[This post will be updated with links]
Six months ago I explained the dearth of posts at my blog by posting this from Chris Hedges:
A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying now. We will either wake from our state of induced childishness, one where trivia and gossip pass for news and information, one where our goal is not justice but an elusive and unattainable happiness, to confront the stark limitations before us, or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy.
I agreed with Chris then and couldn’t agree more after a week of hearing, seeing and trying not to listen very much to stories about Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs and minor car accident. Six months ago, I couldn’t think what part, even what very small part, I could play waking people up. So much wrong, so much to do, so many people really wanting “something” different but not knowing what or how to get it anyway, so many victories for darkness, so much fragmentation, so little time, too much space. I believe many more people want “justice” than are able to figure out how to articulate their desire in the first place; and certainly not how to make it so in the second.
Recently, two US Senators and the American Conference of Bishops prompted some questions and I began to formulate something like a coherent response, if not exactly an answer.
In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Roe v. Wade. In a nutshell, necessarily simple, they decided that a woman may abort a pregnancy for any reason up to the point of fetal viability. No doubt Roe v. Wade was a victory for women but it was far from a straightforward one, in part due to America’s constitutional system and in part because of the wording of the decision itself. The definition of “viability” has continued to be a contentious issue for one thing; for another, ensuing state restrictions on abortion, when litigated, made important incursions on the territory staked out in the case. One thing is clear, however: the decision was never accepted by rightwing, Conservative Christians and the people who represent them. The onslaught has been continuous, successful enough and often devious – as in the very recent activity of the US Conference of Bishops in negotiation with House representatives trying to get a healthcare reform deal. Voila Stupak/Pitts. What women were thought to have won they have had to win (and lose) over and over again since 1973. Perhaps that victory has never been as threatened as it is right now. It’s important to see that the threat comes not just from the “wingnut” right but also from among anti-choice Democrats – once touted as the natural allies of feminist objectives.
The history of reproductive rights in Canada is more than a little different. In 1988, in R. v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the entire section of the Criminal Code that criminalized abortion and there has been no replacement of that law. Incursions on women’s reproductive rights have occurred less visibly via hospital boards that refuse to permit abortions at Catholic hospitals or hospitals controlled by other religious denominations; via supply and demand problems respecting the availability of abortions in the healthcare system – some doctors refuse to perform abortions; because some doctors or hospital boards have imposed their own limits on when, in a term of pregnancy, they will perform abortions; and because of the unaddressed accessibility problems of rural and First nations women.
In some ways, the difficulties that American women experience in trying to access full reproductive rights are more visible. But in many ways they parallel the problems experienced by Canadian women. The Stupak/Pitts amendment seemed to come out of nowhere. There have been several points in the process of trying to achieve healthcare reform when the abortion issue has been raised but it doesn’t seem that anyone expected it to come out of negotiations with Nancy Pelosi, a couple of cultish Christian congressmen and the Conference of Bishops. But there it is, the congressmen were ready and willing, the bishops pounced and the Democrats caved. Some of those same Democrats who supported the amendment then went ahead and voted against the reform bill! And what did the Dems gain by supporting the amendment? The vote of one Republican (reprobate). That’s right folk. One.
We haven’t seen anything quite so dramatic in Canada – a few slippery Conservatives have tried to pass disguised private members bills by us but always unsuccessfully. The point is though, the rightwing is there, more than ready and more than willing if not quite so able, thus far, to pounce in just the way that Stupak and Pitts, a whole bunch of Reprobates and more than a few Democrats just did. Witness the comments of Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott just a few weeks ago:
“a growing body of research reveals significant health problems caused by abortion,” including breast cancer, cervical injury, uterine perforations, hemorrhaging and infections.
He said further that pro-life women view abortion as “part of a male agenda to have women more sexually available”.
Following on Mr. Vellacott’s comment, this exchange took place in the House of Commons:
Mme Lise Zarac (LaSalle-Émard, Lib.): Monsieur le Président, le député de Saskatoon-Wanuskewin a récemment émis des commentaires sur l’avortement qui insultent et dénigrent les femmes. Le député fait des affirmations qui sont médicalement inexactes pour hausser son programme idéologique moral.
La ministre de la Santé dénoncera-t-elle les croyances de son collègue au sujet du droit des femmes de choisir?
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC)
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC): Mr. Speaker, I note for the member that all members of Parliament in the House are required to have their opinion. It does not mean it is the opinion of the cabinet.
Hon. Anita Neville (Winnipeg South Centre, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it looks like the muzzles are off. The Conservatives are sounding like Reform Party extremists.
The member for Saskatoon-Wanuskewin’s comments are completely degrading to women. He claims that abortion causes ‘a greater risk of breast cancer’ and he asserts that ‘abortion is part of a male agenda to have women more sexually available.’ His comments show an odious attitude toward women.
Will the Minister of Justice stand up for women and denounce these vile comments?
Hon. Helena Guergis (Minister of State (Status of Women), CPC): Mr. Speaker, I again will note for the member that each member of the House is able to have their own opinion. It does not mean it represents the government.
What I will highlight is that this government under the leadership of this Prime Minister has made significant investments in Status of Women Canada. We have three pillars of focus: economic security, violence against women and women in leadership roles.
We also have the highest percentage of women in cabinet in Canada’s history and the highest level of funding at Status of Women Canada, the highest level in Canada’s history with an increase in the number of grass root organizations that are now able to receive funding to support the most vulnerable women in Canadian society.
Guergis would not renounce Vellacott’s statement even though they were incorrect and even though they were degrading to women. Apparently she believes that the presence in this government of a larger number of women will suffice to shut women’s mouths even if those representatives are not advocating for them. And she is not averse to lying. This government has stolen funds from Status of Women and has done absolutely nothing to guarantee women’s economic security – remember the governments attempts to make inroads on pay equity in the public service last year?
But we cannot blame all these betrayals on the CONS alone. Liberal and NDP members have also been willing to turn their backs on the women who elect them.
For instance. The much discussed private members bill to do away with Canada’s long gun registry. It’s a classic rightwing hot button issue and in case not many people have noticed, it’s contradictory as hell alongside the usual “law and order” kvelling done by the nuts. Crazy like foxes they are though. As someone who’s noticed has pointed out, though the “right to bear arms” is a classic American cris de coeur of the Christian right, it’s been adopted by the Canadian right too. Why? It provides a brilliant wedge between rural and urban constituencies and helps to frame other, conservative v. “liberal” debates. It’s also a divisive issue between men and women – even rural women are overwhelmingly pro-registry. It’s been estimated that, in tight races, the gun registry is “vote-determinating for about 5% of the voting public”. It’s not stupid, crazy people who use this issue to their advantage. But it just might be stupid people who ignore it.
I’ve also watched how the issue divides “progressive” men and women. If you can achieve this political result simply by introducing a system to register (not “control” mind you, just register) you’ve gained a lot of ground on the cheap. Similarly, watch progressive Americans, men and women, try to rationalize the passage of Stupak-Pitts. “We don’t like it but it was a ‘compromise’ we had to make for the greater good”. Over and over again. As if you can trade off the rights of one group of people (a mere 52% of the population no less) for the rights and needs of another. But over and over “progressives” are willing to do it while women scream “betrayal” and bear accusations, not only of hysteria, but even of selfishness. This must make conservatives just bliss out.
Then there are the more quiet betrayals. I’m not sure how they end up being quiet but it’s been done by the HarpyCons with the passage of criminal legislation that provide for mandatory minimum sentences for a load of offences, and with the agreement of both the Liberal and New Democratic Parties of Canada no less. Thanks guys. Love women of Canada.
Here’s why the mandatory minimums are a women’s issue. The m.m.s have a disproportionate effect on groups who have experienced historic and current political, social and economic disadvantage. One of those groups would be women, in this case, particularly First Nations and African American women. First Nations women are the most rapidly growing group in the prison system. They are vulnerable to arrest because of police targetting and the poverty, and social and political injustices that have led to increased drug useage. First Nations women suffer disproportionate effects once they’re imprisoned. Often primary caregivers, they’re separated from children for long periods of time and often lose them to foster care forever. Programmes for women in general receive fewer monetary and staffing resources than those for men. Women in general are subject to strip searches and body searches in prison that put them at great risk.
African Canadians, also over-represented in our prison population, are similarly at risk for similar reasons. But women, and particularly African Canadian women, are especially at risk, as pointed out by Professor Elizabeth Sheehy in her recent evidence to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs:
Women are often caught up in the prosecution of drug offences through their relationship with male partners, often while having minimal actual involvement in drug transactions. Acting as drug mules is a crime committed often out of economic desperation. African Canadian women will be the subgroup of women most dramatically affected by mandatory prison sentences. They are already over-incarcerated at seven times the rate of white women. Some commentators and judges have observed a growing presence of African Canadian women accused as drug couriers. It seems evident that the new mandatory sentences will augment the number of women currently imprisoned, with African Canadian women and their children feeling the worst effects.
Professor Sheehy ended her comments with these words: “I believe Bill C-15 is an affront to our commitment to equality and non-discrimination.”
An affront? Yes, I agree. But it’s an affront that very few people know about and that therefore even fewer are concerned about and that the opposition parties of Canada have chosen to ignore so absolutely that Bill-C15 has been passed through the House and now awaits only Senate approval. There are all sorts of reasons that women’s groups haven’t picked up on this issue in an effective way but I’m not going to blame the women. I’m looking at the people who women, feminists especially, voted for to represent their interests. I’m looking at Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton, the Liberal and New Democratic Parties of Canada who have seen fit to add their votes to the Conservative votes needed to pass this legislation.
The legislation effects vulnerable groups most but those vulnerable groups are less able to shake the sturdy trunks of the political trees/parties that represent them. The always waiting, not stupid rightwing is there to pounce. The mandatory minimum sentencing issue fits squarely with the conservative “law and order” agenda which would be an absolutely irrational policy if it were actually meant to affect law and order. But it isn’t. Surely the rightwing is not quite so stupid as to believe that longer prison sentences for drug users and dealers does anything at all to prevent crime – there’s just too much empirical evidence showing that it doesn’t. No, once again this is a divisive issue being used to achieve political ends, not the least of which is the building of a prison industrial complex to rival that of the United States of America. It might not “work” but it sure does make a lot of money, create lots of jobs and make constituents in ridings that host prisons pretty happy.
The “liberal” parties supposedly elected at least in part to represent the interests of women and minorities are quite willing to sell out these constituencies out because it just doesn’t do them much harm. So far.
I, for one, want to make it hurt. I want to keep sorting out the links between these rightwing policies and liberal betrayals and putting them out there. I want to defeat the HarpyCons but I also want to make it dead clear that, as a woman, I can’t find a blessed party that truly represents me and my sisters and others for whom I care. I reject a “headlong retreat into fantasy”. I’ll not sit around waiting for this culture to die. That might all sound a little melodramatic but there it is and it suits me just fine.
On this day, December 6th, 2009, when I want to reflect and grieve the women’s lives lost in Montreal in 1989 and all the women of this country who died before or since as a result of intimate partner violence and public violence against women – all those whose names we don’t know – I’ve actually had to time defending my right to define, with my sisters, the meaning of the event and the meaning of those lives and deaths. When women are murdered because they are women, we still have to fight to say so. We are so far away, still, twenty years later, from doing those things that must be done to begin the end of male violence against women that we still struggle for the definition itself.
I wish no person physical harm. But I do want to make that hurt by defeating this government and any other government that thinks it can lead a country while ignoring the needs of half its population.