collect actual data points that prove exactly why we should believe in ourselves.

I will never forget what it felt like to qualify for the 2006 Olympic Team and walk into those Opening Ceremonies. It was an overwhelming combination of elation, pride, and accomplishment. My Olympic experience was meaningful because I overcame obstacles and setbacks to get there. I didn’t just tell myself, “I can do this,” I proved it. Because I’ve proven my ability to beat the odds once, I know that I can do it again and again.  It’s one of the greatest gifts of sport:learning what you’re capable of and building from there. That’s one of the reasons why I’m passionate about getting and keeping girls involved in sports. Believing in myself is such a powerful gift; I want other girls to have the opportunity to start collecting reasons why they should believe in themselves too.  




Libby Ludlow is the Founder and Co-President of Z Girls, a program that empowers young female athletes with the tools they need to thrive in sports and thrive in life. Through fun camps and supportive coaching, Z Girls teaches skills like goal-setting, positive self-talk, communication skills, healthy nutrition habits, and how to build self-confidence and a positive body-image. Z Girls programs heighten athletic performance, improve girls’ ability to cope with challenges, increase retention in sports, and decrease likelihood of engaging in at-risk behaviors.  For more information please visit: GoZGirls.com.



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The 17-Year Itch

by David Ward

I’ve noticed a strange pattern in the fight for LGBT rights. Whenever Congress passes a sweeping homophobic law or the Supreme Court issues a virulently anti-gay ruling, it seems to take 17 years to undo the damage.

One example: In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that states could criminalize private, consensual sexual conduct between two people of the same sex. The Court said it was “facetious at best” to think that the Constitution might protect lesbians and gay men from being arrested in their own bedrooms. It wasn’t until 17 years later in 2003 that the Court reversed itself, when it held in Lawrence v. Texas that such laws violated the Constitution.

Another example: In 1993, Congress adopted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented openly gay or lesbian soldiers from serving in the U.S. military. Members of Congress made dire predictions that military readiness would be destroyed if known homosexuals were allowed to serve (and even worse, shower) alongside their straight comrades in arms. Once again, this idiotic policy stood for 17 years before Congress finally passed a bill to repeal DADT in 2010.

And now, right on schedule, it looks like we’re headed for another 17-year showdown over the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA).

President Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, in response to a panic in Congress that someday a state might allow same-sex couples to marry – which would undoubtedly lead to dogs marrying cats, a plague of locusts, and the like. DOMA has two provisions: Section 2, which provides that no state has to recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed in another state; and Section 3, which states that the federal government will only recognize marriages between a man and a woman.

In May, a federal appeals court in Boston held that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional. And last Friday, the House of Representatives’ “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” asked the Supreme Court to review this decision. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case – which seems virtually certain – we should see a ruling on DOMA in 2013.

Back in 1996, DOMA’s impact was largely theoretical. It wasn’t until 2004 that Massachusetts became the first state to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry. Amazingly, Massachusetts did not sink into the ocean or suffer any ill effects. Instead, the Red Sox won the World Series that year for the first time since 1918.

As more states have extended the freedom to marry to lesbian and gay couples, the impact of DOMA has become clear. DOMA doesn’t “defend” marriage. Instead, it diminishes marriage by treating legally married lesbian and gay couples as second-class citizens under federal law. At least 1,138 federal laws use marital status as a factor for specific federal protections, benefits, and responsibilities – including Social Security, the Family & Medical Leave Act, the immigration laws, and the tax code. But until Section 3 of DOMA is overturned, those federal benefits and obligations are completely denied to legally married lesbian and gay couples.

If the 17-year trend holds, we can look forward to DOMA’s demise in 2013. But while that would be tremendous news, we need to start moving the clock faster.

Here in Washington, we’re in the middle of a historic fight to Approve Referendum 74 in the November 6th election. Approving Referendum 74 would uphold the marriage equality law passed by the State Legislature earlier this year. The Legislature passed the marriage equality law just 14 years after it had limited marriage in Washington to different-sex couples in 1998.

Winning the campaign to Approve Referendum 74 isn’t going to be easy. We not only have to buck the strange 17-year timeline for undoing anti-gay polices. We also have to make history by becoming the first state in the country to approve marriage equality at the ballot box.

Do you agree we shouldn’t have to wait 17 years to win marriage equality in Washington state? Then please visit the Washington United for Marriage website to find out what you can do to help us make equality a reality this year.