Friday, July 29, 2016

#NotMyConscience: The Ever-Growing Prioritization of Religion Over Patients' Needs

By Rachel Kuenzi

“The consciences we should protect belong to women who should choose their own reproductive destiny.”
–Rep. Lois Frankel

On July 13, 2016, the House passed the Conscience Protection Act. Based on the title, this bill is agreeable and has nothing to do with my uterus, right? Wrong.

This bill would considerably expand and make permanent the Weldon Amendment, an annual appropriations rider that restricts funding to abortion care. The Conscience Protection Act would allow any “health care entity” to refuse to “facilitate,” “make arrangements for,” or “otherwise participate in” abortion care in order to safeguard the “conscience” of religious employees and institutions. Under this bill, a hospital could refuse to serve a woman in need of medical care and refuse to inform her of her potential treatment options.

This bill is part of a growing trend of “right of conscience” legislation and policies that allow prioritization of religious freedom over medically appropriate standards of care. For instance, Catholic hospitals are guided by the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERD), a set of regulatory guidelines outlining religious healthcare, which mandate that Catholic hospitals cannot provide sterilization procedures, end-of-life procedures, gender transition procedures, contraceptives, abortion, or fertility treatments. Conscience protection laws permit Catholic hospitals to employ the ERDs, ensuring that physicians have no obligation to provide or even inform a patient of her full treatment options if the procedure conflicts with the institution’s “conscience.”

For example, if a woman is suffering from an extra-uterine ectopic pregnancy (that will likely kill her without medical treatment) and is rushed to a Catholic hospital for assistance, the hospital can refuse to treat her because of the ERD and her physician has no obligation to inform her of another institution that could assist her. Such delays in treatment are extremely dangerous and can be life threatening. Further, ERDs routinely prevent physicians from providing treatment they wish to prescribe. In fact, one in five physicians report a conflict between ERDs and their desired recommended treatment.

This growing trend towards prioritizing provider’s “conscience” is particularly concerning given the prevalence of Catholic hospitals and the increase of hospital mergers. Republicans in the House posit the myth that a patient can simply choose another hospital if she does not want her care directed by Catholic beliefs. However, in Washington State, where Catholic institutions own more than 40% of hospital beds in the state, this claim is highly unrealistic. Traveling to non-Catholic hospitals can take hours of driving, substantial amounts of money, and may not be covered by insurance, posing substantial burdens on access to needed health care. What’s more, while there are efforts underway to improve hospital policy transparency, patients often do not realize that their local hospital operates under the ERDs or other restrictive policies and will not provide the services they need.

Instead of prioritizing the hospital’s conscience, shouldn’t we be prioritizing the “conscience” of the patients seeking accurate and legal health care options? What about the “conscience” of the physicians attempting to provide medically appropriate services? Our health system should aim to endorse medically based treatments, use best health care practices, and fully inform patients of all treatment options.

The Obama administration stated that the President would veto the Conscience Protection Act if it arrives on his desk, acknowledging that it would “limit women’s health care choices.” However, with the upcoming election and with “conscience” laws rapidly becoming an expanding frontier for preventing access to reproductive health care, we should be concerned about the passage of the Conscience Protection Act and the ever-growing prioritization of religion over health care needs. This bill is #NotMyConscience!


Rachel Kuenzi is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Public Interest Fellow dedicated to alleviating intimate partner violence and day dreams about founding a domestic violence advocacy theater troupe that includes pro-bono legal services for victims.

Photo courtesy of Pexels | Licensed by Creative Commons 0

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I Want Justice for Rape Survivors—but I Don't Think Incarceration is the Answer

By Lara Hengelbrok

Like so many others, I was, and continue to be, outraged by the sentencing of Brock Turner last month after he was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. It felt wrong that Judge Perksy lowered Brock’s sentence below the minimum for a horrific crime that is common, underreported, and largely unprosecuted. It’s monstrous to dismiss the profoundly traumatic impact that these crimes have on victims in avoidance of the impact incarceration can have on perpetrators. It isn’t justice when privilege upon privilege becomes an excuse for rape, for inflicting trauma, for ruining a life. I’m disheartened by the relentless apathy we exhibit in the face of rape. I read the survivor’s statement and wept at her pain, wept that she had to be so strong and passionate after experiencing such trauma, and then re-experience it again and again and again throughout the proceedings. I’m sickened that our legal system so failed to hear her voice over the wail of Brock Turner, mourning his lost privilege.

But.

(There shouldn’t be a “but.” I don’t want there to be a “but.”)

But I don’t believe in incarceration.

I hate that Brock Turner successfully shielded himself from repercussions by blaming “drinking and sexual promiscuity,” as though promiscuity has anything to do with the assault of someone who’s unconscious; as though alcohol consumption inevitably ends in rape. I hate that his “lost future” is more important than what the survivor lost – “[her] worth, [her] privacy, [her] energy, [her] time, [her] safety, [her] intimacy, [her] confidence.” I want Brock Turner and other people who commit rape and sexual assault to go to prison for long enough to reflect the horrible crimes they commit, because that’s what justice looks like in our system.

But I don’t actually think that incarceration is justice at all. It won’t undo what he did. It won’t make sure he never hurts anyone again. It won’t make her whole.

What's more, incarcerating perpetrators of rape will not end rape. Within three years of release, 46% of convicted rapists are arrested for another crime. Within 15 years of release, 24% recommit sexual crimes, a high rate considering that two-thirds of rapes and sexual assaults are unreported and only 2% of reported rapes actually result in conviction.

The Stanford survivor repeated the outcome she wanted from the proceeding multiple times in her statement: “What I truly wanted was for Brock to get it, to understand and admit to his wrongdoing […] We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.” But she, too, seems ambivalent. She said that she didn’t “want Brock to rot away in prison,” but that a sentence of a year or less is a mockery. She would have accepted a lighter sentence if he’d admitted his guilt and remorse, but his sentence should clearly communicate the seriousness of rape. Maybe this dissonance, on her part and mine, stems from the limited and unsatisfying options the legal system offers: only innocence or guilt; freedom or incarceration and a lifetime of revoked rights and collateral consequences. There isn’t room for healing, for accepting responsibility and sincerely trying to rehabilitate; there is only more damage, endlessly.

I don’t know what to do with this conflict. I don’t know how to square the outrage and horror of this moment – along with the overwhelming commonality of rape and sexual assault that are not reported, not prosecuted, and not convicted – with the knowledge that the carceral system is a seat of dehumanization and racist social control; that it serves to punish the poor and marginalized; that it doesn’t stop people from reoffending.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s no room for ambivalence when someone has violated you in this way, when that person has dragged you over the coals, forcing you to relive that violation again and again and again while silencing your voice. Maybe there is only room for punishment and retribution, for a loud, unequivocal NO, because, the Stanford survivor's words, “we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault needs to be severe enough that people feel enough fear to exercise good judgment even if they are drunk, severe enough to be preventative.”

But I can’t help wanting more. I can’t help wanting our justice system to hold people accountable for rape and sexual assault, while also wanting that accountability to not be inhumane, socially damaging, and ineffective. I want our justice system to take rape seriously and work towards ending it without re-traumatizing the survivor. I want perpetrators to be rehabilitated in truth, not dehumanized and marginalized to the point that reoffending is almost inevitable. I want a justice system that is actually just. 


Lara Hengelbrok is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She received a PILA Grant to pursue public interest work and hopes to work towards ensuring access to quality education and curriculum reform. She is also a baking goddess and unapologetic pop-culture junkie. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Don't Leave Women Out of the Conversation on Police Brutality

By Kelsey Jones

Last week, in the span of less than 48 hours, two black men—Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—were killed by law enforcement, reigniting protests across the country against police brutality. Thousands of men, women, and children marched in the streets, and millions more shared their grief and outrage over social media.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was started by three women in July 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, has been at the heart of the push to end police brutality since its inception.

Although the #BlackLivesMatter movement itself has made a point of recognizing the specific experiences and intersections of police brutality and gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, much of the media portrayals and public perceptions label police brutality as an issue facing black men exclusively.

Women are primarily discussed as fearing for their sons and husbands, which is an important reproductive justice issue. But without the acknowledgement of black women’s specific experiences with police violence, this framework isn’t telling the whole truth.

“I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history at Georgetown University, in an interview with Dissent magazine. “Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered.”

The African American Policy Forum released a report last year detailing police violence against black women. The list of names is long, and their stories cross lines drawn by age, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and location.

As the report says, “The erasure of Black women is not purely a matter of missing facts. Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them.”

This week marks one year since Sandra Bland died in police custody after being arrested at a traffic stop. She was originally pulled over for failing to use her blinker to switch lanes, and the officer eventually pulled her out of the car after she declined to put out her cigarette and demanded to know why she was being arrested. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later, sparking national outrage after a video of the arrest surfaced.

#SayHerName, a campaign to increase visibility of black women who are victims of police violence, was chanted at protests and rallies across the country. Sandra’s death was a sobering reminder of the vulnerability of black people and the necessity of an inclusive movement.

But the public uproar surrounding Sandra’s death was an outlier to the countless other stories that have been underreported, or not reported on at all. We cannot exclude these women from the discussion on police brutality, race relations, and systemic oppressions. When we #SayHerName, it must carry the weight of every woman who has experienced, and who will experience, injustice at the hands of law enforcement.

Meagan Hockaday and Janisha Fonville were both shot and killed in 2015 after officers responded to calls of a domestic dispute and domestic violence, respectively. Within the span of a few months, videos surfaced of two teenage girls, one in Texas and one in South Carolina, who experienced excessive force by officers. Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by an off-duty officer after he confronted her and her friends for talking too loudly. And the list continues.

Women—especially transgender and queer women—experience the same systemic oppression and violence that black men face. But what makes black women’s experiences distinct is the perceived power dynamic between men and women and the threat of sexual violence.

For instance, Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, raped and sexually assaulted at least 13 black women—ranging in age between 17 and 57 years old—in the neighborhood he patrolled, targeting women he believed would be less likely to report him or press charges.

Black women experience police violence at a rate almost identical to that of black men, but aside from a handful of cases—Sandra Bland being one of them—those acts of violence do not always spark the same public outcry.

In order to recognize the purpose of Black Lives Matter and create true systemic change, the media, and culture writ large, needs to afford the harassment, assault, and shooting of black women by police officers the same outrage and outcry as that accompanying the deaths of black men.

Because black women’s lives matter, too.


Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud | Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Unpacking United States v. Bryant:
When Does Federal Protection of American Indian Women Become Overly Paternalistic?

By Rachel Kuenzi

In United States v. Bryant, decided unanimously last month by the United States Supreme Court, the Notorious RBG heralded a victory for American Indian domestic violence survivors, demonstrating respect for tribal court criminal procedure.

Michael Bryant had over one hundred tribal court convictions, including several misdemeanor convictions for domestic assault. Between 1997 and 2007, he pled guilty to five occasions of domestic violence charges. Bryant contended that because he did not have representation during the tribal court proceedings, those convictions should not count toward a heightened sentence in federal court.

However, his Sixth Amendment claim citing his right to counsel fell flat. The Supreme Court reaffirmed that at least two prior domestic violence convictions adhering to correct tribal court procedure are sufficient to escalate a third charge to a new crime – a felony, punishable by up to five years – created by the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

This decision reinforces the message that repeat offenses of domestic violence in American Indian communities is a serious crime, and upholds the severity of repeat offenses as outlined by VAWA, which was created with input from many tribes. With nearly 46% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experiencing physical violence by an intimate partner, repeat incidents of abuse can result in escalation and can even be fatal.

While this case sends positive messages with regard to the severity of domestic violence, as well as respect for the independence of tribal criminal procedure, it poses questions about tribal sovereignty over substantive law. Should American Indians rely on Congress to police domestic violence within tribal communities, or is VAWA overly paternalistic? Is this acceptance of “uncounseled” convictions lowering the bar of criminal legal protections for tribal members? Does this decision reinforce over-criminalization of tribal members and should tribal law instead focus on restorative justice?

Passionate responses to these questions may come out in upcoming months from American Indian communities and domestic violence organizations, so be on the lookout. For now, let’s celebrate the rare moment when the Supreme Court sided with victims of domestic violence.


Rachel Kuenzi is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Public Interest Fellow dedicated to alleviating intimate partner violence and day dreams about founding a domestic violence advocacy theater troupe that includes pro-bono legal services for victims.

Photo credit: Jay Galvin | Creative Commons

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Corporate Feminism:
Empowerment Cannot Be Bought

By Kelsey Jones

An ad on my Facebook feed encourage me to join Lean In, advertised as a non-profit organization designed to “empower all women to achieve their ambitions.” The organization stemmed from a book by the same name written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Scrolling down my feed, I caught another advertisement, this time for Aerie’s #aerieREAL campaign against photo shopping and the use of thin models.

The feminist movement has been at the forefront of the push for women’s rights for decades, but it’s increasingly also becoming something that companies wanted to plant their own stake in.

While that fact alone proves the power of the feminist movement, it is also a tricky tightrope to walk: using an intersectional political movement to sell products to a specific subset of women versus actually supporting feminism and its ideals across class, sexuality, and racial lines.

Empowerment has long been associated with something that women need: to be empowered in education, in the workplace, in the home. And now, companies are advertising products to help make that possible, as if the right beauty product and a little confidence is all it takes to solve sexism and systemic discrimination in education, in the workplace, and in the home. These messages, paired with catchy, viral-worthy phrases, contribute to the rising prevalence of hashtag feminism.

For instance, one of the most popular ads during last year’s Super Bowl featured several young girls demonstrating what they thought it meant when the producer asked them to run or throw like a girl. It was produced by Always, the feminine product company owned by Procter & Gamble.

The premise of the commercial was profound. It brought to light the insidious nature of common phrases like “You throw like a girl!” being used as an insult. But after challenging the viewer to redefine what it means to do something “#LikeAGirl,” Always flashed the brand logo and encouraged women to buy their product.

Companies like Always do have large audiences, especially when the commercials air during an event like the Super Bowl, so it's heartening to see these issues be raised at all. But juxtaposing a product with a powerful message dilutes the message, especially when the motive is to boost the company's own bottom line and pad the pockets of its largely white, heterosexual, male CEOs. The watered-down feminism of these "empowerment" campaigns—such as ones from Pantene and Secret—is even more apparent once you consider the fact that women generally pay more for the same beauty and hygiene products, thanks to the "pink tax."

The problem is not that the companies are taking feminism and putting out their own social campaigns crafted around their interpretation of it. The problem is that many of these campaigns are still aimed at selling a product. More often than not, that product is marketed in a way that says, “Look, if you buy this, you will be empowered.”

It is the hypocrisy of creating a commercial to break down gender stereotypes while producing other commercials for those same menstrual products with blue liquid to simulate blood and extra coverage to prevent the undesirable leak.

As companies move away from sexism and degradation marketing towards the adoption of feminism for profit, the goals of the movement and the companies becomes muddied. Feminism is a political movement. The misappropriation of such a movement for profit is deplorable.

Companies are not alone in the adoption of what has been deemed corporate feminism. Organizations like TED and Makers regularly hold conferences aimed at empowering women, but at a prohibitive cost—the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco this October costs $2,495 to attend. A price tag like that generally attracts a primarily white, wealthy, heterosexual women audience.

Furthermore, the talks come from a range of speakers, but many of them leave the audience with a feel-good positivity that side-steps some of the real issues facing the movement. The TEDWomen conference Jessica Valenti attended in 2014 didn’t have any mention of abortion access; when asked why, conference co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”

Feminism began as women gathered in small groups at houses across the country. They picketed, protested, and demonstrated in front of corporations and the government. They demanded their rights as citizens of this country.

When corporations and organizations lose sight of that history in favor of dollar signs, they limit the movement as they shave off the parts they deem undesirable or unmarketable.

Empowerment cannot be bought. The term in and of itself is empty; empowerment is almost always discussed by those who hold the power. Companies should be welcome to participate, but feminism should not be a marketing prop. Feminism and empowerment should not be a pastime for wealthy white women to discuss at expensive conferences.

Feminism is still political, not commercial.


Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.