Katha Pollitt | The Nation

Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

‘Charlie Hebdo’ Deserves Its Award for Courage in Free Expression. Here’s Why.

(Via Creative Commons)

When PEN decided to award the first PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, they surely thought they were honoring bravery in defense of free speech. This was a magazine that kept publishing after its offices were firebombed by Islamists in 2011, and kept publishing after nine staffers were horribly murdered by Islamists in January. Compare that to, say, Yale University Press, which dropped the illustrations for Jytte Clausen’s book about the Danish Mohammed cartoons after the book’s first printing, or Random House, which canceled publication of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Mohammed’s wife Aisha. Both publishing houses cited fears of violence by Muslim extremists. Those fears were not irrational. The head of the British publishing house that picked up Jones’s novel had his house firebombed—and the book was dropped. Violence works.

Courage is not enough, though, for the six novelists—Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi—who have withdrawn from participation at PEN’s awards gala next Tuesday. Rachel Kushner criticized the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and support for “a kind of forced secular view.” Writing in The New Yorker after the murders, Teju Cole condemned Charlie Hebdo for racism and Islamophobia. Peter Carey had trouble with the very concept of freedom of speech being restricted by anything but government. Salman Rushdie promptly called the writers “pussies” on Twitter, which didn’t exactly clarify the issues.

Charlie Hebdo’s work is not important,” Francine Prose told me, over the phone. “It’s not interesting.” She said she was offended by Charlie’s crude cartoons of the Prophet and mockery of the religion of France’s marginalized Muslim community: “It’s a racist publication. Let’s not beat about the bush.” She compared the magazine’s Muslim caricatures to Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda. “I don’t see a difference, really. It’s the same big noses and thick lips.” She pointed out that many dozens of Mexican and Russian journalists had been killed for reporting on their government’s corrupt doings. Why not honor them?

I’ve known Francine since we were in college, and admire her and her writing enormously. I agree with her that there’s a distinction between supporting the freedom to speak and write, as we both do, and honoring the speech itself. It is probably safe to say that if PEN believed Charlie Hebdo was the Völkischer Beobachter of our day, they wouldn’t be giving it an award, no matter how many of its editors had been massacred. I don’t agree that the drawings of Mohammed are in a different key than the magazine’s rude caricatures of the Pope or Hasidic rabbis or the Virgin Mary just after being raped by the three kings, but maybe that’s in the eye of the beholder. In any case, Charlie is a small satirical magazine run by aging sixties leftists who spend the vast bulk of their column inches attacking the National Front and other French conservatives, with frequent jabs at the Catholic Church. Those immersed in French cartoon culture have pointed out that the offensive drawings circulating on the Internet are, in context, the opposite of what they seem to some American readers—indictments of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians. In fact, after the murders, Rushdie tweeted that the president of SOS Racisme, the premier anti-racist group in France, had called it “the greatest anti-racist weekly in the country.” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, whom opponents of the award described as depicted as “a black woman drawn as a monkey” in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, also paid tribute to the magazine.

I don’t agree that Charlie is racist, and not just because Muslims are not a race. Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.

Garry Trudeau accused Charlie Hebdo of punching down—i.e., making jokes at the expense of the weak and powerless. In a long letter to PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg said the same thing. There’s something to that—why make struggling people unhappy?—but not enough. It’s basically saying you can make fun of Christianity, but Islam is out of bounds. Furthermore, Charlie doesn’t mock Muslim people—the shopkeeper who runs the corner store, the woman working in a call center, the boys hanging out in the street. It mocks fundamentalism—the narrow, bigoted, superstitious version of Islam that lies behind actually rather a lot of violence against writers. In the West, that violence began with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for a handful of passages in the Satanic Verses that the Ayatollah Khomeini deemed blasphemous and worthy of death. Many of the writers targeted by fundamentalists have been Muslim themselves, among them the Bangladeshi writer and feminist Taslima Nasreen, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi condemned by the regime to 1,000 lashes, and, going back a bit in time, the Nobel Prize–winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, thousands of Algerian intellectuals and doubtless many more. These attacks had nothing to do with supposedly racist insults from privileged white people, and everything to do with perceived deviations from orthodoxy.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The six writers are circulating a letter to PEN members, which many great and famous writers are signing: Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore. It seems to me these writers must be awfully sure that they will never fall afoul of either fanaticism or well-meaning liberalism. “There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,” it argues, “and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” Well, sure, but excuse me: violates the acceptable? The acceptable what? And don’t we need writing and artwork that pushes the boundary of what the acceptable is? “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” as Blake put it.

Norman Mailer, former president of PEN, had all sorts of reprehensible, ignorant and pigheaded views. When it came to politics, he was like a drunken uncle banging the table at Thanksgiving. But he pushed the boundaries back for every writer. And much as I dislike the vast bulk of his writing and his repulsive ideas about women—talk about punching down—if PEN gave him an award, I would just live with it.


Read Next: Read Katha Pollitt on republicanism vs. multiculturalism in France

‘Vessel’ Inspires the Future Fight for Abortion Rights

Rebecca Gomperts landing the ship

Rebecca Gomperts lands the ship in Valencia, Spain. (Photo courtesy of Vessel)

Vessel, Diana Whitten’s fine documentary about the Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts’s world-famous Women on Waves/Women on Web NGO, is a tribute to feminist activism, courage and ingenuity. It is also surely the most exciting movie ever made about maritime law. Shocked as a volunteer in the developing world by the death and maiming of women in illegal abortions, Gomperts had the clever idea of bringing safe and legal abortion by boat to women trapped by their countries’ cruel laws. Since the law on board ships in international waters follows that of the ship’s home country (tell the truth, did you know that?), in 2001, she and her comrades outfitted a small ship with a clinic, registered it in the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, and set off in high spirits to perform abortions just offshore from countries where abortion was banned.

Gomperts is immensely appealing: she scampers about the boat in a pretty blue dress, makes witty ripostes to reporters’ bumptious questions and reveals that she herself is pregnant at exactly the right moment, in a TV debate with a particularly sexist anti-choicer. But actually performing abortions on board turned out to be difficult: there were legal hassles in Ireland, police raids in Poland, and in Portugal the boat was hounded by two warships. (The truth of Barbara Krueger’s famous poster “Your Body is a Battleground” has never been more literally demonstrated.) Gomperts was a fast learner: although she performed few abortions (getting women into international waters without revealing their identities was a challenge all its own), Women on Waves was a publicity gold mine. It attracted huge attention (and anti-abortion protests) wherever it went, made the reality of illegal abortion front-page news, forced politicians to speak about it on the record and mobilized women to protest and organize. A few years after WOW’s visit, Spain and Portugal liberalized their laws.

Gomperts’s big breakthrough was the realization that misoprostol, an abortion-causing drug already widely available in much of the world for ulcers and post-partum bleeding and listed by the World Health Organization as an essential medicine, could be made available to women through the internet. Thus Women on Web was born. Today unwillingly pregnant women can go to womenonwaves.org and get precise instructions on how to self-administer misoprostol; if they live in a country where abortion is banned, they can send away for a package of pills. So far, Women on Web has helped over 100,000 women, and has trained local healthcare providers in many countries on how to acquire the drug at local pharmacies and administer it properly. At one of these sessions, in Tanzania, a village woman starts to cry, thinking of all the women she has known who died in unsafe abortion: “Why didn’t we know about this sooner?”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Women On Waves only sends pills to countries where abortion is illegal. So, Americans, don’t get your hopes up. As Diana Whitten explains, “Rebecca thinks we should solve our own problems.“ Indeed, women in the Rio Grande Valley, where clinic regulations have made abortion completely unavailable, are increasingly crossing the border to Mexico to buy misoprostol. This wasn’t the way abortion access was supposed to happen, but Gomperts may well be right when she says the drug has the potential to put ending a pregnancy into women’s hands, and nothing can prevent that.

Vessel will be online on January 13, and is available to groups large and small who want to show it. Meanwhile, it’s at the IFC in Greenwich Village—don’t miss it. You will be exhilarated and inspired. Rebecca Gomperts—live like her!


Read Next: Katha Pollitt on Mario Cuomo

Climate Change Is the Tragedy of the Global Commons

Haiyan destruction

A neighborhood in the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan (Reuters/John Javellana)

I’m not watching Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime’s nine-part series on climate change. I’m not going to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, despite its great reviews. When I see a long article in The New York Times about melting glaciers or flooded coastal plains or disappearing species or deforestation or desertification, I skip it. Why? Because I already know what’s happening and about to happen. Reading the fine print is just going to make me feel sadder than I already do, without giving me any action I can take that will do more than give me the illusion that I am making a difference.

At The Nation, we have to believe that knowledge is power, or why would we spend our lives bringing people the bad news? And sometimes information does indeed spark change: they called the war in Vietnam “the living-room war” because television brought its horrors into our homes, and eventually that constant flow of violence and lies brought ordinary people into the streets to join the students and the peaceniks. There are plenty of issues where educating and mobilizing the citizenry has begun to transform society: violence against women and children, for example. The shame that is our prison system may be next.

But climate change is different. It is not something we can vote against or refuse to pay our taxes to protest. Writing letters to our congressperson will not help, nor will recycling our bottles and cans. Individual action—even the individual actions of hundreds of thousands of people in concert—won’t be enough. Climate change has too many sources, involves too many interest groups, crosses too many borders, slices through too many political alliances to make possible the kind of united national and international effort required to stop it. Also, doing nothing is too profitable. Perhaps that last is indeed the main thing. Too many people are making money out of feeding the insatiable consumer demand for more.

Some scientists think it’s already too late, but let’s say they are wrong, and the scientists who give us ten years or even twenty are right. Let’s say that if every developed nation were to drastically cut its greenhouse emissions beginning today, our poor old earth would mostly muddle through. Overlooking the rather large fact that these measures would cause the world economy to collapse, think what would have to happen: everyone goes vegetarian, uses cars and planes only for emergencies, gets rid of air conditioning, ceases to cut down forests to build new houses. In short, we radically restrict individual consumption in every conceivable way, while governments force industry, especially the oil, coal and gas industries, to do whatever is necessary to… do whatever is necessary. Given our system, how could any of that happen on the necessary scale, let alone happen in time?

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Moreover, while we would be cutting back, India, China, Brazil, Indonesia and other formerly poor nations would still be surging forward. And how could we, who are vastly responsible for global warming in the first place, tell them, “Sorry, you got rich too late: no steak or family car or air conditioner for you? Go back to your villages and swelter.”

Climate change is the tragedy of the commons for the entire globe. For each individual, there is not enough motivation to alter our current behavior except around the edges to feel virtuous, if indeed behavior change were possible. (Americans may be driving a bit less, but how many Americans could do without their car?) For industry, the incentives are almost all the other way, and state and federal governments are largely industry’s captives. Among nations, there are too many competing interests and no sufficiently powerful international mechanism to lay out a course of action and enforce it. By the time the collective damage is done, it will be too late to undo it.

I hope I am wrong.

The Ray Kelly ‘Shoutdown’: Free-Speech Failure or Democracy in Action?

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

If Bill de Blasio’s landslide win is any indication, it’s clear that liberals—and New Yorkers in general—deplore Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his controversial stop-and-frisk policy. So it was no surprise that when he went to Brown University on October 29, his appearance generated a certain amount of buzz. What was unusual was that, after about half an hour of booing and heckling from the audience of students and members of the public, Kelly and the Brown administration were forced to cancel the talk. Was this “shoutdown” an abrogation of free speech or a necessary moment of speaking truth to power? The Nation asked writers Rania Khalek, Richard Yeselson, Jesse A. Myerson and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt to weigh in.

‘Racism Is Not For Debate,’ Rania Khalek

During his reign as NYPD police commissioner, Ray Kelly has taken suppression policing of black, brown and Muslim bodies to a whole new, record-setting level. So when Brown University students heckled him off stage as he attempted to give a lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” I thought, good riddance! It’s about damn time that bigot face his critics.

After all, this is the same man who said to state officials that his purpose as the overseer of stop and frisk is to “instill fear” in black and Latino men “every time that they [leave] their homes.” Meanwhile, he has the audacity to claim publicly that his racist policies are saving the lives of young men of color. He’s also the architect of a massive spying apparatus on Muslim communities that rivals the FBI at its COINTELPRO finest. Given that Kelly’s policies have long suppressed voices and bodies of color across New York City, it seemed fitting that students from and speaking up for those communities managed to successfully drown him out.

While I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I was stunned to see several self-proclaimed liberals and progressives express outrage not at Brown’s embrace of a racist public figure but at the students who confronted him.

Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast went so far as to label the student protesters “fascist” for acting in a “totalitarian spirit” that has apparently spread to campuses across the country as part of some vast conspiracy to deny controversial speakers (i.e., powerful figures who happen to be racists and/or war criminals, like Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Beinart specifically references) their right to free speech.

It’s quite revealing that this same rhetoric is almost never applied to the racists and war criminals who are temporarily inconvenienced by protesters. I don’t recall, for example, anyone in the mainstream describing the NYPD’s excessive force against Occupy Wall Street protesters or their seemingly endless killings of unarmed people of color in such stark terms.

There’s also a tendency among critics to promote a false equivalence between the student protesters and Ray Kelly, a warped logic that completely ignores the power imbalance of lecturer versus audience, of influential public official versus proletariat. People in positions of power have huge platforms that typically shield them from their detractors, leaving those impacted by their policies with little recourse for their grievances.

Just as Kelly has a right to free expression, so too do the students who pay tuition to the school he was paid to speak at. Brown students had a rare opportunity to confront New York City’s finest bigot, and they took it. Sure, they weren’t polite about it. But as one protester shouted, “Racism is not for debate.”

‘The Problem With Moral Monsters,’ Richard Yeselson

The West German student left of the late ’60s—opposed to the war in Vietnam and fearful that the government’s “emergency” legislation could be the first step leading to a recurrence of fascism—had grown impatient with the elderly professor and his pedantic distinctions between street propaganda and rigorous political analysis. Students heckled and shouted down his lectures, called him a capitalist apologist and despised his weak-willed opposition to their takeover of publishing houses and universities. That this stale academic had publicly called for a general strike of West Germany’s powerful unions in response to the Emergency Act won him no acclaim. Once, several young women even rushed his podium, showered him with rose pedals, exposed their breasts to him and mockingly attempted to kiss him. The old man fled in shame.

By February 1969, the professor was at wit’s end. Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher, wrote to his great friend, the modernist genius Samuel Beckett, and mused, “The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary comes as something of a surprise. But perhaps you too have had the same experience in the meantime.” Beckett, whose nonpolitical plays and novels belied his participation in the French Resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, remarked about the student militants, “Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?” Until he died of a heart attack just a few months later, Adorno was a man who had dedicated his life to the task of imagining an emancipatory left, “one in which people could be different without fear,” as he wrote in 1945, in the shadow of the barbarism of Auschwitz and the Gulag and the destructive dawn of the nuclear age.

This Marxist intellectual wouldn’t, I suppose, seem to have much in common with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who his antagonists tell us is a racist, and thus needn’t be heard, or, conveniently enough, rebutted either. If you know what you know, why bother to even to argue with those you disagree with? They’re wrong; you’re right—case closed.

As a pragmatic intellectual inquiry, this is an exercise in epistemic closure little better than those that Rush Limbaugh leads every afternoon on your AM dial. If you don’t engage the arguments you really hate, and instead scream them into silence, you can’t refine and improve your own arguments, which make it harder to gain more adherents to your cause. As a political strategy for leftist struggle, feeling victorious after forcing an odious guest speaker to retreat to his hotel room is kind of like thinking that you’re ready for Wimbledon because you just kicked a 9-year-old’s ass, 6-0, 6-0. By contrast, free speech is the friend of leftist dissent, not its enemy. It’s why the very first major campus fight of the ’60s, at Berkeley, was called the Free Speech Movement—the cause and the use of speech was the lever that enabled students to fight the university administration. Leftists may have wiped out Ray Kelly last week, but, over time, suppressing speech is a game that universities, with aid from the state and augmented in the private workplace, play much better than students do.

You might imagine that you could never be in the position of a racist authoritarian purveyor of state violence like Ray Kelly—he’s a top minion of the ruling class, and you permanently fight the power. But that is another way of saying you don’t think you’ll ever have the power and influence to command the podium yourself, that you are permanently a subaltern. Because the hegemonic discourse unequally assigns Kelly many more opportunities than his adversaries, it’s best to throw away one of your own opportunities to expose his ideas as pernicious—as long as you take him down with you. Just desserts.

But then consider Adorno: at the end of his life, he can’t believe that he is being called a “reactionary.” Theodor Adorno, one of the most important leftist thinkers in the history of the twentieth century! In the late sixties, he was regularly shouted down as if he were no better than… Ray Kelly. That’s the trouble with making a group decision to prevent an alleged moral monster from speaking, rather than upholding the democratic norm that speakers—whatever their politics—speak, and then other speakers (that’s you) vigorously respond to their terrible speech with better speech, more convincing and humane speech. Who knows? The next time, or the time after that, another group may decide that you’re the moral monster. And that group might not even come from the right. I understand—how absurd: Who could be more radical, more militant than you?

That’s what Theodor Adorno thought, too. And you’re no Theodor Adorno.

‘No Other Avenues,’ Jesse A. Myerson

The available avenues for redress against a ruthless paramilitary commandant like Ray Kelly are extremely slim in the United States. As is clear from the gaping dearth of prosecutions on Wall Street and many-times-over war criminal Henry Kissinger’s open invitation to advise presidents on foreign policy, this country’s propensity to treat its elites, however nefarious, with polite deference ensures that future villains will develop their programs undeterred by any anxiety.

To be sure, New York’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is likely to replace Commissioner Kelly. But as important as that gesture may be, it has nothing to do with holding Kelly responsible for the abuses of his tenure. To the contrary, Kelly is highly enough regarded in the law-enforcement world right now to be floated as a possible secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. No matter who Bill de Blasio puts in charge of the NYPD, Ray Kelly is poised to go on to another elite position, probably one that offers a superior salary and just as much influence as his current one.

Shouting down a speaker is clearly not the optimal exercise of democracy. In the democratic utopia for which we perennially strive, good faith debate would always carry the day. And if the means existed to impose significant consequences on Ray Kelly for the abuses of his tenure as commissioner of the largest municipal police force in the country, I would gladly advocate those means over shouting.

But those means do not exist. The way things go in this country, Ray Kelly will never be held to account for the un-debatably authoritarian police state he has supervised. No amount of leafleting outside a Ray Kelly speech, or respectfully incisive questioning in the Q&A section thereafter can hold Kelly to account for the millions his regime stopped, frisked, humiliated and spied on. And leafleting or questioning could never garner the amount of media attention that the “shoutdown” at Brown has. Under these circumstances, the only power therefore afforded to these students to enact a modicum of accountability is the power to make it known that Ray Kelly and others like him cannot expect to speak at Brown University and be treated with respect. It’s not much, but it’s something.

In my assessment, more is gained than is lost by the breach in decorum which Rich Yeselson has worked himself into a fury condemning—going so far as to call me and others who smile on the protest “authoritarian” on Twitter (in defense of Ray Kelly!). Yeselson warns of the corrosive effect that this sort of shouting has on “a democratic culture.” The existence of such a culture is dubious to begin with. Furthermore, agreeing to a public speaking engagement necessarily implies bearing the risk of being shouted down. People like Ray Kelly, whose careers consist of the wielding of violent power over an entire population, ought not to have such tender feelings that they can’t cope with this sort of reception.

Bearing in mind and heart every kid from my neighborhood who has ever wanted to shout back at one of New York’s Finest but has contained his frustration for fear of the jail cell his passions would land him in, I applaud the uncouth, impolite, disrespectful Brown students who gave that bigot a moment’s discomfort.

‘Campus Leftists, Use Your Words,’ Katha Pollitt

What did shouting down Ray Kelly achieve? What did it win for campus organizers and the larger movement against aggressive policing in black communities? Why was it a better idea than informational picketing, holding a teach-in or other counter event, campaigning for a speaker of one’s own, letting Kelly speak and questioning him sharply in the Q-and-A portion of the evening? An activist could have asked a question (many questions!) that put him on the spot, that got him off his talking points and led him into a gaffe that would have been great publicity against stop-and-frisk. Shouting him down was brawn over brains—and that was bound to go over poorly on a campus full of people who value discussion, debate and ideas and pride themselves on liberal values of open-mindedness and fairness. Maybe the point was to show strength, but actually it showed weakness: it suggests (wrongly) that leftists didn’t have good arguments, so bluster would have to do.

More important, shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given stop-and-frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that stop-and-frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.

It’s fashionable on the left to mock liberalism as weak tea—and sometimes it is. But you know what is getting rid of stop-and-frisk? Liberalism. A major force in the campaign against stop-and-frisk was the NYCLU, which carries the banner of free speech for all. And Bill de Blasio, who just won the mayoral election by a landslide, has pledged to get rid of the policy and Ray Kelly too. Those victories were not won by a handful of student radicals who stepped in with last-minute theatrics. They were won by people who spent years building a legal case and mobilizing popular support for change.

Last point: even if you don’t believe in an abstract right to free expression (bourgeois!), it’s the best protection going for the left. How will campus leftists argue for their right to present unpopular speakers if, on some future occasion which will surely come, conservative students shout them down? What goes around comes around, and if it all comes down to who shouts loudest, what makes leftists think their voices won’t be the ones drowned out?

Texas, Ireland, Abortion and Ross Douthat, Round 2

Democratic Senators Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Kirk Watson of Austin lead a rally at a protest before the start of a special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas, July 1, 2013. (Reuters/Mike Stone)

Mea culpa: I was unfair to David Frum in my recent column on Texas, Europe and abortion. Even after I amended the online version to clarify that he is pro-choice (unlike the other two conservatives I discuss, Ross Douthat and Michael Gerson), a reader could easily assume he was anti-choice, since I do quote him in that context. I think what misled me was that I took Frum to be addressing pro-choicers in his blog post about Germany’s “abortion compromise”; what stuck out for me were the restrictions and over-simplifications. But actually, he is addressing anti-choicers, who want to ban abortion entirely. To them, he probably sounds like he is running for head of Planned Parenthood.

* * *

No apologies necessary to Ross Douthat, though, who in a recent blog post addressed my column along with a similarly critical one from Scott Lemieux at prospect.org.

Douthat claims I’m wrong about the sweep of the Texas law banning abortion after twenty weeks:

It does include exceptions related to maternal health and fetal anomalies: Its post-viability ban does not apply (and I quote) “to abortions that are necessary to avert the death or substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman or abortions that are performed on unborn children with severe fetal abnormalities.”

Oh, come on. Obviously, there’s a life exception. It would probably be unconstitutional to ban abortion to avert the actual death of the woman. Even Justice Rehnquist, in his dissent from Roe, acknowledged as much, and even when abortion was illegal in the United States (as in the Texas law Roe challenged), there was always an exception for “therapeutic” abortion to preserve the woman’s life. We aren’t living in Ireland, after all—and even in Ireland, the horrible, completely avoidable death of Savita Halappanavar has forced passage of a law permitting abortion to save a woman’s life. The problem is how these exceptions are defined, and how they are enacted in practice.

What is a risk of death? An amicus curiae brief in Roe filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other professional medical associations points out that depending on how that language is construed, and who is doing the construing, a woman suffering from a serious illness—cancer, diabetes, heart disease—may be denied an abortion although pregnancy and childbirth may worsen her condition and she may ultimately die from it, because she is not in immediate risk of death. Do we want doctors looking over their shoulders, worrying that attempting to extend their patient’s life is going to land them before a medical board—or a judge? (Violating the Texas law is, after all, a crime.)

The physical impairment provision raises the same issues. What are “serious,” “substantial” and “irreversible”? What is a “major bodily function”? Medicine isn’t physics: how can a doctor know in advance what situations will count as sufficiently grave? Besides, if a pregnancy turns problematic, shouldn’t the woman herself get a vote in how much risk of suffering and disability she should bear?

As for fetal anomaly, you have to read the fine print: in subchapter M, section 285, this is defined as “a life threatening physical condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb.” That covers conditions that kill upon birth or soon after, like anencephaly or organs growing outside the body—but what about fatal conditions that kill later, like Tay-Sachs disease, where children can live, in great suffering, for a few years before dying? And what about serious anomalies that are not necessarily “incompatible with life” but which impose tremendous suffering on the child as well as on parents and families—and which, let’s not forget, the state of Texas is not going to do much to help them deal with.

The Texas law is very strict. It does not even have an exception for mental health or risk of suicide (even the new Irish law includes threats of suicide in its life exception). It disregards the pregnant woman’s own judgment about how much damage to her health is too much. The law is an invitation to second-guess doctors and patients in situations that are fraught with complexity, and to make doctors afraid to trust their judgment and expertise. I just don’t think the Texas State legislature is the proper place for these very intimate major medical decisions to be made.

On his blog, Douthat attributes to me arguments I did not make. I never asserted that abortion restrictions don’t reduce the number of abortions. Obviously, if you make it really hard and expensive and even criminal to do something, it’s going to be more of a challenge to do it. It is amazing how many women manage to overcome the obstacles to obtaining an abortion, but if the difficulties are too great, some women will not be able to surmount them. In Ireland, for example, a woman has to go to another country. For some women, this is not difficult—Ryanair flights are cheap and you can go to the UK and come back the same day. (In fact, logistically, it is probably easier for a Dubliner to get to London than for a woman in Laredo to get to an out-of-state clinic that performs abortions post–twenty weeks.) For other women, it’s very hard: they are low-income, rural, have to find childcare, take time off from work, deal with hostile families, the need for secrecy and so on. What happens to them?

Mara Clarke helps run the Abortion Support Network, which raises funds to help low-income Irish women go to the UK. She writes,

Abortion Support Network has gotten calls from a raped teen who drank floor cleaner when she couldn’t raise the funds to travel for an abortion and a mother of four who was considering crashing her car to induce a miscarriage… Right now I have a woman here who has been trying to come over since MAY and is now over 20 weeks pregnant who told me if this hadn’t happened—our helping her—she would have “done something to myself to get rid of it.” This is a young woman with a young child, who wants more children, just not now.

I should also mention that the real number of Irish women having abortions is surely higher than Douthat thinks. Women who go to the UK don’t always identify themselves with an Irish address or their real names, some go to the Netherlands or Belgium instead and some, using various clandestine routes, buy the miscarriage-inducing drug misoprostol over the Internet.

In any case, Douthat seems strangely nonchalant about a setup, in Ireland or in Texas, in which middle-class women who want abortions go elsewhere to get them, while trapping poor women and causing all sorts of difficulties and problems to many women, whether they manage to terminate their pregnancies or give up and have a baby. As with many opponents of legal abortion, the letter of the law seems to matter more to him than the law’s real effects.

Finally, Douthat thinks he makes a crushing point when he asserts that Irish women have “advanced” without abortion rights, noting that they do well on some crude international measurements of women’s progress. On maternity care, education and life expectancy, for example, Ireland is very good. Irish women have paid maternity leave and maternity benefits, and the law guarantees them the right to return to their jobs. Ireland is, moreover, a much more egalitarian society than the United States, with narrower extremes of wealth and poverty. That is all good.

I‘m not sure Irish women are doing all that well, though, if you look more closely. Only 15 percent of the Oireachtas (parliament) is female (across Europe it’s 25 percent), only 7 percent of reported rapes result in a conviction and domestic violence is widespread. The culture, if one can generalize about such a thing, is quite masculinist, as many Irish women writers have bitterly noted. Newsweek analyzed the status of women in 165 countries using a panoply of criteria, not just cherry-picking a few, and ranked Ireland at twenty-two, between Albania and China. (The United States comes in at eighth place; the Scandinavian nations are tops.)

Of course it is a good thing that the Irish social-welfare state exists. To the extent that women have abortions for economic reasons, generous social provisions for families, mothers and children may indeed lower the abortion rate. (Although not necessarily—Sweden has ample social provisions, a high abortion rate and, for Europe, a high fertility rate. As I keep saying, it’s complicated!) That does not prove, though, that plenty of women don’t suffer when abortion is banned, that banning abortion doesn’t limit women’s advancement (with legal abortion, maybe Ireland would be up there with Scandinavia). Nor does it prove that banning abortion has no affect on the status of women generally, whether or not they want to have an abortion.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Not everyone needs or uses all their human rights: if the United States were to ban, say, being a Jehovah’s Witness, very few people would be affected, and yet everyone’s rights would be limited. The same is true of abortion rights. Denying them makes a powerful statement about the limits of freedom and self-determination for all women (and no men), and it also sends a message about what can happen to women (but not men) who get out of line. Not many women were consigned to slave labor in the Magdalene Laundries, after all, even among those girls and women who fell afoul of strict Irish Catholic sexual morality. But the message to all women was pretty clear.

I‘m looking forward, though, to Ross Douthat’s embrace of generous health and welfare provisions for women and children in Texas.

Meanwhile, you can donate to the Abortion Support Network here.

Why are GOP leaders trying to ban abortions after twenty weeks?

Wendy Davis, Superhero

Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks as she begins a filibuster in an effort to kill an abortion bill, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Wendy Davis is my hero. Make that my superhero. This brave and unbelievably stalwart legislator filibustered for nearly eleven hours to prevent a vote on SB5, a draconian bill that would ban abortion after twenty weeks and regulate abortion providers so severely all but five of the state’s forty-two clinics would be forced to close. Davis remained standing, unable to take a bathroom break, eat, drink, sit or even lean against a desk. She was polite and patient and calm and gracious, as Republican men condescended and patronized her, and said a lot of ridiculous things that showed they knew very little about women’s bodies or lives. For hours, she read eloquent and deeply personal letters from Texas women who had had abortions. For hours more, she minutely and knowledgeably dissected the problems with SB5. Not that the Republicans were listening. Finally, she was forced to stand down, after she was deemed to have done three things that were not “germane”—she allowed a colleague to help her with her back brace (so much for southern chivalry!), she discussed Planned Parenthood and she talked about the state’s mandatory ultrasound law. Suddenly Planned Parenthood and mandatory ultrasounds are not “germane.” Never mind that Texas Republicans have spent considerable energy defunding Planned Parenthood as a hotbed of abortion and heaping up ultrasound requirements precisely in order to make abortion harder to get.

I know there are plenty of anti-choice women. For example, SB5 sponsor Senator Jodie Laubenberg, who has said that banning abortion after twenty weeks wouldn’t be a problem for rape victims because they don’t get pregnant: hospitals have rape kits that “clean a woman out.” (Wait, I thought women could shut that whole thing down on their own. Or are rape babies God’s gift? Get your story straight, Republicans!) But the optics in the room were inescapable: here was a bunch of prosperous and powerful and utterly confident middle-aged white men champing at the bit to tell women, mostly young and poor, many of color, many already with kids, what they could do with their bodies—all in the guise of protecting the little ladies from evil money-grubbing abortion providers. When Senator Leticia van de Putte repeatedly raised a procedural point, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst just ignored her and barreled ahead. This gave her the night’s most indelible line: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”

At that moment, an amazing thing happened. The other heroes of the night swung into action—the hundreds of abortion rights supporters who thronged the capitol cheered Davis and van de Putte so loudly and for so long that the vote missed the midnight deadline. Even for those of us watching on line—150,000 around the world—this was a profoundly heart-stirring moment. My friend Rebecca Traister compared it to the singing of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca. The missed deadline did not prevent someone (who?) from falsifying the time clock to make it appear the vote took place before the midnight cutoff. Thank you, Internet, for screen shots that proved what had really happened. At 3 am, Dewhurst announced the bill was dead.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Very likely, Governor Perry, a true believer in the anti-choice cause, will call another special session to push SB5 through. And very possibly, thanks to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, Wendy Davis will be redistricted out of office ASAP.

But beyond whatever losses are to come, it’s possible to glimpse something more important: the awakening of that famous pro-choice sleeping giant we’ve heard so much about. Lawyers and advocates and politicians and lobbyists are terribly important, but in the long run they can’t preserve our rights if pro-choicers themselves are complacent. Last night it looked like there’s not much chance of that in Texas. Allons enfants!

Show your appreciation for local activists by making a donation to the Lilith Fund, which helps low-income women pay for their abortion care.

While Wendy Davis was defending women’s rights in Texas, President Obama gave a speech outlining his climate change plan at Georgetown University.

Update: Saudi Activists Need Your Help

Wajeha H. Al-Huwaider, far left, with Phellicia Dell, Rebecca Lolosoli, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tina Brown. (PRNewsFoto/The Daily Beast)

Last week I wrote in this space about the Saudi government’s persecution of the human-rights activists Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni. After a trial that was a mockery of proper legal procedure, the two women were sentenced to ten months in prison followed by a two-year travel ban on trumped up charges of “inciting a wife against her husband.” They say what they were actually doing was bringing groceries to Nathalie Morin, a Canadian married to a Saudi whom she has said is abusive and leaves her in the house without sufficient food for her children. Morin, whose case is well-known in both Canada and Saudi Arabia, was not allowed to testify at the trial.

Now Morin has told the truth on her blog:

The charges against Wajeha Al Huwaider must be cleared, she has not asked to be involved in my story and she should not suffer the consequences. She never knew me and knew nothing about me. She only wanted to help me as a woman, a wife, a mother and human being herself from what she heard by others. She never tried to make any kind of interference in my relationship with my husband and she never had a discussion directly with me.

Muslims for Progressive Values, an excellent Canadian group, is calling for people to contact Thomas MacDonald, the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh at ryadh@international.gc.ca. Urge him to get Nathalie Morin to repeat this exculpation in a formal legal document, making sure to include Fawzia Al-Oyouni, as well. It should be signed by her and stamped by the Canadian Embassy.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Even if you are not Canadian, you can help put pressure on the ambassador to do the right thing.

More information here.

Take Action: Stop the Persecution of Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni

Read the backstory about how Wajeha Al-Huwaider was sentenced to prison.

Saudi Human Rights Activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider Sentenced to Prison

Wajeha Al-Huwaider with Phellicia Dell, Rebecca Lolosoli, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tina Brown (PRNewsFoto/The Daily Beast)

Terrible news from Saudi Arabia: After proceedings that stretched out over nearly a year and violated many legal norms, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, the prominent Saudi Human rights activist and co-organizer of protests against the ban on women drivers, has been sentenced to ten months in prison, along with her colleague Fawzia Al-Oyouni. (I interviewed Al-Huwaider here.) After they serve their terms, both will be banned from travel for two years.

Their crime? It’s a little complicated. They were accused of kidnapping and trying to help Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman married to a Saudi, flee the country in June 2011. Morin, who has said her husband locks her in the house and is abusive, has been trying for eight years to leave Saudi Arabia with her three children. (There’s a so-far-unsuccessful campaign, spearheaded by her mother, to get the Canadian government to intervene.) Al-Huwaider says they were responding to a frantic text message from Morin, who said her husband had gone away for a week and left her locked in the house without enough food or drinkable water. When they arrived at the house with groceries, they were arrested.  

The two activists were found not guilty of kidnapping, but the judge convicted them of “Takhbib”—inciting a woman against her husband. Apparently helping an abused wife feed her children is a crime in Saudi Arabia. Can’t have that in a country where women need their male “guardian's” okay to travel, work, study or even undergo surgery, where fathers have automatic legal custody of children and the Koran, interpreted at the whim of judges, is the only legal code.

Al-Huwaider writes in an e-mail: 

We will be banned from traveling for two years following our release. We will be trapped in this women’s prison—that is, Saudi Arabia—for 3 years.


This is the first time in Saudi legal history that a travel ban has been imposed in a social case. This proves that the decision has really come from the Minister of Internal Affairs, and that they planned to prevent us from engaging in any human rights activities.


From the first session I knew that it was going to be very bad and I was always expecting the worst, but I didn’t think that the judge would be this aggressive.


As I see it now, it was a ‘good catch’ for the Wahabi court to convict two liberal women who have been campaigning for years to promote equality and women’s rights.

Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni have a month to appeal. Muslims for Progressive Values, a Canadian group, is appealing to leaders in Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Americans can help them too:

Contact the Saudi ambassador and protest this absurd miscarriage of justice.

Contact President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and urge them to speak out about Saudi human rights abuses and make a public statement about this case. Obama can be contacted here or here.

Contact your congressional representative and senators and urge them to push the president and State Department.

Human Rights Watch has more details.

Michelle Bachmann protested against immigration reform in DC today. Read George Zornick's report here.

Will El Salvador's Anti-Choice Government Let a Pregnant Woman Die?

Protesters rally outside the Supreme Court in San Salvador in support of Beatriz and her family. (Reuters/Ulises Rodriguez)

Yesterday, after a long delay, El Salvador’s Supreme Court voted 4-1 to deny a young woman the abortion she needs to save her life. Beatriz, who is 22 and the mother of an infant son, is terribly sick with lupus, hypertension and kidney disease. Her doctors have said she is likely to die if forced to continue the pregnancy. The final touch: Beatriz’s fetus is anencephalic (missing most of its brain) and will not be able to survive outside the womb. If ever “right to life” was a contradiction in terms, this is that case.

Jodi Jacobson has details here.

Ten weeks ago, when Beatriz was in the first trimester, the minister of health said she should be allowed to have an abortion. The country’s powerful Catholic Church and far right erupted. Despite stern calls from the office of the UN Commission for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes has dithered as Beatriz’s condition deteriorates and an abortion becomes more dangerous: she is now 24 weeks pregnant.

Since 1998, El Salvador has had a complete no-exceptions ban on abortion, promoted by the country’s powerful Catholic Church and passed with the votes of legislators from the former left-wing movement FMLN—because if there’s one thing right and left agree on, it’s that women’s lives are less important than achieving political power. (Daniel Ortega made the same move in Nicaragua in a successful bid for church support.)

Since the ban, the Central American Women’s network reports that over 600 Salvadoran women have been imprisoned for having abortions, including miscarriages and stillbirths suspected of being the result of abortion. A word to the wise: when US abortion opponents insist they would never put women on trial for terminating a pregnancy, be skeptical.

Beatriz’s case has captured international attention. We need to keep the pressure on so that her life can be saved. Soon it may be too late.

What you can do:

Sign the petition to Pope Francis urging him to step in and save Beatriz. (I know, I know: things are pretty bad when we have to ask the pope to save a woman from abortion opponents!)

Donate to the fund to help Beatriz pay for her medical care. Any funds left over will go to Salvadoran organization Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Ético, Terapéutico y Eugenésico, which is leading the legal fight to save Beatriz.

Tweet to the President of El Salvador @mauriciofunesSV.

Sample tweets:

Listen to the UN! Save Beatriz! The whole world is watching @mauriciofunesSV #savebeatriz

What about Beatriz’s right to life? Her human rights? @mauriciofunesSV #savebeatriz

Why is the US military more intent on protecting its command structure than victims of sexual assault? Read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column.

This International Women's Day, Remember: Saudi Women Still Can't Drive

Was it really five years ago that some brave Saudi women dared to drive their own cars to protest the blanket denial of basic human rights to women in the Kingdom? Not much has changed since, despite a few cosmetic measures. Women are still minors for life, under the legal control of father, husband, uncle or even son. Shocking abuses of power are routine. Theocracy still reigns. And women are still banned from getting behind the wheel.

Here’s a dispatch from Wajeha al-Huwaider, one of the organizers of the driving protest:

Five Years Since I Drove My Car on Women’s Day

We were five women who launched a campaign for women’s driving in KSA. We were able to collect around 3,000 signatures for a petition which was sent to King Abdullah Bin Abulaziz. Around 80 percent of those who signed the petition were women.

On Women’s Day, March 8, 2008, I drove my car and made a video clip to support the driving campaign which was released on YouTube. That video clip ensured that the driving campaign became known around the world. I thought at the time that it would be a matter of a few months before the KSA authorities let women drive cars.

Five years later, there are no indications that this right will be granted to women. So, the fact is women might have to wait for years to gain the right to drive cars. Moreover, the situation is getting worse for women now. The Saudi authorities have limited the number of countries whose citizens can work as private drivers for Saudi families. This has raised the cost of hiring drivers.

Women suffer every day in order to get basic things done, like going to work or buying groceries. Also, many can’t work because they can’t find a driver at an affordable price.

Under these circumstances, we are demanding a transportation allowance from the Saudi government until they provide reliable public transportation in every Saudi city. The Saudi government has plenty of money and they can easily afford it. The government is preventing women from driving, so they should pay us so that we can survive.

In the US, Katrina vanden Heuvel says, women bear the brunt of federal budget cuts.

Syndicate content