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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

As in a paranoid novel by Don DeLillo, it all comes together in the end.
The Democrats can't stand up to Bush on Iraq because they're afraid of
looking soft on terrorism and Saddam Hussein--but

In some parts of China, local officials keep track of women's menstrual periods. We haven't come to that, but anyone who thinks women's reproductive and sexual privacy is secure in America wasn't following the news this summer.

America's rate of unwanted pregnancy is a huge public health scandal,
but five years after being approved by the FDA, emergency
contraception--the use of normal birth control pills to block pregnancy
within seventy-two hours of unprotected sex--has yet to fulfill its
potential. Part of the problem has to do with the difficulty of getting
EC in time; many doctors don't want the hassle of dealing with walk-in
patients, many clinics are closed on weekends and holidays (times of
peak demand) and some pharmacies, like Wal-Mart's, refuse to stock it.
That anti-choicers falsely liken EC to abortion and tar it as a
dangerous drug doesn't help.

The main barrier to EC use, though, is that most women don't know what
it is. To spread the word, Jennifer Baumgardner and I have written an
open letter explaining how EC works, how to get it and why women should
even consider acquiring it in advance. If every Nation
reader with access to the Internet forwards it to ten people and one
list, and those people do the same and on and on, it could reach
thousands, even millions of women. Like ads for Viagra, only not spam.
Activism doesn't get much easier than this!

An Open Letter About EC

The one thing that activists on every side of the abortion debate agree
on is that we should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. There
are 3 million unintended pregnancies each year in the United States;
around 1.4 million of them end in abortion. Yet the best tool for
reducing unwanted pregnancies has only been used by 2 percent of all
adult women in the United States, and only 11 percent of us know enough
about it to be able to use it. No, we aren't talking about
abstinence--we mean something that works!

The tool is EC, which stands for Emergency Contraception (and is also
known as the Morning After Pill). For more than twenty-five years,
doctors have dispensed EC "off label" in the form of a handful of daily
birth control pills. Meanwhile, many women have taken matters into their
own hands by popping a handful themselves after one of those nights--you
know, when the condom broke or the diaphragm slipped or for whatever
reason you had unprotected sex.

Preven (on the market since 1998) and Plan B (approved in 1999), the
dedicated forms of EC, operate essentially as a higher-dose version of
the Pill. The first dose is taken within seventy-two hours after
unprotected sex, and a second pill is taken twelve hours later. EC is at
least 75 percent effective in preventing an unwanted pregnancy after sex
by interrupting ovulation, fertilization and implantation of the egg.

If you are sexually active, or even if you're not right now, you should
keep a dose of EC on hand. It's less anxiety-producing than waiting
around to see if you miss your period; much easier, cheaper and more
pleasant than having to arrange for a surgical abortion. To find an EC
provider in your area, see www.backupyourbirthcontrol.org,
www.not-2-late.com or ec.princeton.edu/providers/index.html.

Pass this on to anyone you think may not know about backing up their
birth control (or do your own thing and let us know about it). Let's
make sure we have access to our own hard-won sexual and reproductive
freedom!

The Things You Need to Know About EC

EC is easy. A woman takes a dose of EC within seventy-two hours of
unprotected sex, followed by a second dose twelve hours later.

EC is legal.

EC is safe. It is FDA-approved and supported by the American College
of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

EC is not an abortion. Anti-choicers who call EC "the abortion
pill" or "chemical abortion" also believe contraceptive pills,
injections and IUDs are abortions. According to the FDA, EC pills "are
not effective if the woman is pregnant; they act primarily by delaying
or inhibiting ovulation, and/or by altering tubal transport of sperm
and/or ova (thereby inhibiting fertilization), and/or altering the
endometrium (thereby inhibiting implantation)."

EC has a long shelf life. You can keep your EC on hand for at least two
years.

EC is for women who use birth control. You should back up your
birth control by keeping a dose of EC in your medicine cabinet or purse.

What You Can Do to Help

Forward this e-mail to everyone you know. Post it on lists, especially
those with lots of women and girls. Print out this information,
photocopy it to make instant leaflets and pass them around in your
community. Call your healthcare provider, clinic, or university health
service and ask if they provide EC. Spread the word if they do. Lobby
them (via petitions, meetings with the administrators, etc.) to offer EC
if they don't.

Make sure that your ER has EC on hand for rape victims and offers it to
them as a matter of policy. Many hospitals, including most Catholic
hospitals, do not dispense EC even to rape victims.

Get in touch with local organizations--Planned Parenthood, NOW, NARAL,
campus groups--and work with them to pressure hospitals to amend their
policies.

If you can't find a group, start your own. Submit an Op-Ed to your local
paper or send letters to the editor about EC.

Make sure your pharmacy fills EC prescriptions. Some states have
"conscience clauses" that exempt pharmacists from dispensing drugs that
have to do with women's reproductive freedom.

Refugee camp invasions. Suicide bombers. House demolitions. Suicide
bombers. Arrests of children, curfews, roadblocks, collective
punishments, dropping one-ton bombs on densely populated streets.
Suicide bombers.

Only two years ago, a Syrian-American friend laid out for me a vision
for the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians, she said, were
modern, entrepreneurial people who valued education and technology. She
foresaw a kind of Middle Eastern co-prosperity sphere that would
gradually draw the two closer as their economies meshed and bygones
became bygones. That would have been a happy ending, but what are its
chances now?

The Sharon government seems bent on beating, bombing, demolishing,
humiliating and starving the West Bank and Gaza into submission, while
appropriating more and more land for settlers (forty-five new
settlements have gone up in the year and a half since Sharon's
election). Unemployment in the occupied territories stands at 75
percent. According to a report about to be released by USAID,
malnutrition among Palestinian children under 6 has risen from 7 percent
to 30 percent over the past two years. In the current issue of
Tikkun, Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem, the
Israeli human rights organization, details the damage wrought by the
Israel Defense Forces in their siege of Jenin and other West Bank areas
this past spring: the flattening of whole streets and the trashing and
looting of homes, civic centers, Palestinian Authority offices and those
of numerous human rights organizations; gross violations of human
rights, including the use of civilians as human shields; and denial of
access to food, water and medical care, resulting in the deaths of three
children and an elderly woman.

Is this what "defending Israel" necessarily involves? So you might think
from the hefty numbers who turn out for pro-Sharon rallies in this
country, like the 100,000 who gathered on the Washington Mall in April.
Not everyone agrees: Opposition to Sharon's policies was a major theme
of the 75,000-strong antiwar demonstration on April 20; petitions and
open letters opposing Sharon are flying around the Internet, and new
groups are forming by the minute--Not in My Name, Jewish Voices Against
the Occupation, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. But the big,
well-organized and well-connected Jewish American numbers are still on
the side of using military force to crush the Palestinians. I signed the
open letter organized by Alan Sokal and Bruce Robbins calling for the
evacuation of settlements and Palestinian self-determination and felt I
knew half the people on it. Nonetheless, there is enough criticism, from
enough quarters, to puncture the old accusations (in which there was
sometimes a grain of truth) that US critics of Israeli policies are
anti-Semites, "self-hating Jews" or Third World-infatuated
America-hating leftists. None of those terms could conceivably describe
the neoliberal (and Jewish) historian Tony Judt, whose trenchant and
bitter critique of recent developments in The New York Review of
Books
("The Road to Nowhere," April 11) did not stop short of
describing Israel as a thoroughly militarized colonial power. Nor is it
easy to see recent New York Times coverage in this
light--although the paper is currently being bombarded with mail and
protests for its imaginary pro-Palestinian tilt, and the Zionist women's
group Hadassah has even called for a boycott of the paper (just for
three months, though, because you can't ask too much of people).

What we need in the United States is the broadest, most open discussion
of what's going on, in search of some kind of realistic solution to a
crisis that's becoming less soluble by the day. Every American is
implicated in Israeli politics, because without the $3 billion in aid we
send each year, Israel could not exist in anything like its present
form. Perhaps Americans really do want to subsidize Caterpillar
bulldozers, Apache attack helicopters, F-16 jets--but perhaps they would
prefer that some of that money go to relocate Jewish settlers, to
integrate Israeli social institutions, to rebuild the infrastructure of
Palestinian civil society and government, to strengthen the groups on
both sides who are most interested in bringing about the happy end my
friend saw just around the corner.

Unfortunately, people will have to do this work themselves. Politicians
are too frightened, and no wonder: In June, five-term Democratic
Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama lost his primary race at least in
part because the fiercely pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC) supported his opponent. On August 20 five-term Georgia
Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney faces a tough primary, mostly
due to organized opposition to her criticism of Israel (she also
suggested that George W. Bush knew in advance about September 11, and
after Mayor Giuliani rejected a $10 million gift for New York City from
Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal because he called for a re-examination
of US Middle East policy, she tactlessly suggested that he give the
money to black charities instead).

The problem is not so much that American Jews exercise the proverbial
"too much influence"; every ethnic group in America organizes to affect
US policy in the old country (think of Cuban-, Irish- or, for that
matter, African-Americans). Nor is it wrong to inject national issues
into a contest that locals would prefer to be about other things. The
problem is that the other side--anti-Sharon, pro-peace, call it what you
will--is weak and unorganized. It doesn't have to be that way. One can
be overwhelmed with horror at suicide bombers, think Arafat is a corrupt
and preening tinpot dictator, believe that the real agenda of the
Islamists is to be the Taliban of the Middle East--all just and
appropriate sentiments--and still realize that the current path of the
Israeli government is a disaster in the making, if not already made.

* * *

McKinney may have foot-in-mouth disease, but she has the support of NOW,
NARAL and her state AFL-CIO. She deserves yours too. Cynthia McKinney
for Congress, Box 371125, Decatur, GA 30037; (404) 243-5574;
www.cynthia2002.com.

When the New York City Board of Education called on public schools to
bring back the Pledge of Allegiance in the wake of 9/11, my daughter, a
freshman at Stuyvesant High, thought her big chance to protest had
finally come. Have you thought about what you'll say if you have to
justify not reciting it? I asked. "Sure," she replied. "I'll say,
there's such a thing as the First Amendment, you know--separation of
church and state? I mean, under God? Duh!" Judge Alfred Goodwin
of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet my Sophie, future
president of the ACLU if the punk-rock-guitarist plan doesn't work out.

Virtually every politician in the country has issued a press release
deploring Judge Goodwin's ruling that the words "under God" constituted
a coercive endorsement of religion. "Ridiculous!" said the President.
Tom Daschle led the Senate in a stampede to condemn the ruling 99 to 0,
after they recited the pledge together. The Times editorial
expressed the standard liberal line, mingling world-weariness and fear:
"under God" is a trivial matter, so why arouse the wrath of the mad
Christians? You can turn that argument around though--if it's so
trivial, why not do the right, constitutional thing? Let the
nonbelieving babies have their First Amendment bottle! The very fact
that the vast majority of Americans believe in God counts against
inserting expressions of religious faith into civic exercises for
kids--civil liberties are all about protecting unpopular minorities from
being steamrollered by the majority. The history of "under God" is not
very edifying or even very long: It was added to the original
pledge--written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist--by Congress in
1954 as a means "to deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of
communism." If that was the purpose, it worked. The new Evil Ones,
however, have no quarrel with being "under God"; it's the "liberty and
justice for all" they disapprove of. If we really want to drive them
nuts, we should change "under God" to "with equality between men and
women." Or better yet, retire the pledge as an exercise in groupthink
unbefitting a free people.

Something tells me we haven't seen the last classroom invocation of the
divine umbrella--Judge Goodwin has already stayed his own ruling--but
even if the decision is upheld, it's unfortunately the least significant
in a number of recent rulings about education. The Supreme Court
decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program is a real,
nonsymbolic triumph for organized religion, which stands to reap
millions of dollars in public funds, taken directly from the budgets of
the weakest school systems. Theoretically, your tax dollars can now
support the indoctrination of every crackpot religious idea from
creationism to stoning, with extra credit for attending rallies against
legal abortion and for the retention of "Judea" and "Samaria" as God's
gift to the Jewish people. What happened to e pluribus unum?
(Interestingly, as David Greenberg notes in Slate, e pluribus
unum
was replaced as the national motto in 1956 by... In God We
Trust!) And what about that pesky First Amendment? Writing for the 5-4
majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that separation of church and
state is preserved because it is the parent, not the state, who actually
turns the voucher over to the religious school. By the same logic, why
not a health system in which patients get vouchers good for surgery or a
ticket to Lourdes?

The same day brought the Court's decision upholding random drug testing
of students who want to take part in after-school activities. Now
there's a great idea--take the kids who could really use something
productive to do with their afternoons, kids who, whatever mischief
they're up to, actually want to run track or sing in the chorus or work
on the yearbook, and don't let them do it! God forbid some 16-year-old
pothead should get a part in the drama club production of Arsenic and
Old Lace
. The harm of the ruling isn't just that kids who do drugs
will now have yet more time on their hands and yet more reason to bond
with their fellow slackers, it's that everyone gets a lesson in
collective humiliation and authoritarianism--stoned or straight, the
principal can make you pee in a cup. Consider too that one-third of
schools now offer abstinence-only sex education, in which kids are told
that contraception doesn't work and having sex before marriage is likely
to be fatal--if the kids don't go to parochial school, apparently,
parochial school comes to them.

The prize for the worst school-related decision, though, has to go to
the panel of New York State appeals court judges that reversed Justice
Leland DeGrasse's brave and noble ruling invalidating the state's school
funding formula, which gives less money per child to New York City
schools despite the fact that city schools have disproportionate numbers
of poor and non-English-speaking children. According to Justice Alfred
Lerner, author of the court's majority opinion, the state is required to
provide its young only the equivalent of a middle-school
education--enough for them to sit on a jury, vote and hold down a menial
job. Anything more is optional and can be distributed at will. (Why not
let kids drop out after eighth grade, you may ask? Well, then they'd
miss abstinence classes and drug tests and reciting the Pledge of
Allegiance!) The world needs workers at the lowest levels, the judge
observes, so let the black and Hispanic kids of New York City be the
hewers of wood and drawers of water and flippers of burgers. Somebody's
got to do it--and it's a safe bet it won't be the judges' children.

Maybe the critical legal theorists are right and the law is merely a
form of words into which can be poured whatever meaning the ruling class
wants it to have. It's hard to understand in any other way the court's
willful misunderstandings of the actual conditions of city public
schools, so that they could respond to plaintiff's evidence of schools
with decades-old outmoded science textbooks by harrumphing that there's
nothing wrong with libraries full of "classics."

What would the world look like if women had full human rights? If girls
went to school and young women went to college in places where now they
are used as household drudges and married off at 11 or 12? If women
could go out for the whole range of jobs, could own the land they work,
inherit property on equal terms with men? If they could control their
own sexuality and fertility and give birth safely? If they had recourse
against traffickers, honor killers, wife beaters? If they had as much
say and as much power as men at every level of decision-making, from the
household to the legislature? If John Ashcroft has his way, we may never
find out. After twenty years of stalling by Jesse Helms, the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee in early June held hearings on the
Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), an international treaty ratified by 169 nations.
(President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, but the Senate blocked it.)
George W. Bush originally indicated that he would sign it--that was when
he was sending Laura onto the airwaves to blast the Taliban--but under
the influence of Ashcroft, he's since been hedging. Naturally, the
religious right has been working the phones: According to one e-mail
that came across my screen, the operator who answers the White House
comment line assumed the writer was calling to oppose CEDAW, so heavily
were the calls running against it. The reasons? CEDAW would license
abortion, promote homosexuality and teen sex and destroy The Family. In
2000, Helms called it "a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists
with the intent of enshrining their anti-family agenda into
international law."

How radical can CEDAW be, you may ask, given that it's been ratified by
Pakistan, Jordan and Myanmar? Genderquake is hardly around the corner.
Still, across the globe women have been able to use it to improve their
access to education and healthcare as well as their legal status. In
Japan, on the basis of a CEDAW violation, women sued their employers for
wage discrimination and failure to promote; the Tanzanian High Court
cited CEDAW in a decision to overturn a ban on clan land inheritance for
women. Given the dire situation of women worldwide, it is outrageous to
see US policy in the grip of Falwell, James Dobson and Ralph Nader's
good friend Phyllis Schlafly. Like the Vatican, which uses its UN
observer status to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalist
governments on behalf of fetus and family, on CEDAW the Bush
Administration risks allying itself with Somalia, Qatar and Syria to
promote the religious right agenda on issues of sexuality. In the same
way, at the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the
Child--where the United States opposed providing girls with sex
education beyond "just say no," even though in much of the Third World
the typical "girl" is likely to be married with children--the Bush
Administration allied itself with Libya, Sudan and evil axis member
Iran. Some clash of civilizations.

Given this season's spate of popular books about mean girls and inhumane
women, it might seem starry-eyed to suppose that more equality for women
would have a positive general social effect. Where women are healthy and
well educated and self-determined, you can bet that men are too, but the
situation of women is not only a barometer of a society's general level
of equality and decency--improving women's status is key to solving many
of the world's most serious problems. Consider the AIDS epidemic now
ravaging much of the Third World: Where women cannot negotiate safe sex,
or protect themselves from rape, or expect fidelity from their male
partners, where young girls are sought out by older HIV-positive men
looking for tractable sex partners, where prostitution flourishes under
the most degraded conditions and where women are beaten or even murdered
when their HIV-positive status becomes known, what hope is there of
containing the virus? Under these circumstances, "just say no" is worse
than useless: In Thailand, being married is the single biggest predictor
of a woman's testing positive. As long as women are illiterate, poor and
powerless, AIDS will continue to ravage men, women and children.

Or consider hunger. Worldwide, women do most of the farming but own only
2 percent of the land. In many areas where tribal rules govern
inheritance, they cannot own or inherit land and are thrown off it
should their husband die. Yet a study by the Food and Agriculture
Organization shows that women spend more time on productive activities,
and according to the International Center for Research on Women, women
spend more of their earnings on their children than men do. Recognizing
and maximizing women's key economic role would have a host of
benefits--it would lessen hunger, improve women's and children's
well-being, improve women's status in the family, lower fertility.

And then there's war and peace. I don't think it's an accident that
Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in the parts of the world where women
are most oppressed--indeed, maintaining and deepening women's
subjugation, the violent rejection of everything female, is one of its
major themes. (Remember Mohammed Atta's weird funeral instructions?) At
the same time, the denial of education, employment and rights to women
fuels the social conditions of backwardness, provincialism and poverty
that sustain religious fanaticism.

If women's rights were acknowledged as the key to human progress that
they are, we would look at all these large issues of global politics and
economics very differently. Would the US government have been able to
spend a billion dollars backing the fundamentalist warlords who raped
and abducted women and threw acid at their unveiled faces while
"fighting communism" and destroying Afghanistan? At the recently
concluded loya jirga, which featured numerous current and former
warlords as delegates, a woman delegate stood up and denounced former
President Burhanuddin Rabbani as a violent marauder. For a moment, you
could see that, as the saying goes, another world is possible.

Let's say I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and I get a job in an understaffed
emergency room where, following the dictates of my conscience, I refuse
to assist with blood transfusions and try my best to persuade my fellow
workers to do the same. How long do you think I'd last on the job? And
after my inevitable firing, how seriously do you think a jury would take
my claim that my rights had been violated? Five minutes and not very,
right? A similar fate would surely await the surgeon who converts to
Christian Science and decides to pray over his patients instead of
operating on them, the Muslim loan officer who refuses to charge
interest, the Southern Baptist psychotherapist who tells his Jewish
patients they're bound for hell. The law rightly requires employers to
respect employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, but not if those
beliefs really do prevent an employee from performing the job for which
she's been hired.

Change the subject to reproductive rights, though, and the picture gets
decidedly strange. In 1999 Michelle Diaz, a born-again Christian nurse
who had recently been hired by the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center,
a public clinic in Southern California, decided that emergency
contraception, the so-called morning after pill that acts to prevent
pregnancy if taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse,
was actually a method of abortion. She refused to dispense it or give
referrals to other providers; the clinic offered her a position that did
not involve reproductive healthcare, but when she told temporary nurses
at the clinic that they too would be performing abortions by dispensing
EC, Diaz, who was still on probation as a new hire, lost her job. She
sued with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ),
the religious-right law firm headed by Jay Sekulow. At the end of May a
jury agreed that her rights had been violated and awarded her $47,000.

Excuse me? A nurse at a public health clinic has the right to refuse to
provide patients with legally mandated services, give out misleading
health information in order to proselytize her co-workers to refuse as
well, and keep her job? The low-income women who come to Riverside
desperately in need of EC and abortion referrals are flat out of luck if
they happen to turn up when the anti-choicers are on shift? Riverside is
the largest public health clinic in the county, serving 150-200 patients
a day, but it operates with a staff of four nurses--should those four
people decide what services the clinic can offer? What about the
patient's right to receive standard medical care? Or the clinic's
responsibility to deliver the services for which they receive government
funds?

Some states, California among them, have "conscience laws," permitting
anti-choice healthworkers to refuse to be involved in abortions. EC,
however, is just a high dose of regular birth control pills that
prevents ovulation and implantation. It is not abortion, because until a
fertilized egg implants in the womb, the woman is not pregnant. A long
list of medical authorities--the American Medical Association, the
American Medical Women's Association, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Harvard Medical School--agree that
EC is not an abortifacient, and a 1989 California court decision itself
distinguishes abortion from EC. There are lots of mysteries about the
Diaz case, ranging from why Diaz took a job she knew involved practices
she found immoral in the first place, to how the jury could possibly
have come up with a decision so contrary to law and public policy. Did
Diaz take the job with the express intention of disrupting services? Was
the jury anti-choice? Interestingly, the jury pool was partly drawn from
San Bernardino County, which last year unsuccessfully tried to bar its
public health clinics from dispensing EC.

Whatever the jury's thinking, the Diaz case represents the latest of
numerous attempts by the anti-choice movement to equate EC with abortion
and move it out of normal medical practice. Pharmacists for Life
International, a worldwide organization that claims to have some 1,500
members, calls it "chemical abortion" and urges pharmacists to refuse to
dispense it. The ACLJ is currently litigating on behalf of one who did.
Wal-Mart refuses to stock it at all. Anti-choicers in Britain made an
unsuccessful attempt to prevent EC from being dispensed over the counter
by placing it under an archaic law that prohibits "procuring a
miscarriage." Some anti-choicers have long argued that not just EC but
conventional birth-control methods--the pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and
the IUD--are "abortifacients": In northern Kentucky anti-choice
extremists are campaigning to force one local health board to reject
Title X family-planning funds; according to the Lexington
Herald-Leader, the board's vote, scheduled for June 19, is too
close to call.

Although secular employers are expected to make reasonable
accommodations to religious employees--or even, if the Diaz verdict is
upheld, unreasonable ones--religious employers are not required to
return the favor. On the contrary, the Supreme Court, in The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos
, permits them to use
religious tests to hire and fire personnel as far from the sacred
mission as janitorial workers; if a Methodist church wants to refuse to
hire a Muslim security guard, it has the blessing of the Constitution to
do so. As often noted in this column, religious organizations can and do
fire employees who violate religious precepts on and even off the job. A
pro-choice nurse could not get a job at a Catholic hospital and declare
that her conscience required her to go against policy and hand out EC to
rape victims, or even tell them where to obtain it--even though medical
ethics oblige those who refuse to provide standard services for moral
reasons to give referrals, and even though Catholic hospitals typically
get about half of their revenue from the government.

According to the ACLJ, however, secular institutions should be sitting
ducks for any fanatic who can get hired even provisionally. The
Riverside clinic has asked the judge to set aside the Diaz verdict. If
that bid is unsuccessful, it will appeal. I'll let you know what
happens.

Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...

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