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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

The New York City public school system doesn't have the money, time or
organizational skills to make sure every child has a dictionary--or a
desk.

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."

Author

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

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