Posts tagged reproductive rights

Catholic hospital argues, contrary to Catholic doctrine, that a fetus is not a person

It appears that even core religious dogmas are changeable when sticking to them might cost money. Take a look at this disturbing story in the Colorado Independent:

Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year’s Day 2006. She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill’s husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple’s then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization’s mission, according to its promotional literature, is to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church” and to be guided by “fidelity to the Gospel.” Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” the directives state. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”

The directives can complicate business deals for Catholic Health, as they can for other Catholic health care providers, partly by spurring political resistance. In 2011, the Kentucky attorney general and governor nixed a plan in which Catholic Health sought to merge with and ultimately gain control of publicly funded hospitals in Louisville. The officials were reacting to citizen concerns that access to reproductive and end-of-life services would be curtailed. According to The Denver Post, similar fears slowed the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s plan over the last few years to buy out Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in the Denver metro area.

But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health’s lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head. Catholic organizations have for decades fought to change federal and state laws that fail to protect “unborn persons,” and Catholic Health’s lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments. Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court “should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term ‘person,’ as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

The Catholic Health attorneys have so far won decisions from Fremont County District Court Judge David M. Thorson and now-retired Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy.

Can you say “hypocrisy”?

The case has since been appealed to the state Supreme Court, though, to be sure, the prior rulings are consistent ”with a long-standing interpretation by state courts that define ‘person’ under the Wrongful Death Act to include only those born alive.”

You can read more in the Denver Westward News.

The flip side of conscientious objection

Lisa Harris, M.D., wrote an interesting article for the September issue of the New England Journal of Medicine in which she flips the usual discusssion on conscientious objection and abortion. Harris argues that focusing on conscientious objections to performing abortions ignores the fact that many medical providers perform abortion services precisely because they feel compelled by their conscience:

Whether or not abortion provision is “conscientious” depends on what conscience is. Most ideas of conscience involve a special subset of an agent’s ethical or religious beliefs — one’s “core” moral beliefs. The conclusion that abortion provision is indeed “conscientious” by this standard is best supported by sociologist Carole Joffe, who showed in Doctors of Conscience that skilled “mainstream” doctors offered safe, compassionate abortion care before Roe. They did so with little to gain and much to lose, facing fines, imprisonment, and loss of medical license. They did so because the beliefs that mattered most to them compelled them to. They saw women die from self-induced abortions and abortions performed by unskilled providers. They understood safe abortion to be lifesaving. They believed their abortion provision honored “the dignity of humanity” and was the right — even righteous — thing to do. They performed abortions “for reasons of conscience.”

Though abortion providers now work within the law, they still have much to lose, facing stigma, marginalization within medicine, harassment, and threat of physical harm. However, doctors (and, in some states, advanced practice clinicians) continue to offer abortion care because deeply held, core ethical beliefs compel them to do so. They see women’s reproductive autonomy as the linchpin of full personhood and self-determination, or they believe that women themselves best understand the life contexts in which childbearing decisions are made, or they value the health of a woman more than the potential life of a fetus, among other reasons. Abortion providers continue to describe their work in moral terms, as “right and good and important,” and articulate their sense that the failure to offer abortion care generates a crisis of conscience.

Yet we continue to hear only of medical providers who conscientiously object to performing certain services —  which, as Harris points out, has negative consequences:

First, U.S. federal and state laws continue to protect only conscience-based refusals to perform or refer for abortion, offering minimal legal protection for conscience-based abortion provision. Second, the equation of conscience with nonprovision of abortion contributes to the stigmatization of abortion providers. Finally, bioethicists have focused on defining conditions under which conscientious refusals are acceptable but, with rare exceptions, have neglected to make the moral case for protecting the conscientious provision of care.

This is more than just an interesting philosophical argument. It is also tool that should be used by reproductive rights activists in debates over conscientious objection to providing health care. The next time you hear a person argue for the right to not perform certain services, ask them whether they would also argue for the right to perform certain services. The answer will likely indicate whether the person simply opposes whatever service is being discussed (i.e., abortion), or whether the person actually has a logically consistent argument concerning conscience rights.

And the science says …

The New York Times has just published what could prove to be a debate-changing article that explores the science behind the so-called “morning after pill” and shows — contrary to what many or even most people think — that the pill does not induce abortion, but instead delays ovulation. Take a look:

Based on the belief that a fertilized egg is a person, some religious groups and conservative politicians say disrupting a fertilized egg’s ability to attach to the uterus is abortion, “the moral equivalent of homicide,” as Dr. Donna Harrison, who directs research for the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, put it. Mitt Romney recently called emergency contraceptives “abortive pills.” And two former Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, have made similar statements.

But an examination by The New York Times has found that the federally approved labels and medical Web sites do not reflect what the science shows. Studies have not established that emergency contraceptive pills prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb, leading scientists say. Rather, the pills delay ovulation, the release of eggs from ovaries that occurs before eggs are fertilized, and some pills also thicken cervical mucus so sperm have trouble swimming.

Fascinating and important stuff, yes, but is anyone else wondering why it took so long to figure this out?

My speech at the Unite Women rally

As I wrote last week, I traveled to New York City this past Saturday to speak at a rally organized by Unite Women, an outfit working to band together people against the recent attacks on women’s rights — in part by orchestrating marches and rallies across the United States on April 28.

While you can watch actress Martha Plimpton’s wonderful address here, I haven’t seen a recording of my speech (or any other speech, for that matter). So, as friends have been asking for it, here is my speech in text form:

Hello! Thank you for coming! As was said in my introduction, I work at the Center for Inquiry. We are proud to be one of the sponsors for this great rally!

For those who don’t know of us, CFI is a nonprofit organization that advances reason, science, and secular values through education and advocacy. You can find more information at our table, which is being staffed by our outreach branch here in New York City.

Now … my job at CFI is director of government relations. That means I lobby Congress and the Administration for separation of religion and government; for public policy based on scientific evidence and the Constitution; and to protect civil rights.

I am also CFI’s representative to the United Nations, where I work to combat efforts by Islamic countries to restrict basic human rights.

So, in short: not all “lobbyists” are bad!

I’m very honored to be here today, to share the stage with so many esteemed speakers. But let’s be honest: it is appalling that, in the year 2012, we have to hold rallies to demand reproductive rights and equality of sexes.

And while I hate to be a downer, it’s worth pondering for a moment why we are here today — where this war on women comes from. There is a range of factors, but I would submit that religious belief and religious tradition play central roles. And I see evidence for this across the world.

In the U.S., the Catholic Church is focusing much of its energy on fighting simple, effective rules that require insurance companies to cover preventative health care such as contraception and birth control.

Meanwhile, religiously conservative politicians in Congress and statehouses are working to limit a woman’s access to abortion in record numbers. They are also working to defund Planned Parenthood — which, as it turns out, largely provides contraception, cancer screenings, and treatment for STDS. And they want to slash funding for services that protect and help women who have been victims of rape, and domestic abuse.

On the global stage, the Church is also working with political leaders in South America to limit reproductive rights; and in Africa to restrict the use of contraception.

And the picture is even grimmer in some Islamic and Asian countries, where some young women are subjected to the brutal practice of genital mutilation and experience very restricted social lives.

These represent just the tip of the iceberg. Yet these … these are prime examples of religious belief controlling public policy and public life.

Now, I believe a woman should have full control over her reproductive system. And I believe all persons deserve the full range of moral and legal rights equally — regardless of social or cultural context.

And as my friends and family know, I could give a philosophical lecture on “why” I believe all of this for a good hour. But since I’m probably already over my time, allow me to summarize my thoughts as such:

Religious institutions and their dogma have no place in public policy.

And because I know someone will take this statement as an attack on the right of religious believers to believe and practice as they would like, let me also say this:

I would defend, at risk of death, the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, belief, and expression, but here is what I ask in return: please do not force your religious doctrines on me — or on us. If you don’t want to use contraception or have an abortion, fine. But there are no good secular reasons to restrict reproductive health care or equality among the sexes.

The United States is not a theocracy. We live in an open, pluralistic society with a secular constitution. Our government should be neutral on the matter of religion — neither supporting it nor hindering it. Our laws should not be based on faith, which is private, but on reason and evidence, which are public. They should be able to withstand the most critical of scientific and philosophical inquiries.

Now, all of this is very important, and we ought to think, talk, write, and rally on these issues as much as we can. But let’s remember to not stop with social advocacy — let’s leave here today committed to political engagement.

As others today have said, voting is an important and essential first step in this area. But we can’t sit back after people get voted into office and hope it all goes well. We need to let our elected officials know our views — and often. Write and call your representatives and tell them you stand for reproductive freedom, for full equality, and for government neutrality on religion.

Anything less would leave the health and rights of women to the religious right — and we have seen the damage they can do.

Your representatives need to hear from you — from us. Now let’s use today as a launching point and go make our voices heard!

The war on women

By Michael De Dora

On Saturday, April 28, I will speak before an expected crowd of thousands in New York City as part of a nationwide effort led by the organization Unite Women to help raise awareness on the recent attacks on women’s rights and urge those who care to get politically engaged. The movement is endorsed by a wide range of groups, such as the Center for Inquiry, Americans United for Separation for Church and State, Catholics for Choice, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

I have noticed that many people — mostly secularist and liberal religionist friends — who would normally support women’s rights have not embraced the term “war on women” and avoided the movement fighting under its banner. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they don’t actually think there is a war going on, or maybe the language strikes them as inflammatory (it is, a bit) and they don’t like conflict.

Well, I think there is much evidence to support to the term “war on women,” and I think it’s a mistake to avoid the current conflict. So, I would like to briefly outline major anti-women legislative actions in the hope that, by the end my essay, those who have been sitting on the sidelines will decide to join tens of thousands across the U.S. on April 28 in working to combat such actions, or else get involved in some other way.

The foremost evidence for the “war on women” is found in recent attacks on reproductive rights by the religious right. In fact, these attacks alone could quality as a war on women. State lawmakers set a record in 2011 for the most anti-reproductive rights provisions enacted in a single year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Legislators introduced more than 1,100 provisions last year, and enacted 135 of them. To help put this in perspective, 89 such provisions were enacted in 2010, 77 in 2009, and only 34 in 2005. Unfortunately, this pace has not slowed much.

The measures include, but are not limited to:

  • “Personhood” proposals that would allow states to completely outlaw abortion, and even emergency contraception. These have had success in states such as Virginia and Oklahoma, and are now being pushed in Nevada.
  • “Fetal pain” laws – now in place in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama – that ban abortion after 20 weeks;
  • Laws that require physicians to perform ultrasounds, and then show and describe the image of the fetus to the woman asking for an abortion;
  • Mandatory waiting periods – some as long as 72 hours – between ultrasounds and abortions, which negatively impact women who are poor, without transportation, and/or live in rural areas. Keep in mind that 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic.
  • New regulations on abortion clinics, regarding things like the amount of space in janitorial rooms, and other requirements, which make it physically or financially impossible for many abortion clinics to remain open.
  • Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of critical reproductive health services to women across the U.S.

As I’ve previously written, these attacks are wrong on several fronts. There are no serious philosophical arguments in favor of extending the full range of moral or legal rights to embryos and fetuses. We do not grant such rights to mere “human life,” such as small collections of cells, but to beings that have at least some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks, if not later. Moreover, the “fetal pain” argument is moot, as only 1.4 percent happen after 21 weeks, and women who receive late term abortions usually do so because of health reasons (in which case the interests of the mother, a fully grown human being, win out) or difficulty in setting one up (thanks to anti-reproductive rights efforts!).

Furthermore, religious doctrines simply have no place in public policy. They are either untrue or too specifically sectarian for law in a pluralistic society – or both. In sum, women ought to have access to full reproductive health care, and the privacy to make a decision over her body with her doctor.

Fortunately, many of the aforementioned reproductive rights laws have been struck down in courts as clearly violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and several later decisions. Yet while attacks on reproductive rights merit serious consideration, lawmakers have taken much broader political action against women that provides stronger evidence for a “war on women.”

Consider just these five examples:

  • A large number of Senate and House Republicans opposed the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women greater legal avenues to pursue equal pay lawsuits (which are unfortunately all too necessary);
  • Some Republicans have said they will continue to work to repeal the law;
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently repealed the state’s equal pay act, charging that it could “clog up the legal system.”
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott (who we’ve discussed here before) last week vetoed $1.5 million in funding for state rape crisis centers.
  • And Senate and House Republicans are currently holding up the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Equality is among the most basic of moral ideas, so it would seem uncontroversial to state that men and women ought to be treated equally, and that we should act to reverse situations in which this is not the case. As evidenced above, apparently many elected officials do not accept this proposition. They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Of course, many of those prosecuting the war on women are women. Consider the statements and positions of just a couple female lawmakers or political leaders across the U.S: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minnesota), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Yet whether or not all women agree with these actions, they are negatively affecting all women. First, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict how one’s feelings might change regarding abortion depending on the circumstances, such as threats to the mother’s health or severe birth defects. Even the wife of Rick Santorum, who believes abortion is always wrong, apparently took advantage of her legal access to abortion-type services. As such, I think it helps everyone to keep abortion accessible, and let people decide if they would like to partake or not. Or else you get horrible stories like these. Second, the attacks on outfits such as Planned Parenthood have an impact not on just reproductive health, but on the overall quality of a woman’s health. Yes, Planned Parenthood performs reproductive services, but they also provide a wide range of health services, such as cancer screenings, regular check ups, contraception coverage, STD-related work, and more. Lastly, we live in a bad economy in which we all have lesser choices, and most women fewer choices than men merely because of their sexual orientation. Their choices become even fewer when they lose control of their reproductive systems and are subjected to unfair economic situations.

All of this is why I think one can reasonably argue there is an ongoing social phenomenon that could be described as a war on women’s rights. It doesn’t matter whether the war is being waged by the religious right or by economic conservatives, or whether these lawmakers are doing it to distract from their lack of solutions for real political problems. It is happening. The question then becomes: what should we do? I think there are two answers. 

Increasing the scope and turning up the volume of the conversation on women’s rights is an important first step, and the Unite Women marches and rallies on April 28 will help. But if you can’t make it on April 28, there are plenty of other things you can do. Write letters to the editor. Write and comment on blog posts and online news articles. Attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinions. Post links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Do whatever you can to spread the message.

But that is not enough. A majority of Americans could agree about reproductive rights and sex equality, and yet a small group of lawmakers could still work to pass opposition measures in Congress and statehouses across the U.S.

This is why we need not just social action, but also political action. Sign up for and fill out action alerts as much as possible (here, here, and here) and let lawmakers know that you oppose or support pending legislation. Call, write, or schedule meetings with them to state and explain your views. Write federal agendies when comment periods are open on federal regulations and rules. Hold them accountable. Tell them that they should either support your views, or face the prospect of looking for a new job next election.

You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not true. The more that elected officials hear from you, the more they have to consider your points of view. Remember, they want to keep their job. Also, the more that the public hears the logic and reasons for reproductive rights and sex equality, the greater the chances those who agree might get involved, and those who don’t — either they sit on the fence or lean right — might actually learn something and shift their views. Which means that politicians might have to consider your viewpoints sooner than they thought.

The kinds of social and political action I’m discussing here does not take as much time as you might think, and there is no guarantee anyone else will take up the cause. Simply put, a couple moments of your time could make a difference.

So, yes, there is a war on women — but we have the power to fight back. If you’re near New York City on April 28, please join us. Or, if you live in a different part of the country, visit to connect with a march in your neighborhood. Or, if you can’t make any of the events, take some notes from above and get involved. Anything less would leave reproductive rights and sex equality to the religious right and economic conservatives. And we’ve seen the damage they can do.

Note: this entry is also posted on Free Thinking.

Unite Women

If you hadn’t already heard of it, Unite Women is a new organization whose mission is to bring together Americans against the recent political attacks on women’s rights (from reproductive to economic), in part by orchestrating marches and rallies across the United States on Saturday, April 28.

I feel fortunate to announce that I will be speaking at their rally in New York City. Here’s the (rather impressive) speaker list:

  • Jasmine Burnett, Raising Voices
  • Colia Clark, Candidate for U.S. Senate (Green Party-NY)
  • Michael De Dora, Center for Inquiry
  • Mona Eltahawy, independent journalist
  • Rep. Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly
  • Barbara Grufferman, Huffington Post
  • Anne Klaeysen, New York Society for Ethical Culture
  • Leighann Lord, comedian
  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney, U.S. House of Represenatives (D-NY)
  • Lynn Paltrow, National Advocates for Pregnant Women 
  • Martha Plimpton, actress
  • Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President

To find out more about the NYC rally, click here. 

If you’re from elsewhere in the U.S., visit and click on your state to see what’s happening in your area.

A horrible story

Is this really what lawmakers who push anti-reproductive rights legislation want to happen?

In August 2010, I was overjoyed to discover I was pregnant. My husband and I still wanted nothing more than to give my son a brother or sister. For weeks, my pregnancy was proceeding normally. But then 22 weeks into my pregnancy, it went terribly wrong.

On Saturday, November 27, my water broke and there was not enough amniotic fluid for my daughter to survive. This was heartbreaking. If there was anything we could have done to save her, we would have.

What happened next should have remained a very private decision between me and my family and my doctors. As the result of a law similar to a bill considered by your state’s legislature, a decision that should have remained mine and my husband’s at a very difficult time was decided for us — and it was decided by politicians we’d never met.

My husband and I agonized over the decision about what was best for our family. After much careful thought, prayer, research and medical advice, my husband and I made the difficult decision that we wanted to induce labor and deliver my daughter as soon as possible.

We wanted to honor our daughter. We wanted to hold her and say goodbye. We wanted to preserve my health.

We should have been able to handle this with dignity with our doctor. The very best medical care should have been available to me. But as I said, Nebraska law interfered.

Even though I wasn’t looking for an abortion, my doctor and his legal counsel felt their hands were tied. “If I could help you, I would,” he said, looking me in my tear-filled eyes. “But I would go to jail.”

The law, as you know, is black and white. Unfortunately, life just isn’t. Though an infection was growing inside me, under the law I wasn’t sick enough to warrant the induction my husband and I wanted.

You can read the rest of the story here.

No more abortions in Mississippi?

You probably recall that Mississippi residents last year voted down a constitutional amendment to change the legal definition of personhood to include fertilized human eggs. The amendment would have outlawed all abortions (including cases of rape or incest), many forms of birth control (including IUDs and morning-after pills), and embryonic research.

Since efforts to outright ban abortion in Mississippi have failed, lawmakers there are now pursuing a different track: work to put in place overwhelmingly stringent restrictions on abortion providers that could force them to shut their doors:

Mississippi lawmakers have passed a bill that would require any physician performing abortions in the state to be a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and to have admitting privileges at an area hospital.

The bill “should effectively close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in a statement. “This is a strong bill that will effectively end abortion in Mississippi.”

The bill is in a period for comment before it will be sent to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who has said he wants Mississippi to become “abortion-free.”

"This legislation is an important step in strengthening abortion regulations and protecting the health and safety of women," he said.

If the state’s only abortion facility, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, closes, Mississippi women seeking abortions would have to leave the state.

In short: if you can’t ban a (legal and safe) practice, restrict it so much that it becomes unavailable. 

The good news: every doctor at Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a obstetrician-gynecologist. The bad news: only one has admitting privileges at an area hospital. The clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, has vowed to fight to remain open: “We are going to do everything we can to remain there … we are not going to let the women of Mississippi down.”

You can help Derzis — and, for that matter, all women in Mississippi — by telling Gov. Phil Bryant to veto the bill.

That said, no matter what Bryant does, the law is probably destined to end up before a judge — which actually bodes well for reproductive rights advocates.

Should doctors who oppose ultrasound laws engage in “civil disobedience”?

This anonymous doctor says “yes.”

It is our responsibility, as always, to protect our patients from things that would harm them. Therefore, as physicians, it is our duty to refuse to perform a medical procedure that is not medically indicated. Any medical procedure. Whatever the pseudo-justification.

Amanda Marcotte says “no.”

The anon doctor suggests that abortion providers reject the mandatory ultrasound law by refusing to do it, and doctoring patient files to make it look it was done, if necessary. This is characterized as “civil disobedience”, but it’s really not in the same way that getting arrested at protests for moral but illegal trespassing is. Civil disobedience works best if it has a public component, to draw attention to your issues in hopes of changing the law. Privately doctoring files doesn’t accomplish that.

What do you say?